Reversal of Fortune: When She Makes More
Guys, you don't have to feel small if your wife earns a bigger paycheck. Join the club.
(MONEY Magazine) – Not long ago my wife started making more money than me. There, I said it. Don't think it was easy. The male ego is strangely fragile when it comes to who brings home the bacon. So, I've found, is the female notion of who rules the roost at home. In adjusting to our shifting roles, my wife and I have had to confront a lot of financial and emotional issues neither one of us saw coming. Who knew a little extra income could be such a burden?
Our family is hardly alone in grappling with that question. In a quarter of households where the wife brings home a paycheck, it's the big one. That's up from 16% of households 25 years ago. And this trend is especially likely to build among us baby boomers: More and more women in midlife—kids grown—are dusting off their diplomas and making up for lost career time, while increasing numbers of us forty- and fiftysomething guys are getting hit with the effects of steady downsizing throughout the economy.
Certainly, there are plenty of benefits to having a high-earning woman in the family. In fact, when my wife's career as a marketing executive took off, I was thrilled—mostly because it was what she wanted but also because her earnings afforded us a better lifestyle and allowed me to pursue a riskier job track.(I left my full-time gig as a senior writer at Time magazine to do other kinds of writing.)
But the potential for psychological fallout is real. Money is a cold arbiter of power, and when a wife starts making more, both spouses may feel that the husband has somehow been demoted. Sure, we boomers are supposed to be past all that. But reality doesn't always live up to our PC notions. Once my wife's bigger paychecks started rolling in, her routine household reminders started sounding like orders to me. My wife sensed resistance, which struck her as sudden and senseless. She was hurt. Meanwhile, her success at work brought lots of travel and late nights. She felt she needed to manage the house while away. But I had things under control and felt her calls to quiz me on the kids' whereabouts smacked of mistrust. So it was my turn to be hurt.
We joke now about giving orders and passing pop quizzes. But things might not be so funny if we hadn't talked honestly about the surprising stress that came with her greater earning power. The following strategies helped us work through the strain. If you're dealing with a financial role reversal, they may help you too.
Talk, Talk, Talk Communicating how you feel about the changes brought on by the shift in earning power is critical. My wife and I take several long walks together every week, giving us a valuable block of talk time free from distraction. The walks began purely as exercise. But over the years we've conducted a lot of family business during this time. We've planned parties and bought houses. Lately we've worked through the logistics and emotions of her soaring career.
If you don't talk about your feelings, they're more likely to manifest in depression, withdrawal, aggression or blame. Listen to your words for a clue. Husbands, do you devalue her accomplishments? ("You make a lot of money, but you're never home.") Do you undercut her family connections? ("I had to decide; you don't have time.") Wives, do you undermine his provider instincts? ("I'll buy it with my money.") Or devalue his work? ("Maybe you should get another job.")
One way to move the conversation to higher ground is to focus on values that transcend income: trust, teamwork, achievement, personal growth. Talk about the shared goals you may be able to pursue because of the additional money now coming into the household (pay some big bills? renovate the kitchen? take a trip to Hawaii?). Discuss the projects he can tackle if the income role reversal has resulted in his having more free time. He may not make as much, but there are other routes to mutual respect.
Be True Partners Hint to husbands: A little more help around the house goes a long way to easing tensions. Bonus points for anticipating what's needed without being told. And both of you need to watch each other's back when outsiders make comments that press your role-reversal stress buttons.
That's when a code word or phrase comes in handy, says Stephen Goldbart, co-director of the Money, Meaning & Choices Institute in Kentfield, Calif. Something like "We should check on the kids" signals your spouse to change the subject or subtly come to your defense. One of my wife's hot buttons is when friends talk about business travel as though it creates emotional distance from the family. I don't need a cue to chime in with how enriching and fun it is for our kids, who travel with her when possible.
Practice Discretion I'd bet most women don't care to call attention to their status as the family's No. 1 breadwinner, but they do want their husband to appreciate the sacrifices they've made to achieve their success. Plenty of men are comfortable with earning less than their wife—as long as that fact isn't broadcast publicly. "I've interviewed high-earning women whose husbands say they are fine with it," says Olivia Mellan, a psychotherapist who specializes in money and relationship issues. "But then they ask me to please, please not mention it in my book where everyone will see it."
Do not lie about who makes most. Just don't volunteer the details or talk about them at length publicly if it makes him uncomfortable. And if she's struggling to find the time for family connections, keep that between the two of you as well.
Set Up Personal Accounts My wife and I have merged assets since the day we were married. Now for the first time we're talking (on our walks) about peeling off small spending accounts for each of us. What I buy with the cash in my private account will be my business and vice versa—she won't get to ask questions or pass judgment and I won't either.
Why now, after 21 years of marriage? It gets back to the subtle shifts in relationship power that often happen when a spouse who used to make less becomes the bigger earner. Suddenly she may make purchases or other financial decisions without consulting her husband. The subtext: "Hey, this is my money. I earned it, and I don't have to ask for permission." He feels, "It's our money when I earn it, so it's our money when you do too, and I get a say in how it's spent." Having small separate accounts honors both feelings, allowing each of you some space to spend as you please while you still make bigger financial decisions jointly.
Gloria Steinem once said that she had yet to hear a man ask for advice on how to combine a marriage and a career. As this balancing act grows more delicate, I have a feeling that's about to change.
Dan Kadlec is co-author of The Power Years, a guide for boomers. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.