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.
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.”