Bring home the bacon AND fry it up?

Marriages forge new ground in roles and responsibilities.

Posted Aug 24, 2010

Earlier this year, the Pew Research Center released a report on the "New Economics of Marriage" which it called "The Rise of Wives." Based on census data, the Pew found that in nearly a third of heterosexual marriages, the wife is better educated than her husband and although men, overall, still earn more than women, wives are now the primary breadwinner in 22 percent of couples (up from only 7 percent in 1970). This has been a significant shift to have occurred in a mere 30 years and as individuals and a society we are still scrambling to catch up.

The reasons for the dramatic increase in women out-earning their male partners are varied. Many more women are graduating from college and pursuing higher education, making them eligible for higher-paying jobs. While dollar for dollar women still earn less pay, the pay gap has been shrinking. Also the current economic crisis has contributed: it is estimated that men are loosing 3 out of every 4 jobs lost. In other words, some couples are choosing this lifestyle, others are forced into it.

There are obvious advantages to the shift in women's education and earnings. Women are enjoying new levels of education and career satisfaction. (Currently, more women in their 20's have college degrees than men!). Ostensibly women enjoy more equality and power in a relationship where they are not dependent on a man for their financial well-being. Women and men can select their mates based on more complex and satisfying reasons beyond economics and housekeeping. Additionally, there have been gains for men. It used to be that women gained economically when they married, but recently economic gains associated with marriage are much greater for men than woman. Also, men are more freed up to pursue dreams where they may earn less or a greater role in parenting and involvement in the home.

That said, the shift has not been always easy and is not yet complete. Studies indicate that in spite of the changes in women's earning potential and role as breadwinner, men have struggled with issues related to their pride as well as social pressure and pressure from family when their wife is the breadwinner, often feeling emasculated or low self esteem. (Some research has indicated that among men in their 50's having a wife who earns more money is associated with poorer health.) And while women may be taking on the role as breadwinner which may include working full time, both men and women are having a difficult time transitioning from seeing the woman as still the primary one responsible for household chores and childrearing, thus doubling her duties rather than shifting them (although more men then ever before are participating in household chores and childrearing.. but it is still less than half).

Some of this difficulty in shifting roles is due to lack of role models and examples for couples of how it should be done. Some of it is due to internalized sexism and falling into roles women and men grew up with. Some of it is due to shame men may carry from not fulfilling duties they may believe they should fill, which keeps them from responding to the reality they live in. Some of it is due to genuine desire on the part of women to still be deeply involved in parenting and caregiving, or difficulty giving up on things being done in the way she wants them to be (control). Additionally, it is also difficult for some women to fully give up on the idea that the roles will eventually switch and they will have a chance to be taken care of; this can be seen mirrored in the way that very often even when a woman is the primary breadwinner, the financial responsibility and decisions are often still made by the man. Finally, government and business been slow to shift their policies to reflect the changing landscape, and so parental leave, flexible hours, job-sharing and other issues necessary for the working woman/working mother are often not in place.

All of this creates stress in a marriage and the need for some conscious dialogue and constant negotiation as couples forge these new waters. Ultimately, the outlook is good: research indicates that couples where women earn more outside the home and men take on more housework have lower divorce rates and happier unions. But getting to that happier union - and staying there - is not always easy or pleasant. Some have begun to write articles and books about it, offering advice to couples, such as encouraging female breadwinners to take more of an active role in the family's financials, shed their fantasies about being taken care of, and ask for what they need in regards to emotional or logistical help. Couples are encouraged to clarify roles and expectations, reassure each other of the value they add, and try to maintain and accurate and fair division of labor. They are also encouraged to re-assess goals, both short and long-term, and to keep the discussions clear and discrete rather than a running catalogue of complaints and resentments.

To be sure, the above suggestions are likely to be helpful. But the bottom line is this: individuals, couples, and our society are forging new ground for both genders, both in the home and in the workforce. And as more gay couples have families the conversations, shifts, and dialogue will be enriched and complicated even further. It behooves us to keep talking about it - with our partners and with each other - so that we can negotiate these new waters in a way that works the best it can... for us all.

Photo by Kiyoshi Ota/Getty Images