For many couples, the idea that the man should work while the woman stays home seems decidedly retro, if not financially impractical. Whether because of changing gender roles or economic necessity, dual-earner families are the norm these days, with only 20% of married couples sticking to a traditional “husband works, wife stays home” model. In fact, women are increasingly taking on the role of primary breadwinner in relationships. Today, women out-earn their husbands in 29% of marriages where both partners work and in 38% of marriages overall.
Yet men aren’t always relinquishing their breadwinner status with grace. Studies have shown that men in marriages where the woman earns more are more likely to cheat, need drugs for erectile dysfunction, and get divorced. Our ideas about how relationships aren’t changing quite as fast as our economic reality, it seems.
The more traditional a man’s ideas about marriage and family, the more likely it is that he’ll be uncomfortable if his wife earns more than he does, according to a study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family. But even guys who are more egalitarian-minded in theory may get uncomfortable when confronted with the reality of being out-earned by their wife.
“When the woman earns more, we can’t assume in our culture it’s a nonevent. We’re a long way off from a world where it doesn’t affect the relationship,” Ken Neumann, a psychologist and divorce mediator, told New York magazine.
Here are five ways having a wife who earns more than you can affect your relationship.
1. You may both be unhappy
Upending conventional gender roles when it comes to earnings often puts strain on a marriage. Couples in marriages where the woman earns more are less likely to say they’re “very happy” in the relationship, a University of Chicago Booth School of Business study found. Being forced into the breadwinner role made it more likely for a woman to say she was unhappy with everything from how chores were divided to the support she got from her spouse compared those who chose to be the primary earner, a Working Mother survey found.
“If there’s one person who feels their paycheck defines their self-worth, that can be a tough thing to get over,” Farnoosh Torabi, author of When She Makes More, told the New York Post. “On her end, it could be feeling resentful that she’s taking on so much. Or him feeling ‘less than,’ because of not being able to provide financially — which, for men, has always been what they were expected to do.”
The more attached a guy is to traditional gender roles, the greater the chances he’ll be unhappy if his wife earns more. A small study of 47 men published in the journal Sex Roles found that those men who felt the need to control their emotions and reject femininity were more likely to be bothered by an income gap.
2. Your performance in the bedroom might suffer
Men who earn less than their wives were 10% more likely to use erectile dysfunction drugs, a study conducted by researchers in Denmark found. Even small differences in income made a difference – earning just $500 less per year than his wife was enough to increase the chances that a man would be reaching for the Viagra. They were also more likely to take drugs for anxiety and depression.
A man who went into a marriage expecting to earn less than his wife was less likely to need extra help in the bedroom, though. “Men who knowingly married a female [primary] breadwinner appear to suffer no costs from being out-earned,” noted the researchers.
3. You’re more likely to cheat
If your wife brings home all the bacon, you’re more likely to cheat, research published in the American Sociological Review found. There’s about a 15% chance that a man who is economically dependent on his wife will cheat, the study found. A wife who is financially dependent on her husband, in contrast, has a 5% chance of cheating.
Cheating, economically dependent men may feel that their masculinity is threatened, the study’s author, Christin Munsch, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut, told CNN. Engaging in an affair might be a way for them to reassert their manhood.
4. You’re less likely to help out around the house
You’d think that men who don’t contribute as much financially to a household might make up the slack in other ways, perhaps by taking care of the kids or handling more of the household chores. But that’s generally not the case.
Women in general do more housework than men, and that doesn’t seem to change even when she’s also the primary breadwinner. In fact, women who out-earn their husbands take on an even greater proportion of household chores, the University of Chicago study found. A woman who’s already worried that her bigger paycheck wounds her husband’s pride might not want to pressure him to take on stereotypically female tasks, like laundry and cooking.
“In couples where the wife earns more than the husband, the ‘threatening’ wife takes on a greater share of housework so as to assuage the ‘threatened’ husband’s unease with the situation,” theorized the researchers.
5. You’re more likely to get divorced
The unequal division of labor mentioned above, along with infidelity and men’s feelings of inadequacy over not being the primary provider all seem to add up to one thing: A greater chance of divorce. The likelihood of divorce increases by 50% in marriages where the wife out-earns her husband, the U of C researchers found. The divorce rate among all people studied was 12%, but rose to 18% for those marriages where the woman earned more than the man.
“We find that the couples where the wife earns more than the husband report being less happy, report greater strife in their marriage, and are ultimately more likely to get a divorce,” wrote the study’s authors.
Follow Megan on Twitter @MeganE_CS