Does Being the Breadwinner Have to Be the Demise of Your Relationship?
If you're married and you're the one bringing home the bacon — or most of the bacon, anyway — you may feel that the odds are stacked against your relationship. (Even if you're not, you might be wondering how it'd affect your relationship if you were, especially as it becomes an increasingly real possibility: 40 percent of American households today are supported by moms, and the number is growing.)
In the past six months, we've read that higher earning wives are bad for a husband's "libido" (and, by extension, a couple's sex life), cause for guilt and resentment and "may be contributing to a decline in the formation and stability of marriages." One oft-cited University of Chicago paper by female economists, published this May, used national survey data to conclude that couples in which a wife earns more than her spouse are not only "less satisfied with their marriage [but] more likely to divorce."
Yikes! But let's look at the bright side for a moment. (And, yes, there is one.) As someone who earns more than her husband and has done extensive research and interviews over the last 18 months for my upcoming book When She Makes More, I can confidently say that making more than your beloved — while, most certainly, layered with complexities — can be a winning formula for coupledom.
Here are five ways.
You'll Have Extra Financial Security
Dual-income families are fast becoming the norm today as it's become increasingly difficult to raise a family on a single stream of money. As a breadwinning wife who may be on a more secure career track, you can provide a cushion of savings to get through the inevitable financial rough patches.
Your increased financial security can also afford you more personal luxuries — from a fitness trainer to weekend excursions with your gal pals — all without the guilt of sticking your hand in the family cookie jar. I encourage all breadwinning wives to keep some of their earnings (up to 15 percent) in a personal account labeled "MINE." No questions asked. No resentment built.
Among the happier working couples I interviewed, squabbles over money were few and far between. That's not to say that married couples with breadwinning wives have it better necessarily when it comes to money struggles. As we know fighting over finances has consistently been reported as a top reason couples of all natures seek counseling. But there is something to be said about a bigger pot of money from which to spend and save. As a Gallup poll about marriage and money found, those who were married and had the highest incomes reported being the happiest of all the groups with their personal lives. There's more to go around for vacations, education and housing and that can be comforting to know.
"Research shows that what's most important for the well-being of the family are two things...economic security and satisfied, happy parents," says Kathleen Gerson, professor of sociology at New York University and author of The Unfinished Revolution. A wife with financial security and a career she enjoys can help foment a happy home life.
You Can Afford Him — and Your Family — Opportunities
Your higher salary gives you the ability to invest in your husband's earnings potential. Think about it. With your financial help he could pursue a graduate degree, change careers or start a business in pursuit of more income. It's the kind of investment that can pay off for everyone in the family, especially if kids are in the picture.
Should you want to off-ramp temporarily and be a stay-at-home mom down the road, he can better provide for the family's needs in the interim. Or, if you need more money to support costs like day care or college savings, investing in your guy's earnings potential today can reap benefits in the future.
I helped pay for my husband to take an evening software class and once he was finished, encouraged him to quit his full-time, benefits-paying job to take on a short-term freelance project that offered less pay but much more potential to network and build a stronger career. And it paid off. He’s working full time again and with a company with far more upward mobility in terms of position and pay.
Sharon, a freelance writer, recently paid for she and her husband — who she says had been "underemployed" for two years — to move from Poughkeepsie, New York, back to their hometown in Columbus, Ohio. "There's a lot of work for my husband in Cleveland," says Sharon, "and I think this will make a big difference for our relationship."
You Can Count on More Fathering
Quality time with dad is something busy, top-earning moms tell me they greatly appreciate. Whether he's a stay-at-home father who manages the household day to day or he has the more flexible work schedule, a father who makes less can often bring more to the table as an active and involved parent. And that, researchers say, is an important factor in a happy marriage. In fact, for both spouses, successful marriages partly hinge on the mother's perception of the father-child relationship, according to a recent joint study by Brigham Young University and Utah State University. The stronger the relationship between father and child, the happier the family is.
Harriet, a chief marketing officer, has been happily married to Terry, an overnight police officer, for close to 20 years. "While I was at work and commuting from 8am to 8pm, my husband fixed a couple of kitchen cabinets, a bedroom door that wouldn't close properly and two leaky faucets. He cleaned up the mangled trampoline from the storm, went to the grocery store, took my daughter to the eye doctor and then picked up dinner. And he never complains," she says. When Harriet told him about our interview, he said, "Man or woman, someone has to be there and do what needs to be done with the kids and the house."
In return, Harriet has supported his interests. "I want him to enjoy his life and have things special to look forward to, as well," she says. Recently, he took a motorcycle ride from Boston to South Dakota and back with his friends. She paid for it. "I could not have the life that I do, balancing my family and my career if not for my husband enabling me to do that," she says. "We really are very happy."
You Can Achieve a Happier Work/Life Balance
Some women admit to me that while they would readily die for their children, they are way happier in a boardroom meeting than at a Tumblin' Tots session. And they don't feel guilty about it. They’re proud of the fact that their salary, benefits and annual bonuses help to keep the lights on and then some at home. They also know that their happiness at work translates into a happy life for everyone. (And as many a husbands have expressed to me: happy wife, happy life!)
But there are emotional pluses for husbands, too. They don't have to feel the stress of carrying all, or the bulk, of the financial burden and can also enjoy more one-on-one time with their families. As many couples I talk to say, work and money isn't everything to men. "I think it's my responsibility to be a father, too, and our marriage lets me accomplish that more so than other dads," says Adam, 43, an IT specialist who earns one-third of his physician wife's salary. His job's more flexible so he can work from home and claim child-care duty for their three children during the week. "We have a friend in his mid forties who earns a lot of money and works all the time. He just saw his son's soccer game for the first time after 14 years,” he says. "He lives in a $2 million house, but if you can’t see your kid’s soccer game, it's not worth it."
You Can Be Role Models
Laurie, 39, is on track to become the CFO of her company. She and her husband, Carl, a retired firefighter and stay-at-home dad, have two daughters. Initially, their girls had a tough time with mommy working all the time. "But I just try to help them understand the reality of it and what we get to do as a family because I work," says Laurie. "I want [my girls] to appreciate what we have and to know that part of that stems from mommy going to work and daddy staying at home."
Along your journey as husband and wife, as you commit to crushing gender expectations and raising a family by your own mutually acceptable rules, you will also have the awesome responsibility of being role models for your children — especially your daughters — who will look to you for guidance and setting the example.
Chelsea became the breadwinner by default early on in her marriage after the 2000 dot-com crash left her husband struggling to establish a new career. But the transition didn’t throw the retail chain executive for a loop, thanks to lessons from her childhood. "My mother was the primary breadwinner in our family and my dad was never threatened by it," she recalls. “For me [being the breadwinner] wasn't a challenge. It was ... whatever."
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