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Love & Money: Some American men can’t accept it when their wives earn more money

Society puts pressure on men who earn less than their wives. Read More...

Love & Money is a MarketWatch series looking at how money issues impact our relationships with significant others, friends and family.

“My wife has always earned more money than me, and for a while it absolutely killed our sex life. Dead. I’m a trial lawyer now, but from 2006 to 2016 I didn’t make a dime. I went back to school to get my master’s and Ph.D. and try to break into academia.” Dave Peters was one of several men who told MEL Magazine what it was like when their wives earned more money than they did. Sometimes, it worked out OK. And other times, it caused problems.

But Peters said his relationship ran into difficulty because of how his wife handled their disparity in income. His wife made $180,000 a year and, he said, she was the one who always had the final word when it came to vacations, where they ate dinner and even what nights they would have sex. “The kids would ask her for money, and when she said no, they’d respond, ‘Fine, I’ll ask Dad then,’” he added. “And she would snort, ‘Yeah, sure.’” He got a higher paying job and, happily, things improved.

Some academic research suggests that heterosexual couples are more likely to split up and less likely to marry when the husband earns less.

They were both strong personalities and, as such, they could only create a level playing field in the relationship when he earned as much, if not more, than his wife. Do other American men and their higher-earning wives run into similar problems? Complementary work hours may also help couples juggle parental responsibilities, but will a lower earning male spouse feel emasculated when he’s at home?

It’s increasingly common for wives to make more than their husbands: Approximately 38% of wives earn more than their husbands, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That makes some husbands and wives uncomfortable, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. When a wife makes more than her husband, the income the couple reports for the wife is 1.5 percentage points lower on average than her actual income, but 2.9 percentage points higher for her husband.

Put another way: The financial dynamics of marriage are changing at a slower pace than the rest of society. Men and women who do put love ahead of money may be part of a new generation that is breaking from the status-conscious marriage habits of the past, but research suggests they’re pushing against larger social and cultural forces that put a higher value on husbands who are the breadwinners and/or earn more than their wives.

Theories on what makes a stable relationship vary. Some research suggests that couples are at higher risk of splitting up and less likely to marry when the male partner earns less than the female partner. Other experts say couples are more likely to stay together, even if a wife earns more than her husband. One theory: They can’t afford to move out into separate places or, perhaps, one person is freelance and the other has a full-time job with health insurance.

Couples who put love ahead of money may be part of a new generation that is breaking from the status-conscious marriage habits of the past.

Even in 2019, old-fashioned views on marriage prevail. American men are still more comfortable in relationships when they are the breadwinners. In fact, the risk of divorce was nearly one-third higher when a husband isn’t working full-time, according to “Money, Work, and Marital Stability: Assessing Change in the Gendered Determinants of Divorce,” a 2016 study of more than 6,300 couples by Alexandra Killewald, professor of sociology at Harvard University.

“For marriages formed after 1975, husbands’ lack of full-time employment is associated with higher risk of divorce,” she found. “Expectations of wives’ homemaking may have eroded, but the husband/breadwinner norm persists.” That apparent disconnect may be due to peer pressure, attitudes passed down from parents and/or a persistent glass ceiling that encourages all men to believe they should be the highest earners in their own homes.

Americans see men as the financial providers, even as women’s contributions grow, a separate report published in 2017 by the Pew Research Center found. Women bring at least half or more of the earnings in almost one-third of cohabiting couples in the U.S., up from just 13% in 1981. “But in most couples, men contribute more of the income, and this aligns with the fact that Americans place a higher value on a man’s role as financial provider,” the authors said.

Attitudes appear to be changing at a slower rate than women’s salaries. “Breadwinning is still more often seen as a father’s role than a mother’s,” Pew said. About 40% Americans believe it’s extremely important for a father to provide income for his children, but just 25% said the same of mothers. Roughly 75% of respondents in the Pew survey said that having more women in the workplace has made it more difficult for parents to raise children.

Married men earn more than single men or married women

Married men still sit on the top of the wage ladder. The wages of married men far surpass those of all of those groups. The wages of married men exceed $80,000 per year on average by their peak earning years, while all the other groups barely graze $50,000 per year on average, according to recent data from the University of Minnesota and IPUMS-USA, a database of individual responses from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Old-fashioned marital economics are changing and many couples bucked perceived social norm that husbands earn more than their wives.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that married men are paid more because they are married (and men), even if it seems like the most logical explanation. “It might be that men with higher wages are more likely to marry,” wrote Guillaume Vandenbroucke, a research officer with the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. In other words, correlation does not mean causation.

There are other reasons why husbands may earn more than their wives that have nothing to do with the gender wage gap. “Men often marry later than women, so there are relatively few married men in their 20s,” he wrote. “This explains why the difference in wages is less pronounced earlier in life: The average male worker in his 20s is more likely to be single than married.” Today, both men and women are closing in on 30 by the time they tie the knot.

As men and women hit 50 and their salary levels off, that may bring more perspective and humility to the role money plays in marriage. Men and women acquire more experience the longer they work and, therefore, become more valuable and productive. After 50, they either slow down and learn fewer new skills, economists say, or they are competing with younger, less expensive but equally skilled, employees for the same jobs.

Of course, some men do sit back and let their wives do all the work. Here are just a few headlines from letters this writer has received from women with deadbeat husbands: “My husband works part-time, has no credit and doesn’t pay any bills,” “My husband can’t get a loan — his bad credit rating is ruining our marriage,” and “My husband grew up dirt poor and doesn’t believe in insurance or banks, yet he racked up $7,000 on my credit card.”

Men’s egos may not fare so well when their wives earn more

At the other end of the spectrum, it may not behove men to brag about their earning power before marriage. Men who lead a flashy lifestyle are regarded as being more interested in short-term hook-ups or affairs than marriage, according to a 2018 study by Daniel Kruger, a faculty associate at the University of Michigan and Jessica Kruger, a clinical assistant professor at the University at Buffalo in New York, and published in the academic journal Evolutionary Psychological Science.

In the study, two groups of undergraduate students rated two fictional men on their perceived dating and parenting skills, interest in relationships and attractiveness to others. Both men had the same budget, but frugal “Dan” said spent his $20,000 on a car for reliability, while flashy “Dave” said he spent $15,000 on his car and used $5,000 to pimp his ride with larger wheels, a paint job and a sound system. “Men have a greater tendency to conspicuously display their wealth,” the researchers wrote.

Writer Julia Baird has another, less flattering, theory about men’s attitudes to money and marriage. She wrote in Glamour Magazine: “Oh, how fragile is the ego of a man. We must never let him feel like a bonsai in a grove of California redwoods — no, he must always see himself as a towering tree, magnificent in comparison with his female partner.” When she was writing a biography of Queen Victoria, Baird discovered that even Victoria was afraid her beloved Albert would feel emasculated.

Times may be changing from the 1800s, albeit at a slower rate than some married couples would like. One recent study in the journal Demography by Patrick Ishizuka, a postdoctoral fellow at Cornell University’s Cornell Population Center, found that couples are more likely to set up a life together when they earn similar incomes. And when each partner in a cohabiting couple or marriage earn similar amounts of money, they’re actually less likely to get separated.

Couples are more likely to set up a life together when they earn similar incomes. That suggests that younger couples place a value on equal status.

He analyzed the Census Bureau’s “Survey of Income and Program Participation” from 1996 to 2013 to test alternative theories of how money and work affect whether cohabiting couples marry or separate. The economic foundations of a happy union do not just lie in a man’s ability to be a good provider, he found.

What’s more, couples with “higher and more equal earnings” are significantly less likely to separate. Ishizuka’s study supports “the marriage bar” theory, which contends that the closer a couple is to reaching the economic standards associated with marriage — like saving enough to buy a house and maintain a lifestyle to which they have become accustomed (or to which they would like to become accustomed) — the more likely they are to get married.

Do people marry for love or money, or both?

Uncertain economic times and age may impact people’s priorities. More than half of Americans say they want a partner who provides financial security more than “head over heels” love, a recent survey by Merrill Edge, an online discount brokerage and division of Bank of America Merrill Lynch BAC, +1.38% found. This sentiment is held in almost equal measure by men and women (54% and 57%). Generation Z (born between 1996 and 2010) is the only cohort to choose love (54%).

Uncertain times may impact people’s priorities. Some 54% of men and 57% of women say they want a partner who provides financial security over love.

Whether that sounds mercenary instead of practical likely depends on your upbringing and life experience. Merrill Edge polled more than 1,000 people aged 18 to 40 with investable assets between $20,000 and $250,000. For this purpose, investable assets was defined as the value of all cash, savings, mutual funds, CDs, IRAs, stocks, bonds and all other types of investments such as a 401(k), 403(b), and Roth IRA, but excluding a primary home and other real estate investments.

People’s attitude to finance and romance change from wedding No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3, said Randy Kessler, who wrote the book, “Divorce: Protect Yourself, Your Kids, and Your Future,” and also practices family law in Atlanta, Ga. “I still think people marry more for romance than for finance. However, for a second or third marriage, people may be looking for financial security after their divorce left them with a sense of severe financial insecurity.” He describes himself as a romantic.

Some men are more concerned with their financial investments than their egos. This 41-year-old California man, who said he’s worth $1.8 million, wrote to MarketWatch to ask advice about marrying a woman who is far less wealthy than he is. “If our marriage does not work out, does she get half of what we have made in the time together?” he asked. “I have never actually mentioned details of my finances to her, but it feels like a conversation we should have.”

He, for one, would be much happier if his girlfriend had a higher salary and owned more real estate and other investments. “How do I explain to someone that I care about the money that I’ve sweated so hard over for almost two decades?” he added. “I know this may sounds selfish, and maybe I am being selfish, but I have come from absolutely nothing and I just want to keep working towards my financial goals.” And now? He’s bracing himself to ask his prospective wife for a prenup.

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