Female Breadwinners: A New Marriage Crisis?

As more wives out-earn their husbands and outshine them at the office, many couples secretly struggle with reversed gender roles—sometimes leading to adultery or even health issues. Danielle Friedman on America's new marriage crisis.

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From their first flirtation, Brendan and Jennifer Volk knew what they were getting themselves into. Brendan, a first-year teacher, lived with his parents in suburban Dallas. Jennifer, a recent law-school grad, lived in a sleek apartment downtown—and earned almost three times her new beau. When her fancy law-firm Christmas party rolled around, she helped him pick out his first adult suit.

“We’d joke about it,” said Jennifer, 39. “We made a lot of jokes about how it’s very common to find couples where you’ve got a lawyer and teacher, but usually it’s the other way around.”

For most of their relationship, Jennifer has been her family’s breadwinner. At home, while Jennifer prefers to clean, Brendan, 37, does all the cooking and even the sewing. They’re equally involved in raising their 3-year-old son. “I knew the choice I was making when I chose to get involved with Brendan,” she said. “I think we’re just comfortable with who we are."

Over the past year, a slew of highly publicized studies touting “the rise of wives” have confirmed that the Volks are a growing breed. In a fifth of marriages, wives now out-earn their husbands. More women are graduating from college than men. The workforce now skews female, and men have been hit harder by the recession, forcing women into the breadwinner role.

Several of these tipping points have been celebrated as a move toward greater equality and a boon for men, who gain more economically from marriage. And indeed, the Volks represent the best of these new norms—the ideal—with each spouse happily pursuing his and her preferred path. Yet almost three decades after Mr. Mom parodied such role reversal, many couples still struggle emotionally with their “new” identities, often in ways they’re ashamed to admit. Ways that society could better address, say marriage experts.

“A lot has changed in marriage and gender in the last couple of decades, but there’s still a sense—on the part of both men and women—that men should be the providers,” says W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project, housed at the University of Virginia. “We haven’t come to terms with the fact that we’re facing a whole new social moment, in which women are doing better than men are. We need to encourage men to find other outlets for masculinity.”

Recent research is troubling: Husbands with kids at home are 61 percent less likely to report that they’re “very happy” in their marriages when they work fewer hours than their wives, according to the National Marriage Project. Men who are economically dependent on their female partners are significantly more likely to cheat. And soon-to-be published research out of Stanford University reveals that male unemployment increases the odds of divorce.

Perhaps even more alarming, Kristen Springer, a sociologist at Rutgers University, has found that high-earning men in their 50s whose wives make more money than them suffer from more health problems. The reason, she believes? The “stress of expecting to be the breadwinner but not living up to this ideal.”

While few comparable studies exist on female breadwinners, marriage experts report that women, too, experience their share of angst when the stereotypical roles are reversed. Deep down, even many professionally driven women feel that opting out is a “birth right, or something they’re entitled to,” says Joshua Coleman, a psychologist in the San Francisco Bay Area and co-chairman of the Council on Contemporary Families. And they, too, cling to stereotypes about manliness.

With nontraditional families on the rise, by choice and by circumstance, these growing pains prove a threat to marriage. The question is: What separates the Sarah and Todd Palins from the Courteney Cox and David Arquettes?

First, a bit of history. Two hundred years ago, American men’s identities weren’t wrapped up in providing and protecting, so much as being the all-powerful head of the household, points out Stephanie Coontz, author of Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage and director of research and public education for the Council on Contemporary Families. Wives were legally subordinate to their husbands, but their work at home was key to their family’s livelihood. Then, as women gained rights and this tyrannical approach became less tolerated, men began to define themselves by their ability to financially support their family. This model has lived on until very recently.

“For men—and I’m not saying these things should be true, but that they are true—the thing you cannot fail at and still feel like a good person is your occupational role,” says William Doherty, a marriage counselor and professor of family and social sciences at the University of Minnesota. When men feel like a failure in this realm, they often become depressed and detached—and interestingly, participate less in housework and childcare. From here, wives who buy into gender stereotypes often lose respect for their husbands, setting them on the road to divorce.

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Meanwhile, most married American women still define themselves primarily by their role as a caretaker and success as a mother, says Doherty. As more women become breadwinners and more men step up with childcare, women have to make peace with relinquishing some authority to their husbands—and to accept that, while men might do things differently at home, different isn’t worse. “No data supports maternal guilt,” says Sharon Meers, author of Getting to 50/50: How Working Couples Can Have It All by Sharing It All, noting that paternal involvement has a much more positive impact on kids than 100 percent maternal care.

To help usher in this new reality, one key is to encourage open dialogue, says Jeremy Adam Smith, a sometimes stay-at-home dad and author of The Daddy Shift: How Stay-at-Home Dads, Breadwinning Moms, and Shared Parenting Are Transforming the American Family. “Men do discuss these issues, but they do it in highly coded ways,” he said. “They don’t buy books about work-family balance. And organizations that work with men still focus on the breadwinner role, which creates a condition of cognitive dissonance.”

Another solution is to help create communities of fathers that can support each other. “This is avant-garde—we’ve barely started this effort,” Smith said. “What you do see are groups of men starting to talk about their lives, what they want out of their lives. They’re just kind of telling stories about their lives. And I think that’s a really important stage.”

Nearly all sociologists, therapists, and researchers interviewed also push for better social policies to make life easier for today’s families and help to break down 1950s-era stereotypes, including legislation to decrease the gender wage gap and to provide paid leave for male and female caregivers.

Marriage historian Coontz says she’s cautiously optimistic. A recent Pew study showed that younger generations are more accepting of egalitarian ideals (on paper, at least). Also, on a related note, both height and age differences between couples marrying for the first time are the lowest they’ve ever been: “I think that’s a perfect little symbol in the breakdown of this.”

And indeed, egalitarian marriages in which husband and wife feel like partners, however that partnership plays out, have the highest marriage quality—plus, couples up their odds of a better sex life when men help out with housework and childcare. Perhaps the latter will prove a good jumping off point for future conversations.

Correction: An earlier version of this article said that recent trends mark the first time men have gained economically from marriage; this statement has been corrected to reflect that, according to the Pew Research Center, "In recent decades...the economic gains associated with marriage have been greater for men than for women."

Danielle Friedman is a homepage editor and reporter for The Daily Beast. Previously, she spent five years working as a nonfiction book editor for Hudson Street Press and Plume, two imprints of Penguin Group. She's a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.