Women are the primary breadwinners in 38 percent of all heterosexual marriages, according to 2009 figures with the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Within couples that have both a man and a woman making money, women earn more than their husbands in 29 percent.
Those numbers have steadily risen over the years, but so have the number of marriages that end in divorce. And studies have shown the two could be related – with a very simple catch.
A study in the Harvard Business Review published Tuesday showed that women who earn more than their husbands commonly suffer from “status leakage,” a term for people believing their own status is elevated if they affiliate with others of high status or that their status is lowered if they affiliate with others of lower status.
“Bringing this closer to home, when wives believe that the statuses they worked so hard to achieve at work are at risk because of their husbands’ lower job status, they could experience a different kind of status spillover, which would include feeling embarrassed by or resentful of their spouses’ lower job status, and fearing that their status could be compromised by that of their husbands,” the study explains.
That had a negative impact on the woman’s marital satisfaction, which in turn also affected the husband’s satisfaction. But there was an easy remedy that kept those feelings of status leakage at bay: husbands helping at home. If husbands helped take care of children or clean up around the house, higher-earning wives did not feel the same marriage instability. But it had to be tangible support – emotional support alone didn’t cut it.
“We suspect that providing this type of tangible support not only allows wives to focus on their careers, but also denotes respect,” the authors wrote.
The logic of this, if not immediately obvious, is consistent with past findings. A study by the University of Chicago also found that when women were the primary breadwinners, chances that the couple said they were in a “happy marriage” fell 6 percentage points. The study also looked at housework – American women report spending 44 minutes more on housework every day than men do, on average – and found women who earn more money also tend to do more housework.
“This suggests that a ‘threatening’ wife takes on a greater share of housework so as to assuage the husband’s unease with the situation,” that study’s authors speculated.
Other studies have found a man is more likely to cheat on his partner and women are more likely to use anti-anxiety medication and suffer from insomnia if the woman earns more.
The Harvard Business Review study offers a simple solution: If married couples see themselves more as partners in both income and housework – not limiting themselves to society’s constructed gender roles – it eases marriage anxiety and makes for happier relationships.
“Successful, high status women are in a position today to make life and relationship choices less constrained by fear of financial repercussions and more as equal partners in a mutual relationship,” the authors wrote. “Thinking of our findings this way would be consistent with viewing and valuing women as equal members in marriage, work, and society at large.”