When it comes to wage disparities in a relationship, my husband and I are very lucky. We work together as freelancers, so our salaries are inherently linked together. A good month for me is a good month for him, and vice versa. There’s very little room for issues to crop up.
But it wasn’t always this way. For the first few years after college, I was earning significantly more. It didn’t seem to bother him, but there was always an awkward atmosphere when we discussed money.
After he proposed, we began the process of merging our finances. He was unusually quiet during the process, contributing very little and generally just being weird. Eventually, he admitted that because he earned so much less, he didn’t feel confident offering his opinions.
He knew it was stupid to feel insecure, but men are taught from a very young age that they should be the breadwinners in a relationship. It’s not surprising that even the most level-headed guys can develop unhealthy attitudes about their partner earning more.
How often do women earn more?
More than 40 percent of women are now the breadwinners for their families. Plus, the number of women staying home full-time has decreased.
That’s partially because millennial workers have a lower gender pay gap than other generations. Data from the Pew Research Center found that women between 25 and 34 years-old earned 90 cents to every dollar that men earned—a far smaller gap than the 17-cent difference women experience on average. As time goes on and the pay gap decreases even more, we should see more families with female breadwinners.
Why men care
Husband and father Jim Wang of Wallet Hacks says there are two reasons men care if they’re not the breadwinner. The first reason is because people are still frequently judged by the amount of money they make. When men make less than someone, they start to feel worse about themselves and their self-worth plummets.
The second reason is that “the social customs for eons have said the men have to be the breadwinner and women should be raising kids,” Wang said. “If you grew up with that mentality, it’s hard to come to grips with your partner earning more if you think you should be the primary breadwinner.”
That insecurity can become toxic and detrimental to your relationship. Gwen Murtz of Fiery Millennials dated a man who was a high school teacher and earned $30,000 less than she did. Eventually, the disparity became too much for him and he broke up with her.
Women care too
Unfortunately, men aren’t the only ones who care about earning more—it matters to women too. A survey from lifestyle website Refinery29 found that many millennial women have complicated feelings about making more than their male partners.
They sometimes feel the burden of having a higher salary and the subsequent pressure to stay in their high-powered career, even if they don’t enjoy what they’re doing. Some of them also have antiquated thoughts about relationships and still feel that the man should be the breadwinner.
Unfortunately, a 2013 University of Chicago study found that “having the wife earn more than the husband increases the likelihood of divorce by 50 percent” even when the difference is only a few thousand dollars a year.
Part of that might be because as women earn more, they tend to take on a larger responsibility in managing the household budget. This can leave men feeling powerless and emasculated, like they have no control over their finances.
Why some men don’t care
Fortunately, not every man feels less than if their wife or girlfriend outearns them. Podcast editor and personal finance blogger Steve Stewart says his wife’s higher salary has never bothered him, because he doesn’t ascribe his value to his income.
“Salary can be used to measure self-worth, but as a Christian, my self worth is measured in a much better way—and the way I treat my wife, family, friends and others is much more important than killing it with a 9-5,” he said.
Chelsea Brennan said her husband has never been bothered by her higher salary. Part of that is because his own father was a stay-at-home dad and enjoyed cooking and being a hands-on parent.
“Basically, he had a role model so it never seemed strange to him,” she said.
What to do if your partner cares
If you’re in a serious relationship with a man who’s bothered by your higher salary, face the problem head on. Ask him why he feels bad earning less than you, and reassure him that you don’t care what his salary is.
Even if you can’t understand why your boyfriend or husband might be upset, you have to acknowledge how they’re feeling. Then, make it clear why you earning more can help both of you. Take a page from Emilie Burke, who earns five times more than her husband.
“[He knows] supporting my career and my income helps us hit our goals,” she said.
Some men care about their salary because they’re worried what will happen if their wife wants to stay home with the kids and they can’t afford to support their family. Many men also face pressure from their families about earning more than their respective wives and girlfriends. This type of thinking can be especially prevalent if you live in the South or Midwest, where traditional attitudes about salaries still prevail.
“When we lived in Brooklyn hanging out with millennials, stay-at-home dads were commonplace,” said Okeoma Moronu Schreiner of The Happy Lawyer Project. “Now that we are in the suburbs of Dallas people still ask my husband what he does before asking me. He says, ‘I take care of our children.’”
A qualified couples therapist could also help you work through these issues. Remember, money is one of the top reasons that people get divorced. It’s important to work through these problems before it’s too late.
Unfortunately, we live in a world where our income defines a lot about us. Men have been told they should be the breadwinners of their families for most of history. So they tend to feel less-than if their female partners earn more than them.
It’s important to keep the lines of communication open in a relationship where one person earns more than another—keeping those emotions bottled up helps no one.