In recent years, the number of women who earn more than their husbands has been holding steady at about 30%. While this is certainly a positive development in terms of gender equality and financial independence, it can also bring unique challenges for couples to navigate – especially in a society where many people still consider men “earners” and expect women to excel in domestic responsibilities. In this article, I’ll examine some of the most common challenges that women breadwinners face when they out-earn their husbands, along with helpful tips to overcome them.
Women Breadwinners Challenge: Societal Expectations
Despite progress towards gender equality, there are still deeply ingrained societal expectations about gender roles and the division of labor within the home. This is evident from a new Pew Research study which showed that even when women earn as much or more than their husbands, they still contribute more at home. Some of this is likely left over from an upbringing where little girls overwhelmingly saw their mothers and other influential women in their lives cooking, cleaning, and child-rearing far more often than the men in their lives. However, I also think it’s due in part to the constant messaging we women receive encouraging us to “do it all” or “have it all.”
We think we should be able to earn six figures, keep an Instagram-worthy home, be primary caregivers to our children, mentor other women in the workplace, volunteer in our communities, and cook a three-course meal for our families every evening. Not only is it physically impossible for women to achieve all of these things simultaneously, but I believe these kinds of expectations can also lead to poor mental health. When you combine all of this damaging messaging with an unequal division of labor at home, it can lead to feelings of discomfort or even resentment from both partners, regardless of who is earning more.
Women Breadwinners Challenge: Role Reversals
Let’s dig a little further into all the complexities women breadwinners face when they out-earn their male partners. There’s significant societal pressure on women to succeed, as discussed above, but it can make for very challenging intimate relationships. Sure, some women meet their spouses when they’re already high earners, but what happens when a man previously earned more in the relationship and then his wife overtakes him? When the traditional “male breadwinner” role is reversed, it can be difficult for both partners to adjust. The husband may feel emasculated or less important, while the wife may feel pressure to take on even more household duties or parenting responsibilities to compensate for spending more time at work.
What should be a win-win situation for a household from a financial standpoint can easily devolve into what feels like a no-win for both spouses on an interpersonal level. In fact, this University of Chicago study reports that men are more likely to cheat when their wives earn more, and that marriages with women breadwinners are 50% more likely to end in divorce. It seems that, when women earn more, their marriages struggle.
Women Breadwinners Challenge: Unequal Power Dynamics
Financial power dynamics within a relationship can have a significant impact on the balance of power and decision-making in a household, even if neither spouse intends for it to play out that way. When one partner earns significantly more than the other, it can create a power imbalance that can be difficult to navigate – and difficult to communicate about, too. Unequal power dynamics and a failure to properly communicate about important issues can put additional strains on a marriage.
Women Breadwinners Challenge: Family Planning
There’s much to be said about the challenges all working mothers face, and I can’t possibly cover it all here. However, family planning can be particularly challenging for women breadwinners. For example, if a couple decides to have children, the wife may feel pressure to take a more significant role in providing for the family financially, while the husband may struggle with the idea of being a stay-at-home dad, or at least with taking on more of the childcare responsibilities. Both spouses can feel guilt, and “mom guilt” can be particularly crippling for women breadwinners who may feel they aren’t good mothers because they work outside the home, face long work hours, send their children to daycare, or even because they enjoy being at work. Mom guilt can take many forms. If you’ve ever experienced it, you know there are innumerable ways in which we moms think we can fail our children.
Women Breadwinners Challenge: Work-Life Balance
I addressed this is bit already, but many women feel like they need to “do it all” these days, and it’s never easy to maintain a healthy work-life balance. When one partner earns significantly more than the other, it can create additional pressure for that person to maintain their level of success, potentially leading to an increased lack of work-life balance and burnout. Many women already feel like they need to take care of everyone else in their orbit, and this feeling of responsibility can be particularly strong among women breadwinners who also face the financial pressure of being the household provider.
Can Women Win? What Women Breadwinners Can Do to Navigate These Challenges
It’s not easy to play all the roles expected of women these days. It’s clear there are particular challenges to navigate when a woman out-earns her husband, and you may feel some of them acutely if you’ve experienced this situation first-hand. However, there are also many benefits to a relationship where both partners are financially independent and successful. Here are some tips for navigating the above challenges:
Open and honest communication is key to navigating any challenge in a relationship. Talk openly about your feelings, concerns, and expectations around finances, household responsibilities, and family planning.
Redefine Gender Roles
Recognize that traditional gender roles may not work for you. Be open to redefining roles and responsibilities within the household based on each person’s strengths and interests. Your situation doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s for it to be successful for you.
Consider seeking support from a couple’s counselor or financial advisor who can help you navigate the challenges of a relationship where one partner out-earns the other.
Focus on Mutual Goals
Instead of focusing on individual goals or achievements, focus on mutual goals that you can work towards together, such as saving for a home or retirement. Practice financial goalsetting together and make it a team effort.
Support for Women Breadwinners
While there are certainly challenges to navigate when a woman out-earns her husband, it is absolutely possible to maintain happy and meaningful work and personal lives at the same time. By communicating openly, redefining gender roles, seeking support, and focusing on mutual goals, couples can navigate these challenges and build a strong, supportive relationship.
Talking with a financial advisor who understands your household dynamic can also be helpful as you move forward together. At Flourish Wealth Management, my team and I work with women and their families to identify values and goals and to build personalized financial plans that suit their needs. If you’d like to talk with us about your family financial dynamics and financial planning strategies, schedule a call with us today.