Dealing With It When Women Make More Money Than Men

An article on the NY Times site caught my eye today. It seems that a lot of heterosexual men are having a hard time dealing with their partners’ financial success. The idea that men are supposed to be the breadwinner dies hard, and it’s making some guys upset when they aren’t.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should probably say that my partner earns more money than I do, and that it hasn’t ever bothered me. Partly, that’s because we both need to work- it’s not as if she could support both of us, so as far as I’m concerned, we’re equally necessary even though her paycheck has a bigger number on it. It’s also worth saying that I’m not particularly caught up in stereotypical notions of masculinity and I don’t think I’d be upset if she earned enough to make my paycheck unnecessary. I’d even be willing to give it a try. You know- in the interest of research.

Anyway, the article discusses some of the contortions some couples go through in order to preserve the illusion of man-as-breadwinner. One example is the pair where she pays for things when the process isn’t public, such as paying for a vacation, while he uses his credit card when they’re in public so he doesn’t look like a “gigolo.”

Then, there’s the couple that decided that he should open doors, drive the car, and pay the bill in order to maintain “those little traditions” and keep the romance alive. One man who earned less said that he felt unable to seduce his partner and another felt inadequate at parties because he’d have to tell people that he’s a teacher. Meanwhile, one woman said that she feigns helplessness so she can boost her partner’s ego.

Now, I understand that many men feel shame when they don’t live up to their expectations of what a man is “supposed” to be and overcoming that can be challenging. But it seems to me that the sorts of strategies that these couples are using aren’t going to help because they’re all about coddling his ego. They may be a short-term solution, but they don’t address the root cause and they don’t help him stop feeling resentment. I think that a more sustainable response would be for these guys to work through their internalized sexism and male privilege and find ways to appreciate who they are as men without relying on external things like their paycheck. It’s harder work, but it’s well worth it.

I’d love to see a world in which women didn’t need to downplay their accomplishments in order to protect men’s egos. And I’d love to see a world in which men didn’t feel the pressure to live up to outdated models of masculinity that have never fit very well. Wouldn’t that be nice?

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8 Responses so far.

  1. Ron Z says:

    First, let me say that I’m not worried about it from my own perspective. My wife and I currently have almost identical incomes, but, beginning next year, she will finish her medical residency and make a LOT more than I will, and I’m sort of excited about it. I have a healthy enough ego not to have to worry about it. But, of course, I love what I do and believe with all of my heart that my work makes the world a better place.

    That said, I had someone from the religious services I lead in SF call me to talk. He is in the position described. What’s more, he left a higher paying job to set out on his own in a business that struggles to make money, but that he loves. But he now feels like the attitude is one too many of us, especially those of us able to remember the original “second wave” feminism of the late sixties and early seventies, remember all too well.

    “Isn’t that cute? He has a HOBBY career!”

    And yes, I know full well that, until recently, this was frequently the attitude toward women in the workplace. I’m 45, and my mother worked, and some felt that way about her work, especially in the Orthodox religious community and the largely Italian and Catholic neighborhood in which I grew up. I know too well that there was significant sexism in the past, and I’m not suggesting for a moment that it was acceptable.

    Nor am I suggesting that you’re wrong about your response. Obviously, it is important for the men in the situation to understand that, just as we dislike the idea of a man’s worth being bound up in being the breadwinner, we need to disabuse ourselves of the idea that not being the main breadwinner is somehow less masculine. I find these stories tragic for both partners, as the men’s egos are almost laughably weak, and the women are only too willing to let them get away with that.

    But my friend felt sincerely that some past injustices, instead of being done away with, were now being dealt to him. He was expected to cook, to clean, and to be the total houseperson, since his income is less important. If the household chores were undone, well, he could have skipped working that day without a huge impact on their finances, so they became his problem. And, like too many women before him, this made him feel small and insignificant.

    He is not ignorant enough to lack understanding of the karmic irony involved. He understands his sense of privilege, and that it is that privilege itself which is under attack. He is a good man, and gets that his complaints are not significantly different than generations of women before him, except that, unlike them, he actually has more agency as a man in current society than they did as women in a heave patriarchy. And he loves his wife dearly, which helps a lot.

    But it doesn’t stop it from being hard sometimes. In a situation where his income is secondary to hers, it’s easy to fall into the feeling that it means that his main job is managing the household. And that can be unsatisfying, especially if there are not children to raise. While my friends who have decided to stay home to raise the children if they can afford it are, by and large, quite satisfied with their choices, he, without children, felt unfulfilled.

    In short, his complaint was not that he felt less masculine. His complaint was that he felt less human than his wife. That is not an issue of sexism, though the underlying assumptions are buttressed by a sexist world in which his image of masculinity was built. It is a problem of materialism, of seeing his worth bound up in his financial choices.

    So yes, there is an element of “Buck up, and understand that your value as a human being is not written in the dollar field of your pay stub.” That is a valid response, and one that needs to be taught. But devaluing someone over the size of his or her paycheck is also a common thing, one that we’ve learned the hard way is unfair to women.

    Perhaps we need to have some understanding, then, when men are placed in that same position.

    Relationships are complex, and too many assumptions go unsaid. But just because they’re unsaid doesn’t make them unfelt. Being financially dependent on someone else can easily make one feel dominated. But while consensual domination is about trust and faith, economic domination has always had issues around subservience and resentment. The fact that you, or I, don’t experience our financial lives that way doesn’t minimize that there are many who do, and that our society tells them that those fears are not unfounded.

    Someone with your background as a sexual educator surely understands the power that comes with “bringing home the bacon.” Just because the cries of powerlessness come from people who feel entitled, whose privilege is being threatened at the same time, doesn’t make those cries less important.

  2. Jordan says:

    Its my dream to marry a successful woman and be able to stay home or work some fluffy little job with no concern for financial reward. Actually I’d settle for a sugar momma, the ring is not important.

  3. Charlie says:


    Sure- when someone feels devalued, especially when it happens economically, it can bring up all sorts of stuff. I think that’s why one of the pieces of advice to women in the NY Times article is to “go after men who draw their confidence from sources other than money, like academics and artists”. Rather than seeing their partners’ larger incomes as a sign that they’re less important, what if more men took it as an opportunity to engage in work that was personally meaningful or socially important?

    One example from the original piece was the teacher who felt inadequate when compared to his wife. And yet, if he’s doing his job well, he has the potential to have a huge positive impact on many people’s lives. Wouldn’t it be great if he could be proud of that, and glad that his wife’s income makes it possible, rather than feeling devalued?

    Similarly, your friend is fortunate enough to have the chance to do work that he loves. And perhaps he and his partner could work out a way to balance the household chores that are based on something other than who makes more money. For example, they could look at how many hours each week they each put into work and divide the chores up so that the total hours (work + chores) balance out. That sort of arrangement leaves room for renegotiation as work demands wax and wane and the ongoing process of communication about it can help avoid unspoken assumptions and resentments.

  4. Ari says:

    Yes, uhm, what Ron said.

    There are two modes of thought, I think. That of trying to preserve a sense of self and self-worth that is important in order for healthy relationships to function, and trying to break apart sexist models of how relationships “ought to work.” This is the push-pull of individual vs. culture and it’s something we all navigate, every day of our lives.

    I don’t disagree at all that it would be a FAR better world, it would be awesome if I did not have to worry (with varying levels of actual “give-a-fuck” of course) about what my friends, family, colleagues, random strangers thought about my male partner(s) based on his job/career and income level, and what that says about his “success” and “masculinity,” and by extention what that says about our relationship and whether I ought to feel good about being in a relationship with this man.

    But I also know that, the day-in, day-out stress is enough that, maybe if one of the small compromises you make in a relationship is having a joint credit card so that when you’re out to dinner or whatever, he can look like the “bread-winner”… Is that such a bad thing? Well it depends on whether there’s residual resentment or frustration lingering behind the scenes, or if these sorts of compromises really do negotiate the problem well enough that it’s not an issue.

    p.s., I’m really sorry if this shows up more than once! I’ve been having internet connectivity issues all morning.

  5. jane says:

    It is quite an interesting topic from an evolutionary standpoint (sorry if I’m taking this topic in too much of a biological route).

    But thousands of years ago, the human brain developed under conditions in which many of the “masculine” traits many women favor today were reproductively advantageous. For example, in hunter gather societies, males who were better hunters were considered to be more desirable mates, because in this setting they were better providers for their female mates and her offspring. This is not to say that humans have not come a long way in their development, but perhaps this desire for the man in the relationship to bring home the bacon stems from a traditions which extends far beyond or typical notion of societal standards and rather to our evolutionary background as a species (which extended over hundreds of thousands of years, rather than the few hundred which we consider as modern society).

    Just a thought . . .

  6. Ari says:


    “…perhaps this desire for the man in the relationship to bring home the bacon stems from a traditions which extends far beyond or typical notion of societal standards and rather to our evolutionary background as a species…”

    I’m gonna have to say, uh, no. The Breadwinner-Homemaker model is a specifically modern, 20th century ideal that is fairly unique to the 1950’s and the advent of the cult of domesticity. It is also a class- and race- based expectation, because even in the 1950s, if you were poor or anything other than white, you could not afford to manifest the Breadwinner-Homemaker model in your relationships, regardless of whether society told you it was the ideal or not. If you investigate social histories prior to Age of Industrialization, you will note that family structures relied on the equal labor of both husband and wife (and children, and live-in servants, etc. etc.) in order to maintain a living. (That is, unless you’re rich, but that’s apparently the standard throughout history.) The concept of “men bringing home the bacon” only became dominant when Industrialization propelled men OUT of the home, in mass numbers, and into a manufacturing work-force that required labor for pay instead of labor for products that could be directly consumed.

    Of course, that doesn’t mean that we haven’t held more often than not, to a higher valuation of men’s work than women’s work, but that’s another matter. To return to the “hunter-gatherer” model (Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman, is a great, recent example of such a group), it’s important to note that while hunters might be “prized” for their efforts, that doesn’t mean that they’re actually doing most of the “providing.” Hunting prey is a time-intensive process that runs the risk of having very low gains on a regular basis, whereas gathering (in a fertile environment) may be very labor-intensive, but is much more likely to produce a reliable food source. Based on that idea, it would make MORE sense to highly value males that can be effective gatherers, because such a mate would be much more reliable in providing adequate food during the most vulnerable periods of a woman’s life, pregnancy and nursing, when her ability to do it would be much more limited.

  7. K says:

    Love it! Perfectly said, perfectly said!

  8. […] is that there is a much larger portion of women who legitimately feel the opposite. I find: Dealing With It When Women Make More Money Than Men This is a great article! It’s just really difficult to understand how to apply it to my own […]

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