For today’s dads, having a wife who is the primary breadwinner isn’t always easy. Although a growing share of married mothers earn the majority of income for their families—slightly less than one-quarter of married families with children, according to the American Community Survey, it’s clear that some men in homes with female breadwinners find this new reality hard.
Of course, working wives, who are contributing to the financial welfare of their families, are not to blame. Traditional gender norms can make it harder for female breadwinner families. But when she earns more than he does, husbands and wives were less likely to report they are “very happy,” more likely to report they have had marital troubles, and more likely to indicate they have discussed separating in the past year, according to a University of Chicago study looking at couples about 25 years ago.
Another new study, focusing on young adults who were married as of 2001-2011, showed that husbands are also significantly more likely to cheat when their wives earn markedly more than they do.
These findings may be less applicable to younger couples getting married today, but all this research suggests that—for at least some contemporary couples—female breadwinner marriages can pose unique challenges.
The sociologist who led the infidelity study, Christin Munsch, was inspired to research this topic after talking to a man who had cheated upon his breadwinning wife. “He felt like his partner had all the friends, all the money, all the success, because this person wasn’t working, and his wife was,” Munsch told Live Science.
So what’s a family man to do to keep his marriage strong when she earns more? And how can a breadwinner wife best keep the love alive? I contacted a number of husbands and wives who are happily married in female breadwinner families to get their take. Four keys emerged that are consistent with what we know about what makes for happy marriages among today’s families.
1. Appreciate the dadly difference One theme that emerged, for both him and her: Be attentive to and appreciative of all the ways in which he plays a unique and important role as a father. The research tells us that dads are more likely to engage in rough and physical play with their children, to challenge their kids to embrace life’s opportunities, and to take a firmer line when it comes to discipline, compared to moms.
Stacey Burzumato, an accountant and mother of four, appreciates the fact that her husband, who has more flexible hours than she, takes the lead in managing their weekday afternoons. She also appreciates the fact that he interacts differently with them than she does.
“I admire his skill at being able to help our children solve their own problems in ways that are rational, practical and effective, and probably wouldn’t have occurred to me, because I would have been thinking of ways that I could solve their problems myself,” she notes. And, on a regular basis, Burzumato lets her husband know how much she admires his way of raising the kids.
So, moms: if your husband excels as your kids’ soccer coach, tutor, camping czar, or stay-at-home parent, make sure he knows it, and make sure your friends and family know how proud of him you are.
2. Keep your sex life HOT My own research in a recent report, When Baby Makes Three, indicates that one of the best predictors of men’s marital happiness is the quality of their sexual relationship. Making time for weekly date nights, focusing on cultivating a strong sex life, and otherwise making a joint effort to keep the spark alive—admittedly, all challenging tasks when kids are afoot—would seem to be crucial for any marriage. But sex may be especially important if a man is feeling inadequate because he is not the primary financial provider of the family.
“Many women don’t realize that physical intimacy is primarily an emotional need for a man,” said Shaunti Feldhahn, the bestselling author of For Women Only: What You Need to Know About the Inner Lives of Men, and a woman who has earned more than her attorney husband in recent years, due to her best-selling books. In her work, she has “found that when a wife shows her husband that she desires him, it gives him confidence in the other areas of his life. Men carry around a lot of self-doubt, and sexual affirmation truly makes a difference to a man who is struggling.”
3. Maintain a shared faith A number of the happily married fathers in female breadwinner families I contacted credit their shared faith as the glue that holds their marriage together.
“Everything comes down to [our] faith,” said Graham Scharf, a writer, children’s advocate, and father of two. The faith he shares with his wife “directs and sustains our decisions and actions. That’s where the rubber meets the road. And that is where the supportive community, practices of honoring one another, and habits of thinking and working as a team sustain the work of cultivating that thriving family life.”
Scharf’s experience is not atypical. Among married men in general, shared religious faith is one of the strongest predictors of marital quality. Couples who report that “God is at the center of our marriage” and attend religious services together are more likely to say they are very happy in their marriages, according to my research. Not only does shared faith afford many men a unique sense of purpose as a husband and father, and a community where a family-centered way of life is honored, it also serves as one way to deepen intimacy with their wives. Indeed, my research indicates that couples who share a strong faith are significantly more likely to report high levels of sexual satisfaction. The couple that prays together…
4. Focus on teamwork, not me-work Today, too many spouses think about work in terms of their own individual professional status, income, or satisfaction. Happily married husbands and wives in female breadwinner families seem to approach work from a more teamwork-oriented perspective.
“When I decided to take a child care leave to be home with our eldest daughter, it wasn’t because I was aspiring to be a full-time father,” said Scharf, who says he and his wife take a “team mentality” to managing work and family. “Our metric of measurement was and is vitality of family life, not individual or aggregate income. And in that respect, we have no regrets: we enjoy a richness of family life that we simply could not have enjoyed without the conscious division of labor in different spheres of meaningful work.”
This teamwork approach was echoed by others. “The measure is not competing W-2’s between man and wife, but creating a life, and managing behaviors that produce good kids,” said Jack Yoest, a self-described man’s man and ex-Army officer whose academic schedule allows him to take a big role in helping to manage the kids.
How you divide work and family is “different for each family. After a few years of marriage, my wife had an opportunity for a leadership position in a job for a cause that we believe in. We’ve invested in her work as a family. It was about a common mission and seeing our family as a unit.”
These comments are consistent with the research on commitment. In the 2010-2011 Survey of Marital Generosity, spouses who “see their relationship in terms of ‘we’ versus ‘me’” are more likely to report they are happily married, and much less likely to report that their marriage is likely to end in separation or divorce.
One more thing: praise sure helps. In talking with men, Feldhahn found that many men felt inadequate as financial providers for their family and she came away with this insight: “I realized how critical it was to Jeff [her husband] that I actually tell him those things I appreciate about him, and what a great husband he is, and how much it means to me that he takes the extra time to help the kids with homework. We have to help our guys realize that providing doesn’t just mean money.”
Come to think of it: this sounds like good advice for all couples, regardless of who brings home the most bacon.
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