Do Female Breadwinners Need Special Relationship Rules?


Woman's hand opening a wallet

According to Pew Research, the number of men whose wives outearn them is in the rise.

A nice car, expensive dinners, owning a home—back in 1996, these were just a few of the expenses that led Alisa Bowman to assume her now-husband earned more than she did.

It wasn’t until the couple moved in together that Bowman found out she was making substantially more money than he was. What started as a few thousand dollars in income disparity then has now turned into her making quadruple what he earns through his business of owning a bike shop.

It was a period when her husband was unemployed for more than a year that really shaped their financial relationship. “During that time I became the chief financial officer of the household,” says Bowman, who is a writer and author of Project: Happily Ever After. While it wasn’t a title she wanted to take on, “It’s definitely not one he wants, either.”

And Bowman’s not alone.

Now more than ever, studies show women are the breadwinners in their marriages and romantic relationships . According to Pew Research, between 1970 and 2007, the number of men whose wives out-earn them increased from 4 percent to 22 percent. And, as we all know, the subject of money — who handles it and, especially, who makes more of it—can be a minefield for a couple.

While some women (and men) are totally comfortable with dual, non-matching incomes, there’s also proof in the celebrity world that men are more likely to cheat on women who make more than they do (Jesse James and Sandra Bullock’s messy situation could be a prime example).

When Beverly Hills licensed marriage and family therapist Alisa Ruby Bash sees couples in her office presenting this discrepancy as a problem in their relationship, it runs the gamut. “Is this an extreme case of one person working and one person sitting at home watching TV?” she says, “Or are both people on their career paths, and the discrepancy between their two salaries is minimal?”

Women who make more than men: According to Pew Research, in 2007, 22% of women outearned their husbands, as compared to 4% in 1970. While each relationship is unique, why or how you handle the money issue may be based on more than just who brings home the turkey bacon. Here’s how to negotiate a salary disparity with the one you love.

Accept That Financial Opposites Attract

Part of the reason why your money-savvy self may love a guy who throws financial caution to the wind could be science, says money management expert Manisha Thakor, founder of the Women’s Financial Literacy Initiative.

“Often, savers and spenders become attracted to each other,” she says. “Academics have surmised it’s because there is something financially intoxicating about ‘financial otherness’ that draws couples to each other to begin with.” But after the initial attraction to that novelty wears off, financial tensions start to build. Thakor says that much of the tension she sees in couples where the female makes more has to do with this saver/spender dichotomy as opposed to who is the bigger breadwinner.

In Bowman’s case, her husband follows the budget she determines with little say or interest in money management. “This, I feel, gives me too much power in some respects,” Bowman says. “It forces me into an authoritarian role that I’m not particularly comfortable in. It also stresses me out because it’s my salary that pays the essential bills most of the time.” Bowman worries about the mortgage and other major payments; her husband doesn’t.

Consider His Upbringing

While dollars and cents are certainly an important aspect of any relationship, Alisa Ruby Bash says that, in her estimation, certain types of men are more comfortable being with females who make more than they do. A few of these types include men who are more creative, paid sporadically, starting a new business, or have grown up with a strong female role model which could include being raised by a single mother or a mother who was the breadwinner.

The other end of the spectrum would include men who were spoiled and raised to feel entitled or, in certain extreme cases, “trophy men,” who enjoy being taken care of at your expense. In Bash’s findings, men less likely to be accepting of a woman’s dominant financial role tend to be more traditional or have been raised in more traditional cultures.

An accountant at a private equity firm in New York City, Melissa says her man’s laid-back, go-with-the-flow personality is a boon to dealing with this situation in their own relationship. However, there is some stress for her when it comes to figuring out who will pay for what travel expenses, which fuels the couple’s long-distance relationship. “I make more money, and flights between our two cities can get kind of expensive,” she says, “but he has a more flexible travel schedule. I’ve offered to split travel costs, but so far he’s taken care of it himself. He also makes a point of paying for everything when we are together.”

Not surprisingly, women who were accustomed to a different role model growing up tend to have a more difficult time accepting this financial scenario. “We internalize expectations and ideas we have for our partners,” says Bash. “If a woman with a successful, hardworking father falls for a less ambitious guy who is not sure what he wants to do with his life, eventually something will feel wrong, no matter how much she loves him. Often, this point of contention, which can be so deep or even subconscious, will haunt the couple throughout their relationship.”

Examine Your Attitude Toward Money

Ultimately, it all comes down to attitude. “If the woman feels resentful or judgmental, it will eventually come out,” says Bash. If this is a hot topic for you, discuss finances during the beginning months of your relationship.

Many women have high expectations, especially when it comes to men and money. A go-getter who falls for a guy who’s not quite as go-getting can cause a lot of frustration and resentment. In order to bridge the financial gap, Thakor has increasingly seen female breadwinners sitting down with their partners as equals, “dividing financial tasks based on each person’s interests, time availability, and skill levels.” If the woman is the breadwinner, maybe her man will take care of family responsibilities and social activities, grocery shopping, making meals, paying bills and taking on other household chores. Whatever the breakdown of responsibility, both parties have to feel that they have an equal share for the relationship to flourish.

Over the course of her marriage, Bowman has felt a “combination of powerful and stressed out. I like that I’m successful, but there are times that I fantasize about taking a year off from work.” As Thakor suggests, Bowman includes her husband in as many decisions as possible, giving him domains where he’s in charge. “He needed to be the boss somewhere in the house, so he’s the boss of the laundry.”

Bottom line, says Thakor, “When it comes to financial tension in a household, increasingly I’m seeing it driven more by each person’s emotional relationship to money as opposed to gender.”

Decide How to Divide and Conquer

As the saying goes, time is money. And when the woman in the household is the primary breadwinner, this can be the biggest issue a salary disparity creates.

You’ll need to decide together how to tackle tasks in a way that satisfies you both, explains Thakor, making sure domestic tasks are fairly divided and, when appropriate, outsourcing or paring back. If you work an 80-hour week while your partner works a more standard 40 hours or not at all, a 50/50 split of household tasks may not leave enough hours in the day for you to maintain a functioning household, let alone your sanity. “The notion of what is a fair and equitable distribution of non-financial tasks really comes into play here,” she emphasizes.

Factor in the Job Market
Many of us —men in particular—have experienced being laid off in the course of this recession. If a woman is still working while her partner is not, she may start to feel resentful, say the experts, especially if she feels he’s not trying hard enough to look for new work.

“She’s working, juggling kids and household chores, and if her partner isn’t stepping up to either relieve some of the household burden or find a new source of income,” says Thakor, “that’s when I’m seeing the financial firecrackers.”

Bear in mind: It’s the effort and attitude of both parties, more than the actual dollar amounts, that Thakor sees as what causes the most friction in couples. But if you can carve out roles within a relationship that you’re both comfortable with, that can help pave over subtle differences in salary.

“I sometimes find myself feeling envious of women who are married to husbands who earn more, have a job with health insurance, or have a steady income,” confesses Bowman. “That said, I’ve gotten used to our roles over the years, and I think I might have a hard time adjusting to a different role if it came down to it. I’ve grown into CFO of the family. It wasn’t easy, but now I’m used to it and it would be a huge adjustment to get used to a different financial relationship.”

From Your Tango.com

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