Updated: Feb 22, 2021
My research says . . . .
While in graduate school, I read a 2013 research paper that made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. The researchers found that in marriages in which the woman earned more than their husbands, couples were more likely to divorce and more likely to report marital distress, compared with households in which the man earned more. They also found that in cities where women earned more than men, overall marriage rates were lower. The researchers speculated that high-earning women were less "appealing" marriage partners, and that if they did want to get married and have families, they needed to remain "underemployed," or stop work entirely in order to appear less "threatening" to men.
Ack! (insert visual from Cathy cartoon here. Oh, wait, this a blog, I can actually do that....).
I had so many questions....foremost: What the hell?! So I decided to focus my graduate research on the goal of answering the question: What is going on in Breadwinner-Women marriages?
And a mere six years later (okay, grad school takes a long time)...the results are in. Well, some results. Based on my data, which included close to 1,000 married, heterosexual men and women in the NY-area:
1. Yes, marriages in which the woman made more where slightly less happy. And by slightly, I mean a teensy, tiny bit. In stats terms, women's earnings account for .08% of overall marital happiness. MUCH LESS than 1%!
2. But . . . only the women reported being less happy when they earned more than their husbands. Men did not report being any less happy when their wives earned more than they did.
3. And....men reported being less happy in their marriages when they were less happy in their careers. (For women, career distress was unrelated to marital happiness).
So, what does this all mean?? There are a lot of possible interpretations. Perhaps we've come a long way, and it's more normal for women to earn more than their husbands than it was in 2013, when the last study was published. (I know many higher-earning wives in my own circle of friends and colleagues.). Or, perhaps my sample of well-employed, college-educated professionals was too skewed. Most of my subjects were professionally employed and earned more than $50K per year. Perhaps their financial security kept them safe from marital stressors. For example, they could hire babysitters and cleaning services, whereas in lower-earning households, those jobs are often left to women, even those women with full-time jobs.
Many high-earning women I spoke to reported feeling like they do "everything"--both at work and at home. A common refrain, "I make more money, but I still make my kids' lunches and schedule playdates and do the laundry." On the flip side, some men I spoke to reported that they'd take on more if their wives were more willing to delegate. For example, one man I spoke to said, "My wife wants me to do more, but when I try, she tells me I'm not doing it the right way. Or she feels guilty that I'm spending more time with the kids than she is."
Personally, I believe that how we negotiate even mundane household and parenting responsibilities with our spouses is extremely emotionally charged. It's tied up with deeply felt ideas of what it means to be a mom, a dad, a husband and a wife. Often, these beliefs--and the family history they're based on--don't line up with how much money we make compared to our spouses. For example, if I have visions of my mom packing my lunch in the morning, and drawing a little heart on my paper napkin, what does it mean when I don't have time to do the same for my kids because I have to be in the office at 7am? And what does it mean to my husband that I can't do it when his mom drew those same little hearts? And what does it mean to me that he doesn't jump in and draw the napkin hearts for me?
If you're in a breadwinner-woman marriage and have some thoughts on the topic, email me (firstname.lastname@example.org)! I'd love to interview you.
In the meantime, I'm doing a deep dive into these marriages to learn more about how people are struggling AND making them work.