Marriages With Female Breadwinners Still Struggle. Here’s How To Make It Work.

Apparently this is still a problem for men.
Female breadwinners face a host of challenges.
macniak via Getty Images
Female breadwinners face a host of challenges.

It’s 2018, but the fragility of the male ego remains. And seemingly nothing shatters it like a woman who earns more than her husband.

Twenty-nine percent of American wives in heterosexual dual-income marriages earn more than their husbands, according to 2016 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s a trend that’s been increasing over time: In 1987, only 18 percent of wives claimed breadwinner status in marriages where both partners worked. Another BLS report from 2009 showed that women were the sole breadwinners in about 9 percent of married households.

So everyone is celebrating, right? Not so much.

Entrenched gender norms “induce an aversion” to female breadwinners, according to research published in The Quarterly Journal of Economics. A study published by the American Psychological Association found that a man’s self-esteem took a hit when his female partner outperformed him in general. Women, on the other hand, were unaffected by their partners’ success.

This tension may correlate with relationship issues: One study by the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that marriages with breadwinning wives are often “less satisfying” and more likely to end in divorce. Another study found that in the case of young married couples in which the woman is the sole breadwinner, both are more likely to cheat.

So, what does it take to have a successful marriage when gender earning norms are reversed? We talked to breadwinners, spouses and financial experts about why this perceived issue exists ― and how to get past it.

Meet Jessica

In 2009, a woman we’ll call Jessica for privacy reasons graduated from college, moved to New York City and quickly grew into a leadership position with her first real job. Within two years, she was managing five people, all older.

She also started dating her now-husband at the same time, and she says he was incredibly supportive of her career. However, “It’s really interesting to see how your partner experiences your success,” she said.

There wasn’t necessarily jealousy on her husband’s part, she said, but the realization that he was not nearly as accomplished: “There was maybe a feeling of inadequacy, or not matching up.”

Jessica’s husband didn’t graduate from college, which she believes contributes to his feelings of inadequacy. “He views his job as just a job. I view mine as more of a career,” she said. “And I think that’s a big difference in personality between the two of us.”

This often led to tension early on in their relationship, especially because the couple didn’t communicate about their financial issues. For instance, one month when rent was due, Jessica’s partner didn’t have the money ― and he didn’t say so until it was time to mail the check.

“I would have been okay with that if we had talked about it. But because money was really a very touchy subject for him for a really long time, he wasn’t really comfortable talking about it,” she explained.

Jessica said that was the worst fight they ever had. “To me, it wasn’t even the money. It was the lack of communication and feeling of betrayal,” she said.

The reality of being a female breadwinner

After she and her husband were married, Jessica received a job offer that would increase her salary by 30 percent, plus bonus opportunities. The only problem? They’d have to move to a different state where they didn’t know anyone, and her husband would be out of a job completely.

They decided to take the plunge, moving from a progressive city to one where traditional family values rule. That’s when Jessica said she truly began to experience the double standard of being the female breadwinner.

For instance, when it came time to buy a car, sales managers would only speak to her husband about the finances, even though she was the decision-maker. “They would talk to me about how much room there was in the car for groceries and a great mirror on the dashboard for applying lipstick,” said Jessica.

Even at restaurants, “When the bill comes back with my credit card in it, it’s put in front of my husband,” Jessica said.

Not long after moving, Jessica made the decision to leave her job and pursue better opportunities while her husband was still looking for work. Soon after, they also bought a house. “He didn’t have great credit and I did. I made more money than him. So we put the mortgage in my name.”

At times, the pressure of being the family breadwinner almost became too much. “I wasn’t eating, I wasn’t sleeping. It definitely took a toll on my mental and physical health,” said Jessica.

To top it all off, the couple had a child last year, which placed even more financial pressure on the relationship. They were forced to decide between daycare that cost about $1,000 a month, or having Jessica’s husband become a stay-at-home dad.

After one week of paternity leave, he decided it wasn’t for him.

“They wanted to throw a ticker tape parade for my husband for doing half the work.”

- Jessica

Instead, he returned to work and continued alternating late-night feedings with Jessica. One of his co-workers asked him, “Isn’t that your wife’s job?”

“We’re really 50-50,” said Jessica, referring to sharing household chores and child rearing. “But they wanted to throw a ticker tape parade for my husband for doing half the work. I’m also doing half the work, but no one is saying ‘Bravo, here’s your gold star.’”

Jessica admitted that the large gap in income continues to cause tension in the relationship, especially when it comes to making everyday life decisions such as “who pays for what when, how we split up monthly bills ... making retirement decisions and healthcare decisions.”

And although the couple has largely learned to work things out and come to terms with the role reversal, the constant pressure from their environment proved to them that traditional gender roles remain unshakable.

Why is this still an issue in 2018?

Tamara Witham, a certified financial planner and founder of GreenLife Advisors in Scarsdale, New York, said there is still a pervasive cultural expectation that women tend to the home while men work. According to a Pew Research Center survey, for instance, 71 percent of adults said it’s “very important” for men to be able to support their families financially to be considered good partners. By contrast, only 32 percent of respondents believed the same about women.

Often, Witham said, men attempt to live up to these expectations ― even if it doesn’t make sense for their families.

For example, “The cost of childcare is just beastly expensive,” said Witham. If a woman earns more than her husband, it might make sense for him to care for the children. “But there’s still that social stigma of Dad taking care of the kids. He may make the uneconomic decision to keep working and pay someone for expensive child care.”

In other words, family, friends, media can pressure some men to fit the archaic mold of a “perfect” partner. Despite progress in attitudes toward gender equality, the idea that men should be the primary breadwinner in a heterosexual family has actually gained ground among young men: “In 1994, 83 percent of young men rejected the superiority of the male-breadwinner family,” states a New York Times opinion piece citing data from the long-running General Social Survey. “By 2014 that had fallen to 55 percent.”

Chance Butler, who lives in Queen Creek, Arizona, as the founder and CEO of Investing Under 35, has learned to embrace his wife’s breadwinner status. But it wasn’t always so easy. Butler admitted that earlier in the relationship, “Every now and then, it did feel emasculating, and I didn’t really feel like I was providing for my family.”

Not only was there an internal desire for him to be a provider in the traditional sense, but he said he felt it from “mother- and father-in-laws, families, friends, social media... there’s a lot of external pressure, too,” he added.

For others, the mold is what they know. Kevin Avent is open about his reservations when it comes to women who earn more. “I’m old-school,” the certified financial planner and a wealth management director for Unified Trust Company in Lexington, Kentucky, said. He added that if his wife were the breadwinner of the family, “It would be a big challenge for me.”

“I would feel like I was failing as a provider to the family, I think mainly, because of how I was raised,” Avent said. His mother never worked outside of the home, he added, except when she was serving as the choir director for their church. “Many of the men in my family ... had the same dynamic. Their spouses didn’t work outside the home,” he said.

How to make it work

So how can couples make a marriage work when a husband struggles with the fact that a wife earns more?

1. Focus on a goal

Butler recommended that men who want to feel like they’re making more of a financial contribution choose a savings goal and set aside part of their earnings until they reach it.

“Choose something that you’re going to use and enjoy together all the time,” he said, such as a new piece of furniture, a room remodel ― even a hot tub. “That’s something tangible that both of you can see and positively affects your marriage.”

2. Contribute in other ways

However, studies have shown that marriages with breadwinning wives don’t have to end in divorce if the husband picks up the slack and contributes to more of the housework.

Being a good spouse doesn’t have to come down to who brings home the bigger paycheck. Providing physical, emotional and domestic support can go a long way in maintaining a harmonious relationship.

Even small gestures can have a big impact. “My wife is a nurse, and she’s on her feet all day,” said Butler. “I started rubbing her feet after every shift because it feels good, helps her relax and she feels like she’s being taken care of.”

3. Learn to communicate

Rather than letting money divide the relationship, Jessica and her husband began focusing on communication.

Jessica likened their money conversations to ripping off a Band-Aid. “That’s when we would have our worst fights ― when we didn’t confront it head on,” she said.

“It became a healthier communication pattern for us to talk about things up front instead of letting them fester,” Jessica explained, noting that she’s gotten better about voicing her concerns and asking questions. Her husband has learned also that she’s not coming from a place of accusation or frustration, but rather seeking to understand, she said. “So we’ve met in the middle there and become better partners, she added.

4. Enlist professional help

“From a financial planner perspective, there are always the same things you recommend to any family,” said Witham. Those things, she said, include being prepared with an emergency fund, disability insurance and other ways to minimize risk.

Witham also pointed out that the gender wage gap still exists, with women earning about 80 cents on every dollar a man earns. “If she’s the breadwinner, the total income, on average, is lower,” said Witham. That places even more strain on families, which means sound financial planning is that much more important.

Financial advisers can also act as an objective third party and help couples work through disagreements surrounding money. In fact, Jessica and her husband worked with financial planners who at times, she said, almost doubled as marriage counselors.

5. Get over it

The truth is, a breadwinning woman is only a problem when someone in the relationship chooses to make it one.

“It’s not easy,” said Jessica, “but I also think there are a lot more difficult struggles a relationship or a marriage can go through than there being a difference in income.”

In the end, communication and mutual respect have been key to making their relationship work. “Just because we have a different setup doesn’t mean that [ours is] wrong... I think we have a really healthy, respectful, communicative and strong marriage because of how we have respected each other’s professional lives.”

Plus, said Witham, “If a wife earns more than her husband, she will, in most cases, be more involved in the finances and the financial decisions and have more of a voice in planning,” she explained. “It becomes more of a ‘we’ decision than an ‘I’ decision.”

Bottom line: A woman who earns more than her partner is his ally, not a threat.

Before You Go

Cynthia and Peter, married Sept. 2, 1961

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