Although the number of Massachusetts families in which wives are the main breadwinners is still fairly small, it's a steadily growing trend: In 1980, only 13 percent of married women earned more than or about as much as their husbands. By 2000, that figure had almost doubled, rising to 25 percent. Since then, the rise has been slower but is still on an uptick. In 2017, 28 percent of women made more money than their husbands or co-habitating 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 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 percent 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 percent and 67 percent 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. Responses more dependably meshed with reality when men earned more than their female partners.
Earlier 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.
In addition, 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.
Tangible support, such as childcare helped even things out, the women in the study said, but they were uninspired about emotional support having any mitigating power. 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.
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 of a man or threatened if he thinks his partner is taking better care of the family.
Those men often feel shame, and shame can convert into rage. 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, where money isn't tied to what it means to be a man, they're less likely to feel threatened and act out. 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. But if he questions his own masculinity, it illustrates the context in which he grew up in and he's more likely to struggle.
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. 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; results weren't about earning money so much as gendered expectations for men to work.
Income disparity in couples are 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.
Women often say, "I'm putting all my energy into this and working really hard." 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 a recent 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.
Things don't have to be fair to work for people, but they have to feel like they're fair,. You have to feel that the other person cares for you and is doing the best they can to create a fair relationship.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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. Did it really work for your parents, the way that they did it?
Should you be in the midst of a divorce or contemplating divorce, contact the Law Offices of Renee Lazar at 978-844-4095 to schedule a FREE one hour no obligation consultation.