Female super-earners: Bad for marriage?

In households where the woman makes more money, the man is more likely to cheat, have health problems, and be unhappy, according to a number of recent studies. Is that right?

Men were reportedly hit harder in the recession, forcing more women into family breadwinner roles.
(Image credit: Corbis)

America is in the midst of a "new marriage crisis," says Danielle Friedman in The Daily Beast, as women are outpacing men in the workforce and upending long-held gender roles. In fact, women make more than men in one-third of American households, and experts say that neither gender is successfully handling this shift in earning power. Are female breadwinners inherently bad for marriage, or can couples work together to adjust to this new reality?

What's so wrong with a woman earning more?

Despite significant societal changes, "there's still a sense — on the part of both men and women — that men should be the providers," says National Marriage Project director W. Bradford Wilcox, of the University of Virginia. "We're facing a whole new social moment in which women are doing better than men are," and men haven't found "other outlets for masculinity."

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And the studies actually back that up?

They do give that impression. The National Marriage Project found that husbands are 61 percent less likely to say they are "very happy" in their marriage in families where the wife works more, and other studies show that male unemployment increases the odds of divorce, high-earning men in their 50s with higher-earning wives have more health problems, and men who earn less than their wives are more likely to cheat on them.

Why are women starting to earn more?

Because they can, or because they have to. Women are graduating from college in higher numbers than men and are taking less time off from their careers to rear children. At the same time, men were hit disproportionately hard in the recession, forcing women to assume the breadwinner role in families.

Is this just an American problem?

No, couples are dealing with the same issue in Europe, says Katrin Bennhold in The New York Times. The "small but growing number of women who out-earn their partners" in countries like France and Germany are "giving rise to an assortment of behavioral contortions aimed at keeping the appearance of traditional gender roles intact," like low-earning men paying for dinner in public with their wives' money.

What's a successful woman to do?

Anke Domscheit-Berg, an executive at Microsoft Germany who says "success is not sexy," advises women to find their mate in their 20s, before attaining career success, or couple up with artists and academics who don't define their success in monetary terms. Why is this "always presented as the woman's problem"? asks Laura Clawson in Daily Kos. Men who "can't deal with your higher income" need to give up their sense of "male privilege."

Any advice for couples with a female-breadwinner?

"Enjoy the cash," for starters, says Linda Stern in Reuters. Give each partner some discretionary funds of his and her own, "be proud" because "the high-earning mom is smart and capable, the lower-earning dad is comfortable with himself, and they're both modeling good stuff for their kids." And above all, "get used to it."

Is there a silver lining?

Marriage historian Stephanie Coontz is "cautiously optimistic" that the growing egalitarianism in marriages will be good for couples, says The Daily Beast's Friedman. Marriages that feel like partnerships, whatever the division of labor, get the highest marks for quality, and couples in which the man helps out with chores and child-rearing have better sex lives. Maybe that last fact "will prove be a good jumping off point for future conversations."

Sources: The Daily Beast, Reuters, Daily Kos, New York Times, Wall St. Journal

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