SPECIAL FROM Next Avenue
Women who earn more than their husbands in midlife often get an unwanted bonus: tension in their marriage. Here’s how to cope.
By Kerry Hannon
This past weekend, two close friends visited my husband and me at our Virginia countryside cottage. This married couple is roughly our age -- 50s -- and, like us, don’t have kids.
She has a senior-level government job and has been promoted twice in the past few years.
He accepted a buyout package from a financial services firm two years ago and has been working part time for a small tech business as well as pro bono on a dream project with a friend.
He has tried relentlessly to get a full-time job matching his old salary, but come up short.
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As you can probably tell, she’s the breadwinner. That's the reverse of the way things were earlier in their marriage.
Frustration for One Breadwinner Wife
So I had to ask her: How are things working out now that you’re earning more than your husband?
“It’s frustrating,” she said, without hesitation.
Any other week, that kind of question might have sounded impudent. But given all the media attention that has accompanied the new Pew Research Center study showing that women are the breadwinners in 40 percent of households with children and that 19 percent of married mothers age 47 to 65 outearn their husbands, I felt it was fair game.
When I asked my friend the question, we happened to be standing next to a dartboard at a pub where we were having lunch. She pointed to it. “That’s what our counselor told me to do: put up a dartboard in your basement," she said, "and get your anger out by throwing darts at the board, instead of having an argument when you get frustrated.”
Lower-Earning Husbands Can Be Resentful
My friend’s marriage issues are hardly unique. In his recent New York Times article, “Breadwinning Wives and Nervous Husbands,” Richard Thaler, a behavioral economist at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, wrote “evidence suggests that while men tend to applaud their spouses when they help to bring home the bacon, husbands aren’t always as enthusiastic when women start bringing home the filet mignon.”
Married couples with breadwinner wives are likely to become more common.
Liza Mundy, author of "The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners Is Transforming Sex, Love and Family," calls it “The Big Flip.” She believes that within a generation, the majority of married households will feature wives who out-earn their husbands.
What Experts and Couples Told Me
So I decided to further explore the female breadwinner phenomenon of couples in their 50s and 60s and offer advice, based on interviews with financial experts, psychologists and married couples I know where the women are bringing in the most dough.
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My female friends said they’ve seen a shift in their relationships with their husbands. While the guys are genuinely proud of their wives’ smarts and great jobs, they’ve generally had to contain their inner angst. A few of the husbands said, however, that they’re relieved to be free of the provider burden at this stage of their lives.
Some of these couples have sought help from counselors as a result of their financial dynamic, but none have split up.
7 Tips for Breadwinning Wives
If you’re a woman trying to deal with this new, uncharted territory, here are seven ways to navigate it:
1. Don’t apologize to your husband, or the world at large, for making more money than him. You should be proud of your accomplishments and accept that it’s fine to be the breadwinner.
A lot of women your age “really do feel OK with this,” says Olivia Mellan, a psychotherapist in Washington, D.C., and author of "Money Harmony: Resolving Money Conflicts in Your Life and Relationships." “Many boomer women were not raised with the expectation that they need someone who earns more than they do. In fact, they were raised to be the breadwinner in some cases.”
Admittedly, adopting this attitude can be tricky -- especially when you’re with friends.
Peggy Drexler, a psychology professor at Cornell’s Weill Medical College, writes in Forbes about one woman who got defensive when she felt her friends considered her husband a slacker because he earned less than her. Drexler said the woman often felt like she had to play down her own economic contributions to the household while offering her husband reassurances that she valued his masculinity.
2. Be honest with yourself regarding how you feel about the situation. You might genuinely abhor wearing the proverbial pants, because you’ve long felt that husbands should earn more than wives. Accepting this feeling will help keep your resentment from building, Mellan said.
3. If you’re angry or resentful, find a way to get to the bottom of it. You'll want to figure out what's behind your frustration. Is it that you think your husband should be doing more to find work or to get a higher-paying job? You'd like to work less feverishly but feel you have no choice because you and your spouse need the income? You believe your husband should do more to help out in other ways? You're still harboring a grudge because you think he didn't pull his weight on childcare duties when your kids were younger? Or might there be deeper marital issues at play?
One exercise Mellan suggests is writing out your feelings in a letter to your husband but not showing it to him. Then, imagine the note he’d write back with his point of view and write that one, too.
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Once you’ve pushed yourself to see things from his perspective, you’ll be more prepared to have a face-to-face talk with him, Mellan said.
4. Set aside time to talk about how things are going for both of you. “Stay connected,” advises Roberta Taylor, a couples relationship coach in Waltham, Mass., and co-author of "The Couple’s Retirement Puzzle." “Being heard without judgment or criticism can deepen your connection particularly during difficult times.”
Appreciate that your husband may experience a period of grieving after a loss of a job and earnings that are connected to his identity, self-esteem and sense of success, Taylor said. “Convey a positive attitude and sense of teamwork showing that ‘we're in this together,’” she added.
Mellan uses a “mirroring” exercise to help couples have this discussion. Each plays back what the other says without editorial comment. This technique builds more empathy and compassion, Mellan said.
After this initial talk, you can segue into the “What’s next?” discussion. You might learn that your husband doesn’t want a high-powered job or a full-time position at all. The two of you may need to downsize to live on a reduced household income. Both of you may need to re-evaluate your lives.
5. Clarify expectations of each other. Maintaining respect for what both of you are doing and how you’re each contributing to the marriage will help you function as a team, said Dorian Mintzer, a Boston money and relationship coach and Taylor’s co-author.
“Otherwise it's too easy for assumptions and resentments to infect the relationship,” Mintzer said.
Remember, there’s a lot more to a marriage than just financial support. Emotional support is essential, too.
Couples need to realize that “it doesn’t really matter in the end who makes more money,” Elaine Pofeldt wrote in a Forbes post. “What’s important is working together to meet the needs of their families.”
6. Seek out role models. You might know other couples going through what you are. If so, Mellan said, look for ones “who have navigated this situation happily and ask for advice on how they did it.”
7. Break the tension by finding ways to have fun. Taylor suggests spending more time together doing the types of things you enjoy doing as a couple. Visit with friends and family; take a trip.
Sounds like our friends’ jaunt to the Virginia countryside last weekend to visit us was the perfect getaway for them (even if I did ask that pesky breadwinner question).
Now, I think I’ll give my friend a call to pass along these tips so she’ll feel a little less frustrated and maybe put an end to her dart-throwing days.
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