At a time when the gender wage gap is still alive and well—full-time working women earn just 77 cents for every dollar that men earn—a recent Pew Research Center study found a striking statistic: 40% of American families’ primary breadwinners are mothers, and 37% of those breadwinners--an estimated 5.1 million--are wives who make more than their husbands.
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But all is not well on the women-earning-more front: The same Pew study found that having a female breadwinner was reportedly stirring up trouble in marriages. Why? Well, 50% of respondents felt it was harder on a marriage, and 74% said it was harder to raise children.
Jonathan Alpert, a Manhattan psychotherapist, executive coach, and author of "Be Fearless: Change Your Life in 28 Days," sees many patients who face this situation.
“For a lot of guys, it affects their ego and they start to feel emasculated,” says Alpert, who traces the feelings all the way back to the 1950s. “Society believed men were the breadwinners and women stayed home or did not pursue a career,” he says.
We wondered: Just how do real men in 2013 feel about bringing home less than half of the paycheck?
So we sat down with three men, successful in their own right, to see how an income differential plays out in their relationships, and how Alpert says each couple is faring.
"She Wore the Pants": The Self-Esteem Factor
Alan, 40, is a successful accountant at a small firm he helped start in Bethesda, Md. Yet his wife, a doctor, still earns more than him. At first, Alan was embarrassed by his wife’s breadwinner status. “It was a male ego thing,” he says. “There was just something about it that made me feel inadequate. I knew it was illogical.”
Three years ago, after nearly six years of marriage, his resentment bubbled over when his uncle asked why they never had children. “I made a rude comment about how my wife was too busy wearing the pants in our relationship to be a mom,” says Alan. “And then instantly regretted it.”
That evening, Alan and his wife discussed their salary differences and the toll it was taking on his self-esteem for the first time since she graduated from medical school. “She helped me gain perspective. There are so many more important things to worry about in life than who makes more money,” he says.
Talking it out also helped Alan to see his wife’s point of view. “The whole time, I thought I was doing a pretty good job of hiding my feelings, but it turns out she knew and was internalizing my resentment into guilt,” says Alan. “That about broke my heart.”
“Now I’m able to see that being grateful to have a job, a roof over my head, and a talented and successful wife who loves me no matter how much I make, is more than enough," he says. “Plus, it’s really not too shabby having a sugar mama!”
If You're in This Situation: If you’re also feeling embarrassed, you’re not alone. “It’s all too common, and rooted in old-school thinking,” says Alpert, who says the real source of Alan’s issues is his own insecurity. “The conversation that followed provided reassurance to Alan that his wife was fine with things and didn’t think any less of him.”
"I Always Thought I Would Make More Money"
A year and a half ago, when Adam, 28, decided to go back to school for his MBA, he was earning more than his wife.
As an account executive for an advertising firm in New York City, his wife makes good money, but Adam’s salary as a financial analyst combined with his bonus was still higher.
Luckily, the pair was able to save up enough to cover Adam’s tuition while his wife supported the two of them. “I always thought that I would make more money than my wife,” says Adam. “I know it might sound archaic, but I believe that men are naturally supposed to be providers and that’s what I want to be able to do for my family.”
"I’m alright with her driving the Lexus while I get the minivan. If that makes me 'unmanly,' so what?"
He isn’t bothered by his wife’s breadwinner status—for now, that is.
“Honestly, I’m okay with her making more money than me right now, because I see this situation as temporary,” says Adam. “She may be the only one working right now, but I know that the bulk of the savings we’re living off of come from my old salary. And I expect to return to making even more once I graduate.”
If You're in This Situation: While Alpert finds Adam’s view healthy, he still sees room for improvement. “He might benefit from being more open to having a wife who also earns a good salary, or even more,” he says. “Re-evaluating expectations and moving away from that old school or 'archaic' thinking might benefit him.”
A Change of Heart
“My wife often makes more in a day than I make in a month,” says Michael 45, a freelance photographer and father of two, whose wife is a vice president at a financial firm.
These days his income can be sporadic, but it wasn't always that way. Years ago, Michael was a photo director at a magazine, earning a six-figure salary and flying cross-country weekly for photo shoots.
“I was also a jerk,” he admits. Even though his wife was also working full time,“I expected her to do everything—cook the dinner, do the laundry, raise our two kids—since I was never home," he says. Then, when the recession hit, Michael was laid off.
“I didn’t know what to do with myself at first,” he says. “Then I realized that my daughter played soccer really well, and my son was terrible at the oboe. These were all things that a normal dad should have known, but I was so busy with my job that I didn’t.”
Michael saw his job loss as an opportunity to take back some responsibilities around the house, easing his wife’s stress and growing closer to his kids as a result. “I realized I was missing out on a lot by only focusing on my career,” he says.
Since then, he's taken freelance assignments as his wife climbed the corporate ladder.
“I like things this way. I like that my wife is being rewarded financially for being intelligent. And I’m alright with her driving the Lexus while I get the minivan,” he says. “If that makes me unmanly, so what? I still get to pursue my passion, only now I get to do it on my own time. And as long as she never acts the way I did when I was the breadwinner, I don’t think I’ll ever mind.”
If You're In This Situation: Getting too caught up in a career isn't a function of gender, it happens to men and women alike, says Alpert, who applauds Michael for realizing the importance of a balanced life. “So often peoples’ identities become fused with that of their careers. I saw this a lot after the economy crashed in 2008 and still see it today."
The problem, he says, is that "once the career isn’t there, the person is left aimless and depressed. I remind clients that they’re much more than a highly accomplished professional. They’re also a mother, father, brother, son, daughter and spouse.”
Considering that few couples make exactly the same salary, odds are at some point in your relationship you'll need to navigate the difference between your incomes—and all the feelings that come with it.
"Open communication is the key," says Alpert. He suggests couples list out their expenses and respective earnings to help devise a plan for saving and paying bills. “If salaries are comparable, then splitting it down the middle works," he says. "In the case of a disparity of salaries, I suggest that each person pay a percentage of their respective salaries. This way people will feel they are contributing in a fair way."
Correction: In our original version, we misstated the percentage of married women who earn more than their husbands from the Pew Research Center study.