Battle of the Bucks

When women bring home the bacon, there's huge stress on the relationship. Family dynamics may take a turn for the worse over injured identities and gender-role expectations

By Christy Casamassima, published on March 1, 1995 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

One in four women now earns more than her husband. And that's subverting relationships for reasons couples often openly disdain. It all comes down to irrational expectations about the exercise of power in the relationship.

Although Ozzie and Harriet have long since died as icons of our intimate arrangements, the notion that they symbolized that its a husband's duty to bring home the bacon -- lives on, quite subversively, deep inside our heads. Typically, it resides there outside of awareness, having been absorbed from the culture before we ever gave much thought to gender roles -- although it shapes our individual identities as men and women.

So when she brings home the bacon, family dynamics may take a turn for the worse over injured identities and gender-role expectations in all their stunning irrationality. At the very least, the effort to replace economics with a new glue for the relationship can take what feels like endless negotiation. In extreme cases, couples may end up sacrificing their relationship to attitudes both partners openly condemn.

In the traditional order of things, money brought with it the authority -- recognized by both partners -- of he who had it to exercise power. In the changing order of things, everything symbolized by money -- value, status, power, and the potential for independence -- becomes a hidden issue in the household when money switches gender.

This is not a matter quietly swept under the cultural rug much longer. Seven million American women earned more than their mates in 1993, up from five million in 1987. Last year, a very substantial 22.3 percent of all working wives outearned their husbands -- an achievement all the more remarkable since women overall make about 70 cents to the male dollar.

The uppermost echelon of women in corporate America have seen their salaries double over the past 10 years, to an average of $187,000, according to a 1993 study. Yet only 69 percent of the female movers and shakers at major U.S. corporations are married, versus 91 percent of males. Sure, getting to the top requires a sacrifice of time that might otherwise be spent cultivating intimate relationships; what's not clear is how much of the marriage gap reflects relationship difficulties high-earning women face just because of their salaries.

Among those who marry, female executives now pull in 66 percent of their household income. But all families increasingly rely on the woman's paycheck to keep the household humming. Layoffs, the high cost of living, medical expenses, falling male wages, the desire for a better lifestyle, and assorted other economic factors have made dual-income families a reality for 59 percent of married couples in the United States.

Working women report that their ability to bring home a paycheck increases feelings of power, improves self-esteem, and gives them fulfillment and independence. But they also sense that society as a whole has yet to embrace female earning power as a positive. They point to the largely negative media treatment of Hillary Rodham Clinton, Zoe Baird, and other women whose high earnings have been well publicized.


"There is a cultural stereotype that a powerful woman is less feminine, desirable, and attractive than one who isn't," says Cloe Madanes, marriage therapist, and author of The Secret Meaning of Money: How It Binds Together Families in Love, Envy, Compassion or Anger (Jossey Bass, 1994). "While a successful male is lauded for his achievements, the successful woman fears losing the love of her spouse, of her children, and of her parents if she appears too financially strong. Heaven forbid she earn more than her husband -- or worse, her father."

"The societal norm still says there is something wrong with a man if a woman is making more money," says psychologist Dorothy Cantor, Psy. D., coauthor of Women and Power: The Secrets of Leadership (Houghton Mifflin, 1992). "But as more couples earn equal pay, the gap will begin to dose, and such notions will begin to fall off."


Part of the problem lies with men. Working women have reconstructed the definition of womanhood, says Ronald Levant, Ed.D., a marriage and family therapist in Belmont, Massachusetts, who also teaches at Harvard Medical School. But "men have been slower to respond to the change in women's roles, in part because it challenges the notions of male privilege and entitlement. Males aren't ready to give up their advantage in terms of earnings and social power." The idea of women having the upper hand in any way, he says, threatens traditional male identity.

"He feels less of a man -- even though he would rather not feel this way," adds Barry Dym, Ph.D., a family psychologist in Cambridge, Massachusetts, detailing the confusing calculus of cultural roles. "It violates the imagery we have of ourselves as providers."

The traditional measure of a man -- the model we're still working from -- is what he achieves in the world, which, when reduced to a common denominator, is how much he makes. "Money is so charged in American culture," says Dym. "It's our only reckoning of status. People are more willing to talk to me about their sex life than they are about their income."

When she earns more, he feels unimportant. And often anxious, sensing that the marriage itself is threatened, as though the old premise of the relationship no longer applies because she doesn't need the protection of his earning power. He now has to invent for himself a new platform on which to base the relationship.

It takes a very mature male -- in sense of self or in age, though they often go together -- to feel comfortable with a higher-earning spouse, reports Lori Gordon, Ph.D., a marriage and family therapist in Falls Church, Virginia, and founder of PAIRS, a pioneering course in relationships taught by specially trained therapists around the country. More typically, a man begins to compare himself to his wife. And that brings with it the tendency to "want to diminish the other. He sees his partner as 'the opponent.' He finds fault with her to feel better about himself."

This is a special danger for men who are still trying to "make it" in the world of work, because they're typically in a highly competitive mode. That's not to say there aren't younger men who are starting out with a completely different model of relationships. "But generally, men make comparisons in ways that women are not aware," says Gordon.

If a man is not secure enough, Cantor adds, he may act hostile -- without directly attributing his anger to his wife's earning power. "If he doesn't openly sabotage his wife's success through an affair or other assault, he may do it in more subtle ways, like refusing to do his share of housework or child care." The psychological backlash takes many guises when a man lacks an appropriate response to his spouse's success, such as offering congratulations or support.

Unfortunately, Levant explains, men "haven't been trained to share power. And they are confused about how to be supportive and accepting of women's new roles without jeopardizing masculinity and traditional ideals."


It's hard enough that a man's sense of self can be thrown into disarray when a wife outearns him. But the woman's identity may also be shaken. Women face not only confusion and resistance, if not rebellion, from their partners -- but a deep struggle within themselves.

"The female partner also is not pleased about earning more," reports Dym. "She's angry. She feels exploited. She's bitter. She feels he should be earning more. Of course, this is not at a rational level."

As a measure of the complexity of money issues, high-earning women may also harbor feelings of guilt. And if it doesn't arise within them, it's often thrust upon them by outsiders -- parents, friends, coworkers. It can take extraordinary psychological fortitude to withstand the conclusion that one is undermining all of society.

Women can come to feel they must atone for their accomplishments. Many assume a patently disproportionate share of domestic responsibilities, taking on what sociologist Arlie Hochschild calls a "second shift." Muses Cantor: "Here I am, a respected therapist who sits on the board of the American Psychological Association, and in the midst of this interview about just how far women have come, I'm switching the laundry."


The upheaval in male identity helps explain why financially successful women often go to great lengths to down-play their salaries. "It's an attempt to conform to the belief that women are born to be homemakers," says Cantor. "His sense of self has to come from something other than his relative position to his wife. He should ask, 'Why should my earning power be what defines me? Am I not valuable as a friend, citizen, partner?'"

Dym has too often seen couples caught in the battle of the bucks. "This speaks to very unstated issues of power, but money gives a partner power to make decisions, decisions about where to live, how to live, how money is spent. When the woman earns more, both partners are ambivalent about female power. They try to hide it. It is almost a shared secret, but it sneaks out. She can be relentless in her criticism. She's mad at him for not earning enough and she tries to make him better: 'You're not professional enough.' 'If you'd only dress this way...' He is furious, and he plays out his sense of loss of power by being resistant. They usually fight most about what she wants him to do. She feels abandoned. He withdraws. And she feels betrayed."

Of course, a high-earning partner has always been free to choose to share power. But it is not easy for even the best-intentioned of couples to escape the powerful field of gravity that cultural stereotypes still exert.

"To be at the edge of change is difficult," observes Elana Katz, M.S.W., a family therapist at New York's Ackerman Institute. "It takes at least three generations for cultural changes to become reflexive, intuitively familiar. As a result, there is dissonance between our automatic response and our thinking response, and it is most evident at times of stress."

Nonetheless, marital counselors report an evolution in men's attitudes toward female earning power over the past decade. "More and more, I'm hearing from men who want to marry a woman who is ambitious, strong, and independent," Madanes says. "Many have been through divorce and are tired of being cast in the role of provider. Once a man knows what it feels like to share the financial responsibilities, he's not likely to want to shoulder the burden on his own."

The philosophy that the male must be the dominant figure financially and in every other way dies harder in some ethnic groups more than others. "In the early Seventies," recalls Madanes, "I saw a lot of Italian-American men in my practice who thought that if their wives worked, it reflected on them as failures."


There are groups within our society -- namely African Americans -- and cultures outside it where gender roles are played very differently than they are in the idealized model. From these, all couples would do well to learn a great lesson: It is necessary to establish each partner's worth on a scale that does not equate money with license or power.

"Both partners are going to have to reframe each other's worth as individuals, not as wage earners," says Madanes. The key is for couples to view each partner's contribution to the relationship as valuable, whether it be child care or career -- regardless of the monetary value attached to it.

"There needs to be a shift in consciousness," emphasizes Gordon. "Money is not the measure of a person's worth. It's their value as a human being."

Otherwise, the marriage can become a hotbed of competition, as it did for Jenny and Bob Michael. Jenny is now 45 and runs her own management consulting firm in New Jersey. She and Bob began their careers as coworkers; but after they planned to marry, she decided to switch to another part of the company.

"Every job available was a higher-grade, officer-level position. Then I learned that my career was moving along fine while Bob's wasn't. I didn't want to bruise his ego, so I reasoned, 'If I can do it here, I can go anywhere; and said to Bob, 'Let's shop around for another location to start our family.'"

Then she was the first to get hired for a new job, which left Bob to assume "the wife's role" of selling the house and arranging the move. It took Bob, an aggressive M.B.A. graduate of Wharton, six months to land a position.

"It got to the point where I wasn't telling him about raises or any of the perks associated with my new job because I didn't want to make him feel bad," Jenny recalls. "But it got harder to hide; we had a joint bank account. When he noticed an increase on my pay stub, I'd act like it was no big deal, but each deposit was a reminder that I was doing better than he was.

"He never mentioned my promotions to his family or celebrated my raises. Now I see that was because he saw my success as a poor reflection on him, rather than a triumph for us as a couple."

Jenny was relieved when Bob was finally offered a post as a vice president at a major bank. "In his mind, he had reached some level of status. He played the VP role to the hilt -- including having an affair." Unfortunately, Jenny says, "image became more important to him than his marriage or his new baby on the way."

They separated. Then Bob sued for -- and won -- half of Jenny's pension and savings. He later remarried a lower-level professional with whom, Jenny says, he doesn't have to compete.

Looking back, Jenny sees that "a lot of the problems in my marriage had to do with what I had accomplished versus what Bob had. It finally dawned on me that he was in competition and that he wasn't winning."


That brings up lesson number two: see the marriage as common ground on which both partners have equal standing and play as a team. Whether it's household income or the tasks of home, relationship, or life-at-large -- which may be divvied up differently at different times, depending on interests and opportunities -- both partners should feel that they are contributing to a common pot in which they have an equal stake.

They have to look upon themselves as collaborators. "Unfortunately," says Elana Katz, "we know more about how to do complementary relationships, based on differences, than how to create symmetrical relationships. It usually involves a lot more negotiation. And negotiation is hard work -- a lot harder than staying resentful."

One of many ironies of modern relationship life, observes Katz, is that negotiation works only when there is some semblance of equality between the two partners. "But it is much harder to negotiate as equals."

One of the clearest decisions must be about sharing money: what's joint. Commonly, says Gordon, "when a man is the high earner, what's his becomes theirs. His resources are shared by the two of them. But then, when she becomes the high earner of the couple, what's hers remains hers and she doles out the money as he is forced to become dependent."

Finding and emphasizing common ground can, by itself, help the money issue move into the background, "though it will come up and bite a couple periodically," notes Dym. "A couple needs ground where they have common values and issues of power are not central. They may value children. They may like sex together -- the pleasures of which they can recover once they stop fighting."


Corollary strategy for making the outearning experience work is for both partners to openly discuss marital roles: It's essential for the two of them to develop the same vision of the partnership and to discuss problems as they arise. "If one partner is uncomfortable with the arrangements," says Cantor, "it's much better to talk about it rather than hold it in and build up resentment."

The trick is to set up a time when neither partner is stressed, upset, or tired. And then both must take a vow of honest communication and consciously expose and fight their own outdated stereotypes.

Kathleen Pritchard, 34, is a Manhattan-based corporate trainer for Essex Corporation, and her earning power helped her marriage get off to a healthy start. As a sales manager for a large financial company, she was earning $80,000 to her husband's $50,000.

He wasn't complaining. In fact, Jeff, a manager at GTE Airfone, joked that he had "married well." He says, "I was proud of her, and I thought it was great. We're a team, so the more money she brought in, the better our standard of living." It didn't hurt that both extended families were supportive. "I really didn't have to overcome any turmoil over Kathy's salary," Jeff says.

Though Kathleen's salary helped make possible a wedding, a house purchase, and a kitchen renovation, she didn't want money to become her main focus. "My value system was getting skewed to where I cared more about money than about happiness," she recalls.

When she decided to switch to a lesser-paying job she would enjoy more, Jeff offered encouragement. "Not because I was threatened by the idea of her making a killing," he says, "but because it's no fun to have a wife who is miserable in a 14-hour-a-day job."

Kathleen says: "Working is a large part of my identity, and I wouldn't want to give it up. Plus, I never expected a man to support me. I learned early that if I wanted something, I would have to go out and get it myself."

The Pritchards exemplify yet another principle: Couples who determine from the outset that the woman's career path is more likely to offer maximum benefits, money, or security, fare well better than those hit with an unexpected hardship, like a heart attack or layoff, that forces the woman into the role of the breadwinner.


A woman's higher-paying job is more readily accepted by her spouse if it enables him to pursue a career that offers prestige, artistic value, or a social contribution in lieu of financial rewards. Arnie Burr, 40, a professional musician in Chicago, says he could never have followed his dream of performing were it not for his wife's high-paying job at a multimedia corporation. "We both know that Susan's job allows me the freedom to work in an unpredictable and unprofitable field," Burr says. "I just hope she doesn't turn around one day and resent me in some way."

Peggy Goodfellow, 37, and husband, Pat, 32, epitomize the new approach -- a team attitude toward household income and gender roles. The spouse with the greatest earnings potential or benefits generally heads to the office, while the other partner manages the household. Gender doesn't factor into the equation.

When they married, Pat was still in law school; Peggy was a social worker in a hospital and had excellent medical insurance. When Peggy became pregnant with the first of their three sons, the couple decided that she would keep her job and that Pat, who hadn't found a job in the law profession, would stay at home.

"People thought it was odd at first," Peggy says. "They kept asking, 'When is Pat going to get a job?' It was a touchy subject for Pat, but we let people know that we believed it was a very good thing to have one of us with the kids, as opposed to bringing in an outside caregiver, and that person happened to be Pat."

Initially, she adds, "Pat had a hard time thinking of it as our money. He felt funny not having 'money of his own.' But over time, he's come to view his work with the kids as a valuable contribution, and the money issue just worked itself out."


Not that it always does. Marital experts see a causal link, under certain conditions, between a wife's income and the couple's sexual performance. If a husband feels secure about himself, his wife's achievements can only add to a fulfilling relationship both inside and outside of the bedroom. But if either partner uses money as a power tool, they're in for trouble.

"A man may feel castrated if he's not in the traditional male provider's role," Madanes says. "Similarly, a woman may not feel as attracted to her mate if he's not as successful as she is."

Some men are likely to experience problems, Levant adds, because "men are limited in their emotional responses to anger and lust. They don't know how to express themselves when they feel confused or demoralized by changing roles."

The Massachusetts psychologist reports that these days, "I see in my practice an increase in the number of men who are reporting impotence and loss of sexual desire because they don't know how to behave anymore."

So when more money begins adding up to less love, what's a couple to do? The single most important advice, experts conclude, is to borrow a trick from therapists. "In therapy, we reframe a person's worth," stresses Madanes. "Our job is to help partners see each other's worth as a people, not for what they make."