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'Don’t laugh at the wife bonus – it’s a stark warning of how financial dependence can turn sour'

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A new book has lifted the lid on a fascinating 'tribe' of Upper East Side housewives.

An extract from Primates of Park Avenue by anthropologist Wednesday Martin ran in the New York Times last week, to the sounds of jaws hitting floors the world over.

The most controversial aspect of these so-called "Glam SAHMs" (glamorous stay-at-home-moms) was not that they were Harvard-educated high-flyers reduced to competitive grooming and social jockeying over prestigious school places for their kids. Nor that they lived near sex-segregated lives of " alcohol-fueled girls’ nights out and women-only luncheons" while their husbands were off cutting deals and drinking port. 

The most shocking revelation was - without a doubt - the fact that they received 'wife bonuses' from their hedge-fund husbands on the basis of 'good' spousal behaviour.

"A wife bonus, I was told, might be hammered out in a pre-nup or post-nup, and distributed on the basis of not only how well her husband’s fund had done but her own performance - how well she managed the home budget, whether the kids got into a “good” school - the same way their husbands were rewarded at investment banks," Martin writes. 

"In turn these bonuses were a ticket to a modicum of financial independence and participation in a social sphere where you don’t just go to lunch, you buy a $10,000 table at the benefit luncheon a friend is hosting."

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To a financially independent woman like me, who occupies an entirely different world, the wife bonus is - of course - ridiculous.

But while some actual Upper East Side wives have denied its existence, others have been quick to justify it. 

"I don't find a wife bonus that ludicrous," one unnamed mum told Business Insider. "I have plenty of friends who receive push presents and find the concept similar... I think if the working partner receives a bonus at the office the co-at home but working mother should share in that bonus."

This kind of flippant rationalisation is exactly why we shouldn't laugh off the wife bonus as some crazy-ass element of a crazy-ass hierarchy we have nothing to do with.

Because of course, spouses and partners have a right to share in one another's bonuses.

But how long before conditions start becoming attached to that money?

Martin recalls how wives who don't get the bonuses spread malicious jokes about how they're governed by sexual performance. 

Bitchiness aside, this is a stark reminder of how quickly the power dynamic between couples turns septic when financial disparity comes into play. 

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The wife bonus is important and relevant to us all, because it lays bare the grubby little undercurrents that pollute the issue of marriage and money.

Since the beginning of time, women have traded freedom for financial security. Or matrimony has claimed our financial independence, like the medieval female landowners who relinquished their assets to their husbands upon marriage

Historically, once a marriage was locked down - a union that involved ownership of women - an entrenched system of financial dependency came into play, governed by reward and punishment. Women have been rewarded for their fertility in marriage (especially where the birth of a boy is concerned), or castigated for lacking it.

Perhaps this is why there's some discomfort surrounding the trend of 'push presents' that accompany childbirth in a modern-day context. 

These days, we're free of many of the constraints that keep us prisoners of marriage in the past.

And yet, things like a 'wife bonus' show how easy and dangerous it is to revert to a relationship where behaviour - and therefore liberty - is held ransom by someone else's money. 

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I'm not saying women should never rely on men for money, or vice versa. Some situations, such as having a child, depend on it. 

The wife bonus merely serves to illustrate how easily a relationship based on monetary imbalance can turn toxic. 

As another mum quoted in the Business Insider article notes, it confuses financial reward with respect. "To me, this sounds like funds are somehow 'withheld' from the wives unless they fulfill their wifely or motherly 'duties,'" she says. "I work, but still do more childcare, stuff around the house and errands than my husband...I don't want or expect to be monetarily compensated; I just want what I do to be appreciated."

For Martin, the wife bonus shores up a rigid hierarchy that assigns its women to a lower status; so even if they live in the Upper East Side, they're as powerless in their gilded mansions as other women throughout time, and in poorer societies around the world.

"Under this arrangement women are still dependent on their men — a husband may simply ignore his commitment to an abstract idea at any time. He may give you a bonus, or not," she says. "Access to your husband’s money might feel good. But it can’t buy you the power you get by being the one who earns, hunts or gathers it."

It's a cautionary tale for us (women and men) to enter into financial dependency with our eyes open.

When a couple come to an arrangement over money, it should be governed by love and nothing else; you shouldn't have to earn or owe anything. 

Words: Anna Brech, Photos: ThinkStock

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