When a Wife Makes More Than a Husband

Do men make more money than women? Usually. But that income gap is closing, which is causing a slew of problems for men and women who are used to being in traditional relationships. So is a marriage destined for divorce when the wife makes more money than the husband? Thankfully, not. But it can take some adjustments.

When Eric Leonard and Ellen Peterson of West Palm Beach, Fla., married a decade ago, Eric had the larger salary, which neither thought unusual.

Today, the income gap between them is much greater -- but now, like one in five working wives, it's Ellen's paycheck that's larger. When her professional services firm grew faster than her husband's financial company, the couple had to adjust to an unexpected role reversal.

"He was testy about it at first," she said, describing a year or two of stepping gingerly around the subject. "There still is a stigma because it's usually the man giving the woman a sense of security."

"She called me a caveman for the first couple of years," Eric said.

"To break tradition turns everything upside down," said Ellen, whose salary pays for the couple's vacations and second-home expenses. "At one point I even said, 'I'm starting to feel like an ATM.' " Ultimately, after agreeing that money doesn't equal power, and that love is far more valuable than both, the couple settled into a new model of marriage, in which nearly 26 percent of wives out-earn their husbands. That's up from less than 18 percent in 1987, according to a Pew Research study released last month.

"Roles have changed. Nothing is like it was 20 or even 10 years ago. If you can't evolve and change, you get left behind," said Eric. (Names have been changed because the couple requested anonymity.) As women increasingly earn college degrees in higher numbers than men, at some point "you would expect in about 50 percent of marriages the women would earn more than the man," said David Denslow, an economics professor at the University of Florida. The economic crisis has accelerated this trend, as roughly 75 percent of the 7 million jobs lost in the "mancession" belonged to men, whose jobless rate in January was 10 percent compared with 7.9 percent for women, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, the majority of women still earn just 77 cents for every dollar a man makes. "Most people are thinking, 'Thank goodness we have jobs,' " said Carol Fishbein, a Palm Beach Gardens psychologist, "but at a deeper level, I think women still have a need to be provided for and men still want to be that provider." So it's no surprise that life as an alpha wife requires an adjustment -- and a sense of humor. After establishing clear domestic roles -- "He's a neat freak and I cook," said Ellen -- they now joke easily about their income disparity.
Not all couples weather the role reversal so easily. Those who do tend to have partnership marriages, say the experts, where both spouses have a similar work ethic and do an equal share of household tasks. "If they're a team, (the difference in income) doesn't matter that much to many couples," Fishbein said. While living in the Dominican Republic, Catherine Martinez and her husband, Jose, had nearly equal salaries. Since moving to Belle Glade, Catherine's salary as a teacher at Pahokee High School is higher than Jose's, who has a college degree but limited English skills. He works stocking shelves at Publix. "Money isn't an issue between us. The most important thing is how you spend it, not how you earn it," Catherine said. Strict gender roles are easing in other ways, too, as men are increasingly willing to roll up their sleeves at home -- doing the dishes, cleaning floors and getting dinner on the table. In fact, the percentage of men who do most or an equal share of cooking rose to 56 percent in 2008 from 34 percent in 1992, according to the Families and Work Institute. "It used to be that a man wanted a beautiful woman who cooks," Fishbein said, "but for men today, at the top of their list is a woman who works. For women, it's a turn-on to find a man who knows how to cook."
Sue Recchia of Greenacres, Fla., agrees whole-heartedly. As the office administrator for a law firm, Sue makes "about four times more" than her husband, Steve, a security guard. But Steve takes care of most domestic duties "because he likes order, and I hate housework." "He's my safe place, he's my haven. If I was married to someone as ambitious as me, there would be no safe place," Sue said. But when men refuse to share child care and household chores despite having slimmer paychecks than their wives, marriages often don't survive. Mark Maynor, a West Palm Beach divorce attorney, says the biggest complaint of his alpha wife clients is "they get tired of not only carrying the financial load but also taking care of kids and doing the housework without help from the husband." One indication of the rise in breadwinner wives, Maynor says, is the number being required to pay alimony. "I used to see one out of 100 or 200 cases, but today it's five or 10 times that," he said. While younger men have grown up expecting to play an equal role at home, the Families and Work Institute says, the biggest shift in attitudes about gender roles has been among older generations. "I never foresaw that I would be the breadwinner and he would be home but it works," said Susan Sternfeld of Palm Beach, whose husband, Ken, "has come a long way, baby" since he retired and she went back to work as a real estate agent. "It was like training a puppy," she said of her husband who "didn't even know how to turn the appliances on." Now, when he's not playing golf, her husband is cleaning or even ironing while Susan is at work. "He says he loves being a kept man," Susan said.
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