When a wife makes more than her husband, marriages struggle. Many relationships that do not conform to the traditional norm of the man playing the role of provider do not fare well, with those marriages being 50% more likely to end in divorce, according to a University of Chicago study.
The study points to several reasons, including tension between the partners due to a combination of societal expectations of men and deep-seated ideas about gender roles, leading to arguments.
However, the number of women out-earning their partners is increasing, according to the Pew Research Center. Only 3.8% of wives earned more than their husbands back in 1960, but a 2020 TD Ameritrade survey found the number of female breadwinners has jumped to 21%. More than a quarter of wives report that they make as much as their husbands.
Breadwinning women are critical to many families’ financial well-being, especially during and after the pandemic and with inflation soaring to levels not seen in decades. The high cost of essential items such as groceries, gas and housing are putting a strain on many family budgets, causing men and women to look for ways to earn more money. And more women are stepping up to the plate.
Cheating When a Wife Makes More Than Her Husband
Studies also show that when a wife out-earns her husband, he is more likely to cheat. In fact, about 15% of the men in a study by the American Sociological Review who were 100% financially dependent on their wives had affairs. That’s three times higher than high-earning wives, who had the lowest cheating rates of any population. According to the report, about 9% of women in the study had affairs, but among wives who earned a higher paycheck, only 5% cheated.
In a society that defines men’s identity in terms of career and earning power, financial dependence may feel particularly threatening, resulting in relationship-sabotaging behavior. Cheating may be a subliminal way to bolster his self-esteem or re-establish his sense of masculinity. The American Psychological Association found that often men’s self-esteem is reduced when their romantic partner is more successful, whereas women’s self-esteem is not affected by their partner’s success. While infidelity is not necessarily a death sentence for a marriage, it is the most often-reported reason for a split.
“It's not exactly logical," according to Alexandra Shepis, a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst® with Francis Financial who provides financial advice to many breadwinning women. “If you are financially dependent on your spouse, you probably should not cheat on them. But rarely do finances dictate matters of the heart."
In addition, Shepis warns that a divorce for women who make more than their husbands can be especially painful, as the law dictates that she pay spousal support to him if her earnings are significantly greater. “This can be an especially tough pill to swallow for a woman whose husband had an affair while she spent long hours at the office working to provide for him.”
Female Breadwinners Still Do Most of the Housework
Lisa Zeiderman, a divorce attorney and managing partner for Miller Zeiderman LLP, often represents the breadwinner female spouse. According to Zeiderman, many of these women are high-powered executives who not only support their family but also care for the children. Notwithstanding that they are earning a substantial income, these women still manage to run the household, including, but not limited to, sourcing the children’s providers, arranging for childcare, making playdates, attending school functions and making sure there is a family meal and bedtime routine.
New research by UCL Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care found that while more and more women are entering the workforce, imbalances in responsibility for household duties remain — even when women are the breadwinners for the family. The average female breadwinner spends an extra 7.5 hours each week on household responsibilities on top of her already demanding job. This is the equivalent of a full workday that she spends cooking, cleaning and making sure that the kids have everything they need. On the other hand, male breadwinners are twice as likely to not do any domestic tasks at all.
The More the Wife Earns, the Harder She Works at Home
In addition, it might sound surprising, but according to the Journal of Family Issues, the more economically dependent that men are on their wives, the less housework they do. Even women with unemployed husbands spend considerably more time on household chores than their spouses. In other words, the more the wife earns, the greater the penalty at home. Zeiderman contends that these women should receive a greater share of equitable distribution due to their greater contributions to the family unit. Moreover, while they may have to pay alimony, that may be set off by a greater distribution of assets.
When Marriages With a Female Breadwinner Break Down
While in some marriages where there is no affair, the breadwinning woman may still feel as if she is not supported enough, deepening conflicts and causing resentment that can escalate into arguing and, ultimately, divorce. Moreover, as set forth above, breadwinning women often end up doing a disproportionate amount of housework.
“As with any issue, couples need to be willing and able to honestly discuss the reality of the woman being the primary breadwinner,” says Beatty Cohan, psychotherapist, sex therapist and author. “Issues including the division of labor on day-to-day tasks, including childcare, grocery shopping, housecleaning, etc. need to be acknowledged, addressed and resolved. The couple needs to be open to ongoing evaluation about how the process is actually working. Compromise, trade-offs and win/win solutions should be the goal when challenges arise … as they inevitably will.”
Tips for Helping to Maintain a Happy Marriage
On the financial front, successful marriages have regular, open communication about finances. This is especially important when gender-earning norms are reversed. Shepis advises couples to plan a financial date night and craft a financial plan that considers their goals.
Large gaps in income can cause tension in the relationship, and if money is a taboo subject, the odds will be stacked against you. On the other hand, getting on the same page financially and working together toward your shared dreams is one of the most important ways to strengthen your relationship and ensure your happily ever after.
Stacy is a nationally recognized financial expert and the President and CEO of Francis Financial Inc., which she founded 15 years ago. She is a Certified Financial Planner® (CFP®) and Certified Divorce Financial Analyst® (CDFA®) who provides advice to women going through transitions, such as divorce, widowhood and sudden wealth. She is also the founder of Savvy Ladies™, a nonprofit that has provided free personal finance education and resources to over 15,000 women.
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