Women Who Make More Than Their Husbands Should Watch Out

Their husbands are more likely to cheat, and they are much more likely to face divorce. Two divorce experts weigh in on why and what to do about it.

A successful woman at work looks over her shoulder.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

When women out-earn their husbands, marriages struggle. Marriages of female breadwinners are 50% more likely to end in divorce, according to a University of Chicago study (opens in new tab).

Many relationships that do not conform to the traditional norm of the man playing the role of provider do not fare well. The University of Chicago 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.

Men Who Cheat on Their Breadwinning Wives

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 (opens in new tab) who were 100% financially dependent on their wives had affairs. That’s three times higher than the 5% of high-earning wives who strayed, the study showed.

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For men, financial dependence may be particularly threatening, resulting in relationship-sabotaging behavior, and cheating may be a subliminal way to bolster his self-esteem or re-establish his sense of masculinity. 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 breadwinning women 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.”

Who Gets Stuck with 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.

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 distributions of assets. While in some marriages 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.

According to the Journal of Family Issues (opens in new tab), 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. Therefore, as Zeiderman points out, the greater the reward should be when dividing up the marital pot.

“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 to Help 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 takes into account 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 towards your shared dreams is one of the most important ways to strengthen your relationship and ensure your happily ever after.”

This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC or with FINRA.

Stacy Francis, CFP®, CDFA®, CES™
President & CEO, Francis Financial Inc.

Stacy is a nationally recognized financial expert and the President and CEO of Francis Financial Inc. (opens in new tab), 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.