Why are so many women reluctant to talk openly about the role money plays in their lives and relationships? Hilary Black, a veteran magazine editor (More, Tango) was determined to find out. The result is her compelling new anthology, The Secret Currency of Love: The Unabashed Truth About Women, Money, and Relationships (William Morrow). In it, a number of prominent female writers (including Julia Glass, Laurie Abraham and Joni Evans) spill the beans about money in their own lives. Black spoke by phone from her home in New York City to TIME senior reporter Andrea Sachs.
Why this particular book?
One thing I noticed over the many years I worked at More was that although people often wrote about divorce and Botox and sex, they didn't really talk about money in a way that was as profound or exploratory. And then I was kind of pushed over the edge when a relationship of mine ended. I was involved with a very wealthy man, and I was in my early 30s. I was surprised, when we broke up, at the reaction of my friends. I broke up with him. My friends, who were all independent, employed, sophisticated women, were not particularly supportive. Not across the board, but they were all kind of like, "He treats you so well, and he's so rich. What are you doing?" It was just amazing to see these very sophisticated, independent women kind of reduced to something out of a Jane Austen novel. (See pictures of Those Things Money Can Buy.)
Why do you think this subject is so taboo?
I think it is because money is so wrapped up in self-worth for a lot of people, and self-esteem. The tradition of not talking about money and not talking about your salary is something that has been long-standing over the past 40 years. I think that it's private because people feel that they don't want to reveal that personal part of themselves. For a lot of people it's wrapped up in how successful they are as a person. It is a very powerful force in intimate relationships, because whether you have a lot of money or a little money, it's always there. You don't ever escape its power.
I was very surprised in reading your book how many women — some of them self-identified feminists, some of them professionals — have the fantasy that some man is going to rescue them financially.
It seems like there's a pattern of ambivalence because so many women were raised with this idea that they could either be an astronaut or a ballet dancer or a mom; whereas I think that men were never sent a conflicting message. So I think that women [who] grew up as the children of baby boomers — certainly, from that generation on — felt they had a lot of options, and one of the options was not to work. I think that's why so many women who wanted to make their own way in the world and did so very successfully are kind of caught up in this conflict and this ambivalence about who earns the money.
There are women in your book who married for love and thereby entered poverty and later said that they hadn't really dealt realistically with their futures.
For many, many centuries, marriage was a financial transaction. And then, in the modern era, where marriage became about falling in love and free love and finding your soul mate, people were looking for that without asking some of the most important questions, which is what drives a long-term partnership. I think having similar financial values is crucial. It doesn't matter if you are a profligate spender or an industrious saver. You both have to be the same about it.
Do you think it's difficult for people to be financially compatible in that way?
No. I just think it takes a certain amount of planning. Money is crucial in the way that everyone lives their lives. It can be as simple as going out to dinner. Some people think that is a luxury, and other people think that it's a necessity. I think that things like that should come up and do come up early on. I think that something that simple can signal a whole lot about the way people value their money and what they do with it.
Did you find writers who married for money?
Not anybody who was willing to go on the table with that. I think that is actually the ultimate taboo. I think that it happens all the time, but it's something that nobody would ever admit to publicly.
What advice would you give people, based on what you learned?
What I hope people will take away from this is the idea that money issues are inescapable and that by reading these stories, people will see themselves — aspects of themselves, ambivalence about money, anger about money, how it changes things between people. And I feel that reading these stories will help people navigate their own issues, which I think will be exacerbated by what's going on in the economy right now.
How do you suppose the recession will affect women's thinking about money?
I think it's going to have an enormous impact. I think that what's going on now is so serious, and I think it hasn't even remotely begun to play out yet. I think that without a second Depression, these issues are powerful and can really transform people's relationships. But I think now, when people's lifestyles and very careers are being threatened, all of these things are going to be in the forefront and wield an even stronger influence. So I'm hoping that this book will help women figure out their own circumstances and make them feel that they're not alone and see the different ways that money can impact people's relationships — and hopefully take some of the lessons away that each of these writers have told