by Shane Perrault, PhD, and Dawn DeLavallade, MD, author of She Makes More.
According to a 2013 Pew Research Center study, 40 percent of American households with children have a woman as the higher earner, and 60 percent of African-American families have a female breadwinner. (Female breadwinners include single mothers and married women who earn more than their partners or husbands.)
This revolution in male/female relationships has grown steadily over the last four decades. And with more women than ever before attending college and settling into high-paying careers, this shift most likely represents a new era.
But how does this shift in cultural norms with women more likely to be represented in the boardroom impact their romantic relationships, or satisfaction level in the bedroom? There certainly is no straightforward, or one-size-fits-all answer to this question. However, when a woman is in a relationship with a man who earns less money, there are a few telltale signs that their relationship’s stock might be falling.
While some relationship problems are difficult but possible to talk about, this role reversal, with women earning more, can be almost impossible to talk about with both your partner and with your established support system. Stigma, shame, loyalty, frustration, confusion and this relationship dynamic possibly representing a stark departure from any role model either of you have observed – are just a few reasons that being a woman who earns more can be a very isolated and heart-breaking experience. For these reasons, couples often struggle, and can find can find communication and conflict resolution skills deficient, if not non-existent.
Frequently, your earning more money is the proverbial elephant in the room.
Far too often, silence, miscommunications, awkwardness and hurt feelings surrounding this role-reversal negatively impacts their relationship and/or family. Even worse, because much of society still tends to judge a man who earns less as a slacker, a gold digger, or an opportunist, the couple often fails to seek critical help to avoid condemnation from outsiders. Not to mention, the sense of betraying the man who earns less.
Female breadwinners here are a few telltale signs that your relationship may be at risk of becoming emotionally bankrupt.
- Your relationship feels competitive. More often than you are comfortable with, you may feel an air of jealousy, or notice frequent displays of pettiness, envy or even aggression on the part of your mate. If so, you may be dealing with a man who is having a hard time adjusting to being with a woman who earns more. In contrast, he may feel that you don’t respect him, or somehow look down on him.
- One or both of you have lost your sense of authenticity – with each other and/or yourself. Perhaps it’s gotten to the point where you feel like you just can’t be you around your mate. For example, you may find yourself hiding your job promotions or other accomplishments, or “dummying down” to make him feel smarter and more in charge. Alternatively, you may be acting more submissive because traditionally wives are second-in-command. Letting the man take the lead as the head of household may seem like a way to even the playing field. Conversely, you may notice that your man seems to be losing his mojo or sense of self-worth because he isn’t measuring up on traditional measures of success. I caution both of you against losing yourself in the process of trying to please or accommodate each other.
- You suffer in silence. Some of the most consistent feedback I hear from women who earn more is that they have a real catch-22 on their hands. They are damned if they don’t discuss the tension stemming from their higher income and success, and damned if they do. They may feel as if disclosing this secret to someone outside of the marriage constitutes betrayal. This challenge frequently intensifies feelings of isolation, when actuality 40-60% of their counterparts may be sharing a similar experience. Also, women must realize that their partner may be suffering in silence, too.
- You’re not your best self when he’s around. Stress can arise from many sources in relationships where women earn more. For example, are there financial woes stemming from his inability to contribute at an acceptable level, leaving you to pay the lion’s share of bills? Perhaps making matters worse is an inequity in the household chores when you are both fatigued from working, but you are expected to now work the “2nd Shift” to do “women’s work” when you get home. (This phenomenon was popularized by the book, The Second Shift). Consequently, you may become short tempered, overwhelmed and feel unappreciated, while he may be feeling emasculated because he is being asked to take on chores that he finds humiliating. You both need to ask yourself if there are ways you might be unwittingly impacting each other’s comfort level when you are together.
- You’ve isolated yourself from friends and/or family. To minimize the tension caused by him feeling uncomfortable, you may forego participation in professional functions with your colleagues, outings with friends, and you may only rarely attend family events. For example, I once had a client that stopped appearing at her college alumni events because her spouse didn’t feel comfortable around her “uppity college friends.” Similarly, he may be going through a rough patch, and has isolated himself from friends and family because he feels like less of a man.
- Your romance, sex life, and intimate connection has significantly declined. Sometimes it can be difficult for both you and your partner to be in these non-traditional roles, and this awkwardness trickles over into your bedroom. Perhaps it is hard for you to be turned on by a man whom you give an allowance. On the other hand, maybe his attraction towards you has waned because he has come to see you as a mother figure because he must ask you for money, and senses your flagging confidence in his ability to provide. Accordingly, performing the stereotypical wife or husband role has become difficult or impossible for you both.
- You no longer feel your partner will “man up.” That is, you feel that if you don’t bring home the bacon, your family won’t eat. You may feel that he lacks either the know-how, drive, or ability to put your family’s needs on his shoulders. Perhaps, instead of trusting him as an equal partner or leader, you’ve come to believe that if you relinquish control of the wheel, your family will crash. It feels like relaxing or putting on cruise control is no longer a viable option for you. Additionally, you are struggling to find other ways that he adds value to you or your family that offset the income disparity. As a couple, you both may have to come to terms with the reality that some professions just pay more than others, and to have a successful partnership or marriage you will have to learn to leverage other strengths to rise above that reality.
If these telltale signs feel familiar to you, relax for a moment. Take a deep breath. Your relationship is not necessarily destined for emotional bankruptcy, although there is certainly room for improvement.
As a society, we are all on a steep learning curve when it comes to gender roles being blurred and redefined. Couples could benefit greatly from trying to lean more on each other, having candid, non-defensive conversations, and remaining open to getting professional help. No matter what challenges you face, know that It’s never too late to live your happily ever after. Divorce rates can drop as much as 30 percent with an appropriate intervention.