When Wives Earn More than Their Husbands: The Impact on Marriage

Health Writer

Women make up almost one-half of the United States workforce. And even though they still struggle with issues such as equal pay and discrimination, a recent study showed that women are the leading breadwinners in 40 percent of households.

According to a study completed by Pew Research Center, this number reflects the high number of single mothers who are the sole breadwinners for their households. But women are also the leading breadwinners in approximately one-fourth of homes with two parents. This is a drastic increase since 1960 when only 4 percent of women made more than their husbands. [1]

This rise in women's incomes is a result of a number of factors. According to an article in The Week, women are graduating from college in larger numbers than men. Women also don't take years off to raise a family as they did in the past, giving them more time to develop their careers. And, in the past decade, men have been hit much harder by the recession, leaving women to bring home the bacon.

The Impact on Marriage

And while this is good news for women's rights, it may not be so good for marriages according to a number of recent studies.

For many men and women, the traditional idea that men should be the breadwinners is comfortable. When the roles reverse, it could make men feel inadequate and less masculine. W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project told The Daily Beast, "We haven't come to terms with the fat we're facing a whole new social moment, in which women are doing better than men are. We need to encourage men to find other outlets for masculinity." [2]

According to studies men whose wives make more money and work more are less happy. The National Marriage Project found that men are 61 percent less likely to say they are "very happy" in their marriage if they work less hours than their wives. But it isn't just the men who are unhappy. A report completed by Marianne Bertrand, Emir Kamenica and Jessica Pan found that both partners reported less marital satisfaction when the wife earned more money than the husband and that the divorce rate increased within these marriages.

Other research has shown that men who make significantly less money than their wives are more likely to cheat, and for those who are unemployed the chance of cheating goes up. This may be a way of compensating for "feelings of inadequacy." Cheating may make them feel more powerful and more masculine, giving their egos a boost.

Men's health may also suffer when their wives make more money. A study completed at Washington University showed that men who lose their role as primary wage earner suffer from erectile dysfunction and other sexual problems, insomnia and anxiety.

The Future

This trend probably is going to continue and more and more couples are going to need to deal with the changing dynamics. Not all men have difficulty with the concept or reality of their wives making more money. In those households, the men are comfortable with who they are, enjoy their jobs (whether inside or outside the home) and understand that marriage is a partnership and each person brings strengths to the union. For these couples, the amount of money each earns is secondary to the relationship to one another.

Marriages are partnerships and those that are treated as such "get the highest marks for quality and the couples in which the man helps out with chores and child-rearing have better sex lives." [3] We know it shouldn't matter who makes the most money, we know that what matters is that the bills are paid and there is money left over to enjoy life. But it seems it still does matter.


"For Richer of Poorer? When Wives Make More, Some Men's Health Suffers," 2013, May 28, Bill Briggs, NBCNews

"Gender Identity and Relative Income Within Households," 2013, May, Marianne Bertrand, Emir Kamenica and Jessica Pan, The University of Chicago: Booth School of Business

"Guys More Likely to Cheat on High-earning Women," 2010, Aug 16., Brian Alexander, NBCNews.com

"Online Guide to Women in the Workforce: Past and Present," 2013, Staff Writer, MBA Online

[1] "Pew Study Shows Women Leading Breadwinners in 40 Percent of Households," 2013, May 29, CNBC

[2] "The Power Mom Backlash," 2010, Dec. 5, Danielle Friedman, The Daily Beast