When Men Earn Less, Women End Up Paying
Men who are paid less than their female partners often feel insecure, leaving women more vulnerable to abuse and infidelity.
Illustration by Ash Goodall
In 2016, market research company Roy Morgan found that 52 percent of women in heterosexual relationships identified as the primary earner. It was a 13 percent increase from 2006. But despite the shift from traditional gender roles, many men still expect to be the breadwinners—which is a changing dynamic they struggle with.
My girlfriend earns more than me and as in most relationships, we take turns occasionally helping each other emotionally and financially. But while I never give lending her money or buying her something special a second thought, I always feel tremendously guilty when the tables are turned. I often find myself refusing any gesture that’s in anyway tied to money.
I don’t want to feel like this. Logically, I know that our bank balances don’t reflect who we are or how we feel about each other. But it’s hard to shake a lifetime of masculine expectations.
I grew up in an environment where manliness was paramount. It wasn’t directly imposed, but subtly suggested by how the men around me behaved. I developed a belief that in order to be a man I had to be a certain way. That meant being a provider—the one to take care of the people around me. But that expectation usually wasn’t linked to tenderness or loyalty: rather it meant never needing help from anyone, including financially. Nowadays I realise the harm in that thinking, but the residue of expectations remains.
I’m not the only one feeling uneasy within this dynamic. Last year, the United States Census Bureau found that women who out-earned their male partners under-reported their salaries by an average of 1.5 percent. Conversely, their partners over-reported theirs by 2.9 percent.
Online, on forums like Reddit, men anonymously admit how earning less makes them feel anxious and miserable. “Wife earns more money. I feel insecure, worthless,” reads one Reddit thread. Another adds: “Feel uncomfortable, unworthy, jealous and less of a man because my GF earns a lot more than me. Advice on how to bring this up to her / deal with these feelings appreciated.”
Interestingly, most couch their feelings in acknowledgments of how backwards their insecurities are. “As much as I wanted to not have a problem with it—and I knew deep down I shouldn’t—there was something that made me feel a bit off about it,” Michael,* a 25-year-old working in property investment tells me.
When Michael and his now ex-girlfriend graduated university a few years ago, she landed a job immediately and started earning more. And while supportive, Michael, who lived with his parents and earned enough to support himself, unexpectedly felt emasculated—something he believes was related to his self-imposed expectations learned as he was growing up. “I can’t explain why, but I guess [my] mum never worked much, and my dad [was] always the one who worked, so I [suppose] it was ingrained in me deep down that, as the man, I should be earning more.”
But even for men who’re completely fine with earning less, external expectations can be just as distressing. “Around us, we had people telling us that this isn't how a husband and wife works. That put pressure on us because my wife wore it. She was really sensitive to it,” says Robert Cugno, a career coach whose wife of 25 years has been the primary earner in their household for the last 19.
He is quick to stress that he has no problem with his wife—who at one time earned nine times his income—being the breadwinner. And while he admits they do occasionally fight over money and he sometimes wishes he earned more, he’s happy working from home, looking after their daughter. Unfortunately, Robert’s family and friends struggled to comprehend this.
He recalls friends who have continually asked him “who wears the pants in the relationship,” and if he has to get permission to spend money. His mother and mother-in-law also chastise him about it, and seem unable to understand why Robert, a man, has chosen the role of the primary caregiver.
But bruised male pride is the least worrying outcome of this culture. A 2012 study at Fordham University found that heterosexual men who earn less than their partners, and believe in traditional stereotypes around masculinity, reported much lower quality relationships than those who didn't. Furthermore, a report from Cornell University found men who earned less were more likely to cheat on their partners.
Speaking to VICE over email, Katherine*, who found herself earning more than her partner following a promotion, explains: “[There’s] no spoken [conflict], but there’s some tension there. Not that he should be the provider, but that he should earn the same if not more.” Since the financial shift her partner, who was once confident and supportive, has become bitter and melancholic, regularly verbally abusing her for how she spends money. “Every time I buy something, I’m getting scrutinised by him. I feel guilty if I do buy things for myself, and not for the house,” she laments.
The dark heart of this issue is that when a situation feels uncomfortable and challenging for men, it can become dangerous and life-threatening for women. In 2014, a Norwegian analysis found that from 2003 to 2004, psychological and physical abuse of women who earned more than 67 percent of the household income increased sevenfold. It offers a somber reminder of the true cost of rigid expectation around gender and relationships.
Personally, I’m not sure when I’ll stop feeling guilty for receiving occasional financial help from my partner. What has been helpful though, has been actually talking it through with her and allowing myself to feel vulnerable enough to ask for help. Because at the end of the day, these feelings are based on internalised expectations that have been become toxic. Being able to recognise and address that has been therapeutic for us both. And, more importantly, this whole experience has been a reminder that connecting your masculinity and your sense of worth with your income isn’t just distressing, it’s dangerous.
*Name changed at subject’s request.
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