Marriage and Family — 18 January 2010
When she earns more than he does

As the number of dual family earners has increased, so did the percentage of women earning more than their husbands. How have these changes affected the quality of these marriages and the satisfaction levels of the mates?

According to the U.S. Bureau of labor Statistics in 2008, women account for 51 percent of all persons employed in management, professional, and related occupations, and 26 percent of working wives earned more than their husbands.

These data may call to question the traditional marriage contract, which included a primary breadwinner, assumed to be the husband, and a homemaker, assumed to be the wife. The man was presumed to have the authority to make most of the financial decisions and was mostly free from domestic responsibilities. He was also regarded as the “head of the household” in terms of power, priority and privilege.

Since today’s marriages are more egalitarian in terms of the roles within the marriage, and many husbands are quite involved in childrearing, nurturing and sharing household chores, how have these new male roles impacted attitudes towards the earning levels and marital satisfaction?

The research studies discussed here addressed three questions: power and authority within the marriage, levels of conflict and marital satisfaction in couples where the wife is the higher earner.

Sociologist, Veronica Tichenor, of State University of NY in “Earning More and Getting Less: Why Successful Wives Can’t Buy Equality” states: “I found that men who earn substantially less than their wives continue to be defined as providers and to exercise a great deal of authority in their homes. They have the power to make decisions, exact both real and symbolic deference, and even define the terms of the marital contract- all of which reinforce men’s traditional power within the marriage.” Other researchers (Bittman, England, Sayer, Brines, Greenstein & others) also demonstrated that a woman’s power actually gets diminished when she earns more than her husband.

Psychologists, Perry-Jenkins and Folk found that a woman’s higher earnings were related to greater conflict in the marriage, though they were not so when the husband’s earnings were higher than hers.

Brennan, Barnett and Garels study “When She Earns More Than He Does” found that the husband’s Marital Role Quality assessment decreases sharply when his wife earned more than he did. Despite greater male discontent, the researchers discovered, “the presumed risk of marital disruption related to her increased relative earnings may not be as high as predicted.”

The seminal factor in males discontent about their women’s higher earnings appears to do with the men’s basic attitudes about their roles in marriage and their self-perceptions. Brennan et al. summarize, “For traditionally oriented men, being a good provider and having their wives economically dependent on them affirms their value and was a guarantor of marital stability. As their wives‘ earnings approach their own, there is the potential for feeling of loss of value in their own eyes and perhaps eventually in the eyes of their wives.”

Men:

• Accept that your wife is not likely to see your higher earnings as evidence of your diminished value or desirability.
• Understand that your wife greatly esteems you for being a good father and a co-participant in the home since women commonly value relationship connection above monetary production.
• Re-assess your own values about your worth, esteem and contribution to the family. When you are contented you are likely to appreciate your wife’s additional earnings and your marriage will be strengthened.

Women:

• Realize that your husband needs frequent appreciations to feel valued for his contributions to you and the family, regardless of his earnings.
• Abstain from discussing the financial differential or expecting excessive benefits for it.
• Express your satisfaction with the equality and partnership in your union. It will secure your marriage bond and increase your love.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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