Millennial Women Are Conflicted About Being Breadwinners

Do me a favor and google the phrases, “I make more money than my husband” and “I make more money than my boyfriend.” If your search results turn out anything like mine did, they surface articles mostly concerning how this financial dynamic creates challenges for the relationship (I Make More Money Than My Husband — Here’s How We Manage), or how you can save the relationship should you have fallen into this (unfortunate?) situation (How To Date A Woman Who Makes More Money Than You).
Most of these articles suggest relationships in which women make more than their male partners begin at a disadvantage. The woman being the breadwinner is approached as an obstacle a couple must overcome to aid the general health of the partnership. They make it all about the money.
The year I was born, 1987, women earned more money than their husbands in less than a quarter of American heterosexual households. By 2015, the year I became the breadwinner in my own household, that number jumped to 38%. My partner moved from Seattle to Brooklyn to be with me and support my budding writing career. For us, money hasn’t been particularly hard to navigate: I earn approximately 70% more per year than he does. While we are not married, we live together and share expenses. Due to some grand gift of luck from the universe, we were on the same page from the beginning about how we wanted to save, splurge, and generally do money. But some people, men and women decades older than he or I, think it’s strange I make more and don’t have a problem with it. And they don’t mind saying so. Here are just a few things these folks have said to my face:
“I couldn’t date a man who was less ambitious than I am.”
“I guess I just feel like it’s a man’s job to take care of his woman, not the other way around.”
“What if you end up having to pay him alimony like Mary J. Blige and her ex-husband?”
“Do you ever think you might be selling yourself short?”
This perspective is not unfamiliar to millennial women who make more than their partners, many of whom harbor uncomfortable and complex feelings about that reality themselves. These messages trickle down with almost unavoidable emotional and psychological consequence.
I conducted an anonymous survey of 130 millennial women who took on the role and responsibility of being the high earner in their homes, and found the troubles they face can rarely be boiled down to the single issue of money. Like most relationships, the real problems are expectations and communication. The women most frustrated by their breadwinner status never considered it could happen, didn’t expect it to last, or can’t find a way to do things differently even when they want to.

“It's stressful. It's a huge responsibility. I pressure myself to stay in the job I'm at even if I'm unhappy there.”

Unlike the traditional trajectory of men who earn more, or are sole financial providers, most of these millennial women either believe out-earning their partners is temporary, or lament the idea that it may not be.
When asked how they would feel if they knew right now that they would always be the breadwinner in their current marriages and relationships, words like “tired,” “exhausted,” and that special one, “resentful” turned up over and over again. One woman responded, “It's stressful. It's a huge responsibility. I pressure myself to stay in the job I'm at even if I'm unhappy there.” Another wrote, “I kind of assume this will be the case, just based on our past jobs and strengths/interests. It makes me feel a little weary sometimes, like I may never get a break, or get to pursue something I might really love, but if I COULD do something I really loved while making enough money to support us, I would be perfectly fine with that.” This was a common theme in the responses. Most of these women didn’t mind being the breadwinner as long as they eventually had the option to make less, their partners contributed equally in the household, and it didn’t trap them into jobs they no longer wanted.
Lyla*, from Portland, Maine has always made more than her husband, to the tune of $50K more per year, but the resentment didn’t start until she realized he didn’t understand how hard she was working to keep them financially afloat. “I was always stressed about it, and he never was because to him, things ‘just worked themselves out.’” Lyla taught her husband of 10 years exactly how she manages their money, put him in charge of paying a few bills, and only then did he understand just how much work she was putting into managing their household. “Once he learned what it took to make our budget work, he was incredibly appreciative of me taking that on, and that appreciation and support I felt from him really relieved my feelings of resentment.”

A 2013 study reported men who engaged in chores traditionally referred to as 'women’s work' were less likely to have sex.

In addition to a lack of appreciation from their spouses, many women shared the common experience of putting a lot of time and energy in at work, then coming home and having to pick up the household chores, too. Recent research tells us dual-income households (no matter who earns more) lead to a greater sense of satisfaction between partners, and healthier savings accounts. But this doesn’t necessarily lead to a more equitable division of all of the unpaid, and often invisible, household and childcare labor. According to this narrative (here, here, and here, for example), most of the housework falls on the woman. And this, so the story goes, leads to simmering resentment on the part of women who are frustrated with their blissfully unaware husbands who don’t pick up the household slack.
This is all further complicated by the fact that research also shows men who do that home work suffer from feelings of emasculation. And sometimes women find their household-helping husbands less attractive, too. A 2013 study reported men who engaged in chores traditionally referred to as “women’s work” were less likely to have sex.
In the same year that women out-earning their husbands jumped up to 38%, a different study found that men who earned less than their spouses were significantly more likely to cheat. Several recipients of my survey emailed me this same study.
Despite less than 15% of respondents being raised to believe that being a woman and a breadwinner was less feminine or attractive, it was something most of them had on their minds, and were actively worried about. Nancy* wrote, “It initially made me feel ashamed, like I was settling or it meant that I wasn't attractive enough, good enough. There was a lot of internalized misogyny about how attractive or sexy women should be with 'successful' men. I worried about what other people would say.” Nancy is based in L.A. and makes over $100,000 per year. Her husband makes half that amount, and doesn’t seem at all threatened by the difference in their income, nor has he ever implied that he finds her less attractive. When asked how her husband felt about her being the breadwinner, she responded, “He’s proud of me.”
The overwhelming majority of millennial women breadwinners don’t believe the men in their lives should feel emasculated by the gap in their income. Tracy*, of New York City, says, “I make more money because my life and my career took a different direction than his. Our circumstances are just different.” Tracy makes between $70K and $89K; her partner makes at least $50K less. When she initially realized she’d be the breadwinner in their relationship, she was fine, but not happy about it. “I was disappointed more so because I knew he wouldn't be able to keep up with all the things I wanted to do and buy.” Still, she continued, “I'd rather him be happy with his work than make more money and be miserable with his work.”

“I do not like feeling solely responsible for all of our financial needs.”

A similar sentiment came up over and over again among the women surveyed. They’d rather be breadwinners than live with a partner who was unhappy at their job — at least for now. When Jasmine*, of Cookeville, TN, graduated college early, she knew she’d be the primary breadwinner at least until her partner finished school, as well. After he graduated, she continued to earn more. When asked how he felt about her out-earning him, she admitted that it bothers him, “but not enough to go out and take a full time job he thinks is beneath him.” Still, she insists she doesn’t want to be the breadwinner forever. “I do not like feeling solely responsible for all of our financial needs.”
Despite my assumptions, these women were not confined to big cities; they were from all over the country. Women from states like Texas, Ohio, Utah, Georgia, Wisconsin, and Montana were all represented in this survey, and many of them were surprised by their initial emotional reactions to becoming the high-earners in their relationships. Sharon’s* husband pointed out that, after a promotion, she was now the breadwinner between them, which he discovered while filing their taxes. Her internal response startled her: “I felt shocked, and a little ashamed, and then I felt embarrassed that I was ashamed.”
She and her husband live in Washington, D.C.; she makes between $90K and $100K per year. He makes at least $11,000 less than she does. The money question here is a little more complex, as they both have children from previous relationships in their household. Sharon feels financially responsible for everyone. “It's clear that I cover ‘my’ kids' expenses, but it's not fair that he be responsible solely for ‘his’ kids' expenses, since I'm with them all the time, too, and think of them as ‘my’ kids, too.”
The general consensus of this group seems to be that the theory of being the partner who earns more is appealing to millennial women. They want their partners to feel happy and free and like they shouldn’t be expected to support the entire family unit simply based on their gender, but reality throws everyone for a loop. Being the breadwinner, or sole earner, raises the stakes for these respondents internally, in the same way it does for men externally. For many men, having a wife who doesn’t work isn’t just a financial burden, but a social status symbol. Over the last two weeks social feeds and brunch conversations were buzzing about an article from The New York Times reporting that millennial men aged 18 to 25 were more likely than the generation before them to want their wives to be housewives. On its own, this wouldn’t be enough to incite much outrage from progressive readers, but the article goes on to imply that this shift in thinking is due to men feeling a “loss of dominance in the work world.” Having a wife who earns more, or is the sole earner, may mean a loss of dominance at home, as well; dominance that some men feel is their due.

After making more, and often still doing more around the house, they must go out into a world that generally views them as actively being duped by a man who won't live up to his 'duty to provide.'

It still means something to have a wife who could make the choice to stay home full-time to pursue her own low-pay or no-paying goals. The same social benefit is generally not available to women with partners or husbands who stay home or make significantly less than they do. After making more, and often still doing more around the house, they must go out into a world that generally views them as actively being duped by a man who won't live up to his 'duty to provide.'
In addition to being the top earner, millennial women are still often asked to defend a private choice made within the confines of their relationship, and deal with the fact that the United States is woefully behind when it comes to family leave policy, especially for men. This is something Brit*, of Raleigh-Durham, N.C., is already thinking about. “I worry about how my husband will be treated, as a future stay-at-home dad. I know that our society just isn't set up to support a father as the primary caregiver, whether it be support groups for parents (or PTA groups or whatever), or even things like baby-changing station in bathrooms.” Brit makes between $50K and $69K per year. Her husband, a writer, makes at least $50K less.
Whether they’re happy earning more or not, these women consistently acknowledge they experience significant added pressure (internally and externally) to maintain their careers, or seek promotions. This might seem like a good thing, but some women aren't chasing promotions due to personal goals, but because they want the safety net provided by the additional income. One women said, “It puts constant pressure on me to feel like I have to job leap every few years to find a higher salary to keep us afloat.” A 25-year-old woman wrote, “There is…an immense amount of pressure realizing you will be supporting someone else, especially when you are just learning to support yourself.”
*Shayna lives and works in Seattle, WA. She makes between $50K and $69K per year. Her husband makes at least $21K less. Despite the fact that she’s hoping he makes more after finishing his PhD program, Shayna is happy to keep providing. “I get a little bit of a thrill out of it. I think having a mom who was so dependent on a man she wasn't with, it makes me feel empowered to be able to financially support my husband not out of necessity but because I am capable and have a job I love.”
When we imagine the life of a woman who earns more than her husband, we do not consider the mental and emotional fortitude required to do so in a way that allows both partners to live fully, freely, and indeed happily. This lack of imagination means there are no templates for the necessary conversations about who does what, who pays for what, and how this uncommon dynamic feels day-to-day, for both partners.
I asked myself if I would be comfortable being the breadwinner in this relationship forever, and came to a similar conclusion to most of the survey respondents: Yes, but only as long as my breadwinning came from doing the work that I want to be doing. Maybe it’s not that my partner and I are so much on the same page about money, and who earns it, as much as we are on the same page as long as I keep loving the way I earn the money. I’m also looking out for signs of growing resentment, on either side of this partnership, as well as attempting to be more conscious of when and how I contribute to the unpaid invisible labor in our household. The last thing I want is for my partner to feel disrespected, and for me to feel taken advantage of financially. Still, this is for us to figure out, and like any healthy marriage or relationship, that starts with talking about it openly, honestly, and just between us two.
*Names have been changed.
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