Joe and his wife each used to travel a lot for work, but once they had kids, one of them had to cut back on their time away from home. Because Joe’s trips tended to be a lot longer, they decided it would be him.
“That was the beginning of the shift,” says Joe, an engineer in Oklahoma City. “It has evolved into me being the primary caretaker of the kids, getting them to and from school, to appointments, practices, etc., and my wife having work scheduling priority. She makes roughly twice what I do now.”
Joe says they used to joke to friends that he was her “trophy husband,” but they stopped because it seemed to make people uncomfortable. Other people, in fact, tend to be the main bump in their arrangement — having Joe’s wife as the breadwinner has worked for them as a family, Joe says, but people can be weird about their traditional role reversal.
“It would be dishonest to say I never think about it,” he says. “It’s not that the income disparity has ever been an issue, but there are some societal friction points that go along with how we have divided our roles.”
Accountants often do a double take when reviewing the couple’s income statements, and the kids’ doctors look to Joe’s wife for confirmation about their symptoms, even when Joe’s the one answering all their questions. Once, even though their children’s bus driver has never met Joe’s wife, he nevertheless called her about a change in the bus schedule rather than Joe.
Although the number of families in which wives are the main breadwinners is still fairly small, it’s a steadily growing trend: In 1980, only 13% of married women earned more than or about as much as their husbands, the Pew Research Center notes. By 2000, that figure had almost doubled, rising to 25%. Since then, the rise has been slower but is still on an uptick. In 2017, 28% of women made more money than their husbands or cohabitating partners.
Ideologically, though, it doesn’t appear that society has kept pace when it comes to gendered income expectations. It’s not supposed to matter, theoretically, yet around seven in 10 adult respondents to a 2017 Pew Research Center survey said that it was “very important” that a man be able to support a family financially in order to be a good husband or partner, but only 32% said the same about women. Poorer adults, however, were more egalitarian, emphasizing the importance of both men and women to provide for their families, and respondents with college degrees rated ability to provide as less crucial than people with only a high school education (81% and 67% respectively).
Not only does it appear that traditional expectations that men should make more have lingered, a recent U.S. Census Bureau report suggests couples might find it shameful when women are the breadwinners. When women were the bigger earners, both husbands and wives underreported her earnings and inflated his. In these marriages in which wives earned more, men inflated their own earnings by nearly three percentage points higher than what they reported on their tax forms, and wives reported their higher earnings as 1.5 percentage points lower than what they reported, says Marta Murray-Close, Ph.D., an economist at the Census Bureau and co-author of the study. Responses more dependably meshed with reality when men earned more than their female partners.
Earlier (and typically widely reported) studies have linked female breadwinners with negative marital consequences. Women making more than their male partners — even just $5,000 more a year — increases the likelihood that they’ll divorce, a 2015 University of Chicago study found. This echoed earlier studies suggesting that women’s higher earnings increased divorce risk.
In addition, Canadian researchers found that women who earn more than their husbands experience “status leakage,” which means their affiliation with people of lower status lowers their own status as well. Women who feel like they’re in a higher echelon than their partners were more likely to feel embarrassed or resentful of their husbands’ lower status and more likely to be unhappy about it and consider divorce, the authors wrote. Tangible support, such as childcare helped even things out, the women in the study said, but they were meh about emotional support having any mitigating power.
The results of that study, published in Organizational Science in 2017, were similar to a small, informal Refinery29 poll of millennial women who make more money than their partners. Those respondents said that they often felt shamed by others that they were “settling” for less-ambitious men.
And although the effect was small, in an earlier study at Cornell University, men were more likely to cheat and do less work around the house) when they made less money.
“We’re talking about identity and power here,” says Kate Balestrieri, Psy.D., a clinical and forensic psychologist in Beverly Hills, California. “Oftentimes, men are socialized to think they need to take care of a family, and often that means thinking they need to be financial breadwinners.”
If a man feels that way, he might feel like less or a man or threatened if he thinks his partner is taking better care of the family, she says.
“Those men often feel shame, and shame can convert into rage,” she says. “That can show up as passive-aggressive behavior such as cheating or ‘forgetting,’ usually unconsciously and not maliciously, to do things around the house like take out the garbage or make the bed.”
But when men are socialized in a more egalitarian way, in which money isn’t tied to what it means to be a man, they’re less likely to feel threatened and act out, she says. If a buddy ribs him about making less than his spouse, saying he’s “on a leash,” for example, or his family expresses disapproval about it, how he handles it depends on his sense of self.
“If he’s okay with who he is, that’s not going to bother him,” she says. “But if he questions his own masculinity, it illustrates the context in which he grew up in and he’s more likely to struggle.”
The results of the recent Census report likely reflect both lingering traditional attitudes about female breadwinners and women’s tendency toward care taking, Balestrieri continues.
“When one or both partners has a more black-and-white idea of what it means to be male or female, they tend to over accommodate by minimizing the woman’s success,” she says. “The downplay protects his ego and keeps him psychologically safe. And because women are socialized so often to make sure they’re taking care of men, they want to support that and create for him a reality that minimizes any kind of power disparity.”
Some researchers say, however, that the link between female breadwinners and divorce is weakening, and studies on the topic are becoming more nuanced. In a study concluding husbands’ lack of full-time employment increased the risk that couples would divorce, lead author and Harvard University sociology professor Alexandra Killewald, Ph.D., told Fatherly that her study results weren’t about earning money so much as gendered expectations for men to work.
Sabrina Bowen, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Bethesda, Maryland, agrees that income disparity in couples is less about amounts of money and more about overall fairness and equity in the relationship. Couples that tend to argue about money will do it whether they make a ton of money or a more average income, she says.
“I don’t really hear women say, ‘I’m making more of the money’; what I hear is, ‘I’m putting all my energy into this and working really hard,’” she says. “If they feel they’re more ambitious and goal-oriented than their partners, they can get frustrated.”
A possible source of feelings of unfairness is that although men more typically share childcare and household tasks with their partners than they used to, women still end up carrying a disproportionate amount of the load, according to another study. Researchers found that female breadwinners were two to three times more likely than male breadwinners to be responsible for managing their households and children’s schedules. That kind of pressure could potentially strain a marriage.
But people’s sense of fairness doesn’t necessarily mean a 50-50 split, Bowen says.
“Things don’t have to be fair to work for people, but they have to feel like they’re fair,” she says. “You have to feel that the other person cares for you and is doing the best they can to create a fair relationship.”
Bowen also says that our upbringing can affect our thinking even when we’re not aware of it. If a man grew up in a home where Mom didn’t work, but now his wife earns the bulk of the family’s income, for example, he might be uncomfortable or unhappy about it without realizing where those feelings are coming from.
“The way we were raised can crop up and surprise us when a relationship is different than we expected and we’re expected to adjust,” she says.
Especially because some of these negative feelings might be unconscious, couples need to talk about it if the relationship doesn’t feel fair to one or both partners.
“Income disparity does cause a lot of relational problems for people if they’re not having conversations appropriately,” Balestrieri says. “If a man is bothered by his wife’s higher income, over time he might feel resentful, unimportant, and undervalued. But being vulnerable and sharing fears with your partner is the strongest thing you can do.”
If men’s sense of self-worth is shaky, seeing a therapist might help them reconnect with their vitality as a man. They also can learn to show up and contribute in ways that will boost their self-esteem and create a more equitable partnership.
“It can be meaningful if he takes a really active role in the family finances,” for example, which can help him regain a sense of control, Balestrieri notes.
Whether you see a professional or have conversations about finances and fairness on your own, remember that sometimes the answer will be about making changes, and sometimes it’ll be about acceptance, Bowen says. The goal is to figure out how to make things work for both of you and for each person to feel valued. It also starts with an honest intake about the gender expectations you grew up with, she says: Did it really work for your parents, the way that they did it?
“One thing I say to patients regularly is, ‘Don’t shit on yourself,’” Balestrieri says. “When they say ‘My wife or my husband should do this,’ I ask, ‘What expectations do you have that are limiting your ability to be emotionally connected to your partner?’” Once expectations are examined, it’s easier for the rest to come into focus.
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