Breadwinner Disparity in Couples

What's all the fighting about?

Posted Mar 12, 2020

It has long been said that the breadwinner—the sole or primary income earner in the family—holds the power in the relationship. And for the longest time, males were the breadwinners. According to data from the Pew Research Center, females now make up approximately 47 percent of the workforce in the United States, which is up from 30 percent in 1950. And a growing number of females in heterosexual couples are the breadwinners in their families, comprising 31 percent (Geiger & Parker, 2018).

Females still, however, lag behind males in pay. On average, full-time female workers are paid only 82 cents for every dollar earned by males, a wage gap of 18 percent. In middle-skill occupations, females earn only 66 percent what their male counterparts do (Institute for Women's Policy Research, 2018). As recently as 2018, females were found to have a median weekly income of $789 compared to male's $973. Black and Hispanic females average $654 and $617, respectively (Hegewisch & Hartmann, 2019).

In her study, "Relative Income, Psychological Well-Being, and Health: Is Breadwinning Hazardous or Protective?" Munsch (2016) found that as males take on more financial responsibility in marriage, their mental and physical health declines. Syrda (2019) noted that male stress levels rise if their female counterparts earn more than 40 percent of the household income. But the author also claimed that males prefer to be the breadwinners, in part, to preserve their masculine ideal. This is especially true of older males who came of age in the 1950s (Springer, Lee, & Carr, 2017).

Tinsely (2015) found that despite gains made by females, Americans across gender and race still favor males as breadwinners. Many millennial women are said to be in conflict about the issue, experiencing shame and guilt when they outearn their male partners (Ford, 2017). And although same-sex couples are said to be more egalitarian and hold fewer preconceptions about the breadwinner role (Clark, Burgoyne, & Burns, 2005; Green, 2014), Howard (2016) claimed that gay men are subjected to a similar masculine ideal, which may breed intense competition to achieve breadwinner status.

Gender equality in the workplace has grown, but masculine and feminine ideals live, and couples still fight over money. We must be careful, however, not to simplify the concept of financial disparity and always take it at face value. These fights are not always about power struggles or failing to follow the norms of society. I agree that many fights over finances can be attributed to breadwinner disparity. But most of the couples I have treated with disparate earnings were using financial imbalance as a deflection to avoid dealing with an issue much deeper and more threatening to their relationships.

For example, Tom's wife was clearly the breadwinner in the family. Tom worked as a part-time director in children's theater, never earning more than $10,000 a year. His wife Peggy, an attorney in a large firm, consistently earned a high six-figure salary. Tom insisted Peggy attend sessions with him because he was unhappy with the amount of sex Peggy was having with him. He insisted that his wife was "asexual," even though the couple averaged sex twice a week. Peggy was busy with her career and oftentimes tired, but there was no indication of low libido or asexuality.

Tom and Peggy insisted they did not have a problem with their disparate incomes. But Tom eventually admitted that he was disappointed with his lack of success. Tom did not, however, suffer from underlying low self-esteem or self-worth—these were only symptoms. His deeper issue was conflict around hard work.

Tom's father, a podiatrist, died in his early 50s, and Tom always felt that if he worked too hard, he too would die young. Once Tom confronted and processed this trauma and his post-traumatic anxiety about death, he was able to put effort into building his career. The result: his demand for an exaggerated amount of sex dissipated, and he settled into a comfortable place in his marriage. Peggy continued to outearn him, but Tom was fine with that.

Breadwinner disparity is a complex issue, and many variables must be considered when approaching this subject. There is a meaningful difference, for example, between a partner who refuses to contribute to the household income and a partner who works hard in a career that is not lucrative enough to earn the breadwinner role. Most breadwinners would respond differently in each of these circumstances. It would, therefore, be wise for researchers to consider psychodynamic as well as systemic variables, and for clinicians to evaluate every couple on a case-by-case basis. Sociological and behavioral explanations alone might miss the mark. 

References

Clark, V., Burgoyne, C., & Burns, M. (2005). Comparing lesbian and gay, and heterosexual relationships: For love or money. The Psychologist, 18, 356-358.   

Ford, A. (2017, May). Millennial women are conflicted about being breadwinners. Retrieved from Rfinery29: https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/2017/04/148/miout-earning-boyfriends-and-husbands.html

Geiger, A.W., & Parker, K. (2018, March). For women’s history month, a look at gender gains-and gaps- in the U.S. Retrieved from Pew Research Center website: http:/www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/03/15/for-womens-history-month-a-look-

Green, R.-J. (2014, December 29). Interview by Lourdes Garcia-Navarro [NPR Recording]. Same-sex couples may have more egalitarian relationships, Alliant International University, San Diego, CA.

Hegewisch, A., & Hartmann, H. (2019). The gender wage gap: 2018 earnings differences by race and ethnicity. Retrieved from Institute for Women’s Policy Research: https://iwpr.org/publications/gender-wage-gap-2018/

Howard, K. (2016). Gay men’s relationships: 10 ways they differ from straight relationships. Retrieved from https:/www.huffpost.com/entry/gay-mens-relationships-ten-ways-they-differ-from_b_57950dd0e4b0b3e2427c9022

Institute for Women’s Policy and Research (2018). Employment, education & economic change. Pay equity and discrimination. Retrieved from https://iwpr.org/issue/employment-education-economic-change/pay-equity-discrimination/

Munsch, C. (2016, August). Relative Income, Psychological Well-Being, and Health: Is Breadwinning Hazardous or Protective? Paper presented at the 111th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association. Seattle, Washington.

Springer, K., Lee, C., & Carr, D. (2017). Spousal breadwinning across 30 years of marriage and husbands’ health: A gendered life course stress approach. Journal of Aging and Health, 0, 1-30. doi: 10.1177/0898264317721824.

Syrda, J. (2019, October). Spousal relative income and male psychological distress. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. doi: 10.1177/0146167219883611.

Tinsley, C. (2015, March). Primary breadwinners should be men, majority of Americans say. Retrieved from Georgetown University website: http:/www.georgetown.edu/news/should-be-men-majority-of-americans-say/