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.

The feelings flood over him when he passes construction crews while taking the twins on a walk: What would it be like to work with a group of guys up on a roof again? What adventures is his wife having while he’s wiping off bibs? When his wife and her doctor friends rib him about staying home, he over-aggressively pulls the manual labor card: “How about I come over and help you put that Ikea furniture together, Mr. Doctor?” It’s the old Betty Friedan identity crisis, only in masculine form. These days when his wife suggests that he should go back to work, Andy feels “terrified.” It’s been a long time, and he’s lost the stomach for the outside world.

On the other side of that equation are women who are resentful about carrying the whole economic load, much the way husbands once were. They exhibit the same range of provider symptoms: pressure, fear of the gold digger, frustration at being trapped in the day-to-day with no outlet for creativity. Michelle, an attorney in Los Alamos, complained to me about being “hunted like a deer by men as a desirable wife because of my wage-earning capability and good job.” Beverly, an African- American executive in Washington, D.C., fed up with her couch-potato husband, warned that “women should be very careful about marrying freeloading, bloodsucking parasites.” Julie, an attorney and reluctant family breadwinner, said, “I’m a little envious of the old days, where women weren’t expected to go out and make a living on par with men. I just feel it’s unfair that women are in a position where there is a ton of pressure to do both things.”

Mostly, though, I discovered that the roles do not fully reverse. I did not talk to a single breadwinner wife who has entirely ceded the domestic space. This is true even if the woman is working two jobs. It’s true even if the woman makes considerably more money than the man, and it’s true even if she has a stay-at-home husband. In over three-quarters of the couples in my survey, either the woman did more child care and housework, or they shared equally: “I HATE HATE HATE the annual ‘what should a stay-at-home mom make??’ tripe that comes out around Mother’s Day,” said Dawn, a software engineer and mother of three who has been the primary breadwinner “forever.” “I have to do the same house/child-care work, AND if I lose my job, my whole family is fucked.”

Chart: Who does most of the childcare duties?

Over the last 30 years, women have started to work considerably more hours than they once did, without easing off on child care. In fact, the opposite has happened. In 1965 women reported doing an average of 9.3 hours of paid work a week and 10.2 hours of child care. Now women not only do an average of 23.2 hours of paid work a week, but they do more child care—13.9 hours, according to the latest American Time Use survey. The hours in a woman’s week have not expanded, and mostly women have made up for it by shaving off time in other areas—housework, personal grooming, and, tragically, free time, which women have begun to claim less of in the last decade. (And, no, men haven’t decreased their leisure time lately.) But mostly what the time-use surveys confirm—for the United States and many other Western countries—is a vision of every woman as a slowly expanding colonial empire, failing to cede old territories as she conquers new ones—either because she doesn’t want to or has just fallen into the habit of doing too much. Or more likely, because men don’t yet pick up enough of the domestic slack.  

Chart: Which of you does more housework?

Chart: Which of you does more cooking?

Men, meanwhile, are moving into new areas much more slowly than women. Over the same period of time, men have decreased their average work hours per week from 46.4 to 42.6. And their childcare hours have upped from 2.5 to only a modest 7. Despite decades of self-help literature imploring men to explore their nurturing sides, the stay-at-home dad remains a rare phenomenon. Only 2.7 percent of Americans in the latest census count themselves as full-time stay-at-home dads, although that does not include single fathers or part-time dads.

In fact, one picks up an overwhelming note of reluctance, resistance, and in some cases revolt against the new breadwinner wife regime. In more traditional or more macho cultures, the concept of the alpha wife is especially hard to swallow. In South Korea and Japan, men from rural towns, and more recently even cities, are importing brides from poorer Asian countries with more traditional notions of marriage. In Spain, 20 percent of all marriages are now between a Spanish and a foreign partner, up from 4.7 percent in 1996. High-achieving women in Spain marry progressive men from Belgium or Switzerland, while Spanish men seek out wives from Ecuador or Colombia. “When a man here marries a woman from Colombia he is marrying the kind of woman he would have married 50 years ago in Spain,” says Esteve. “I suppose the women are marrying the kind of man they will find 50 years from now in Spain. The Spanish men,” he adds, “are looking for a woman from the past, while the women are looking for men of the future.”

The problem with this strategy is that the Colombian women don’t stand still, either. The men are only delaying the day of reckoning. Soon there won’t be “that kind of woman” to marry anymore.