When the Wife Makes More Money, Who Holds the Power?

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Sept. 11 2012 3:35 AM

I Ain’t Sayin’ He’s a Gold Digger

What happens when the wife earns more? A survey of Slate readers.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.
Does earning more money mean the woman has more power in the relationship?

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.

Are you a wife who earns more than your husband? Or a husband who earns less than your wife? We invite you to submit your testimonies on how this dynamic plays out in your relationship and life to doublex.slate@gmail.com. Put the word “breadwinners” in the subject line. We will print some of your essays on the blog in the coming days. 

Hanna Rosin Hanna Rosin

Hanna Rosin is the founder of DoubleX and a writer for the Atlantic. She is also the author of The End of Men. Follow her on Twitter.

The following story is adapted from Hanna Rosin’s new book, The End of Men: and the Rise of Women, which comes out today.

For much of history, the mark of an enviable woman has been her ability to secure a superior match, through her beauty, cleverness, or artful deception. After civil rights, that expectation mellowed into something called “homogamy,” meaning women marrying men of equal money and education. But that happy place of equilibrium seems to be fading as well. Instead, women have started doing something demographers thought they would never see: they are marrying down, not just in the United States but all over the world, a phenomenon closely tracked by Spanish demographer Albert Esteve.

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Women are largely doing this out of necessity. In every continent except Africa, women are more likely to have a college degree than the men around them. This means that in their late 20s and 30s, when most people get married, women’s earning prospects are brighter. So they have no choice but to marry someone who in a Jane Austen novel would have been declared an unsuitable match. About 40 percent of wives in the United States now out-earn their husbands, and researcher Liza Mundy predicts they will be the majority in a generation. It’s already happening with education: According to Esteve, the majority of women in France, Hungary, Israel, Portugal, Brazil, Belarus, Mongolia, and Colombia—to name a few—now marry men with less schooling than they have.

Because the phenomenon is so new, the emotional landscapes of such families are somewhat of a mystery. So when I was researching my new book, The End of Men: And the Rise of Women, I decided to find out more about them. In 2011, I asked Slate readers who are in a couple where the woman earns more to answer a survey about their relationship. About 7,500 obliged, and a few hundred wrote me emails. I then followed up with interviews. A couple of things about the participants: Slate readers are much more educated than the general population, and the majority of people who answered the survey were women. Still, the responses start to get to the bottom of some of the more sensitive questions: Does earning more money mean the woman has more power in the relationship? Does the fact that women earn more mean the men are more likely to take care of the children, or do the housework? Do the women feel proud? Resentful? And what about the men? Do they feel liberated? Humiliated?

In fact, nearly 80 percent of people in my breadwinner-wives survey described themselves as happy in their marriages, and rated themselves as having a fairly low chance of divorcing.

Chart: Percent happy

About one-third said the men were self-conscious about making less money (but, again, many of these were women reporting on how they believe their husbands feel), and slightly fewer felt judged by the community. Nearly 90 percent said in the future, it will be more acceptable for women to be the main providers. A surprisingly small number of respondents said the woman has more power because she makes more money; about two-thirds reported that they share power equally.

Chart: Does the woman have more power because she earns more?

One recurring storyline I uncovered in my follow-up interviews was Lady Chatterley’s Lover, only with a Hollywood ending. Lori, an attorney who makes half a million dollars a year, was tired of dating men who considered her professional competition, and whose “entire mood depended on whether they’d inched one step closer that day to being CEO.” So she married a train conductor she met on the dating site Match.com. “I wanted a man who didn’t talk about his work all day, who would rather go for a bike ride on the beach,” she told me. “My husband knows who he is. He’s just comfortable in his own skin.”

Still, it was clear from my dozens of interviews that there are tensions under the surface. A power arrangement that’s prevailed for most of history does not fade without a ripple. In many cases I heard the same old marriage anxieties, only they showed up in the reverse gender. Andy, a stay-at-home dad in San Jose, Calif., had to cancel several appointments with me because he couldn’t get his twins to sleep. Before he stayed home with his kids, he was a carpenter. His wife is a physician, and because she makes so much more money it made sense for him to take the parenting lead. Andy likes watching the toddlers, but he is wistful about his old life, and somewhat defensive about his new one.