Being the breadwinner in a relationship sounds great, right? You earn more money, you have more power in the relationship, you probably make more decisions, and you have to do less housework. What else could an alpha male or female ask for?
But according to a new working paper that University of Connecticut sociologist Christin Munsch is presenting at the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association, there has been a startling finding that when men make more money than their spouses, their self-reported psychological well-being and health go down.
“When you’re a breadwinner, your family’s standard of living is very much dependent on your salary, much more so than your partner’s salary, and that’s a lot of pressure,” Munsch says. For the purposes of this paper, breadwinning is defined as earning a higher relative income than your partner. The anxiety — or lack thereof — associated with breadwinning was found to be indicative of gender expectations. For women, earning more money didn’t predict significant gains in health, but it did correlate with higher well-being.
“For men, they can be at status quo, but always lose it,” Munsch says. “For women who are breadwinners, they’re not at the status quo — they’re knocking it out of the park. In everyday interactions, people say, ‘Wow, you’re the breadwinner! You’re such a rock star.’ And if they lose it, they don’t become losers: They go back to the status quo.”
The research sheds new light on the persistent stickiness of traditional gender roles. While the pay gap persists — women, on average, earn 79 percent of what men earn — the Mad Men ideal of the high-earning, constantly working husband coming home to a doting, lemonade-proffering wife is increasingly on the outs. In 1967, 49 percent of married mothers were stay-at-home wives; that number is down to 20 percent today. Now, women reportedly outearn their husbands in 38 percent of hetero marriages in the U.S.
For her research, Munsch and her graduate students Matthew Rogers and Jessica Yorks used a nationally representative survey that followed young people from 1997 to 2011. They limited their sample to married, heterosexual people, resulting in over 3,000 respondents. Respondents self-rated their health, their income relative to their spouse’s, and their psychological well-being, among other factors. Munsch controlled for age, education, absolute income, and whether or not the couple had kids. Overall, the men reported higher incomes, worked more hours per week, and had higher relative incomes than women. Men also reported higher psychological well-being and health — though Munsch warns that this may be a result of women being more acculturated to expressing their anxieties than men.
There are a few structural forces at work here. For one, Munsch says, even if couples profess to want egalitarian roles around work, they still have to make decisions that makes sense for their lives. Given that men earn $5 to every $4 that women earn, the economics skew men into the role of breadwinning. Unless you have hired help, somebody has to take off early to pick up Johnny from school, and it makes financial sense that the person earning less (usually the woman) would take over that duty.
Munsch also found in her interviews that men expressed a sense of “lifestyle creep”: The breadwinner pushes him or herself to earn more and more to provide necessities for the family (which could start as a bigger apartment, and expand to a vacation home) — making it more difficult to step back from work and spend more time with the family, if that’s what they desire. That could lead to what organizational psychologists call “golden-cage syndrome”: Once you’re making loads of money doing something, it’s exceedingly difficult to take a more agreeable, but less money-making gig — especially if, over time, you’ve got a spouse and kids relying on it.
Because of all these things, Munsch says, it’s important in relationships to be super-explicit about what kind of professional and personal roles people want. Falling wordlessly into breadwinner and homemaker roles when you would truly rather divvy up those duties is a recipe for frustration. It also speaks to how, while people talk about “work life” and “home life,” there’s really only “life life.” If you want to preserve time for home, it requires drawing boundaries with the office.