The curse of the breadwinner wife

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There were many reasons my marriage failed. But our traditional role reversal pushed us over the edge.

It didn’t help that I was a resentful breadwinner. Like many women, I’d opted to go freelance before I had children knowing this was probably my best chance of working flexibly while continuing to earn a decent wage.

But I had never expected to be the sole breadwinner. I certainly never expected to have to go back to work so soon after having my children, just to make ends meet.

Rather than building each other up, we were pulling each other down

It didn’t help our marriage that my ex spent eight years out of work (despite my encouragement to find a job), or that his drinking and controlling behaviour became steadily worse.

They were eight years of living within the same four walls, under the same roof, bringing up young children, never getting any space away from one another.

As his self esteem plummeted, it seemed the only  way he could cope with my resentment and his feelings of inadequacy was to criticise me and my parenting.

We stopped working as a team and increasingly, it felt as though we were in competition. Rather than building each other up, we were pulling each other down.

Half of non-traditional marriages fail

Sadly, my story is far from unique. My anecdotal experience and various pieces of research suggest that non-traditional marriages are more likely to end in divorce.

Divorce rates rise to 50% when a woman earns more than her husband, according to a study from the University of Chicago.

It found the percentage of people who report being “very happy” with their marriage declines when a woman out-earns her husband.

One explanation for this, the researchers suggest, is that a wife making more money is doing more chores to assuage her husband’s unease.

But serving as both the primary breadwinner and the primary homemaker may be draining (more on this in my post on the mental load). That, the researchers point out, “may be one of the mechanisms behind our results on divorce.”

Moreover, men who are financially dependent are more likely to cheat, according to research in the American Sociological Review.

Anecdotally, I know of several relationships where yummy mummies in the school yard proved too much of a temptation for stay-at-home dads. Particularly when there wasn’t much sex happening at home.

“I hypothesise that the more economically dependent a married man is on his partner, the greater his likelihood of engaging in infidelity,” writes author Christin Munsch in the ASR. “Extramarital sex allows men undergoing a masculinity threat to engage in behaviour culturally associated with masculinity.”

“Simultaneously, extramarital sex allows threatened men to distance themselves from, and perhaps punish, their breadwinning spouse.”

The research found that breadwinning wives tend to downplay their financial contributions, defer to their husbands in decision making, and do a disproportionate amount of housework.

Meanwhile, economic dependency in men is associated with increased domestic violence, decreased housework and decreased health.

These are not the best ingredients for a happy marriage!

A problem that isn’t going away

Statistics suggest that around 40% of women in heterosexual relationships in the UK are now the primary breadwinner.

No doubt family lawyers are rubbing their hands with glee

With this figure expected to grow, what does this mean for the future of marriage?

When half of all marriages fail – with the average cost of divorce soaring to a current high of £70,000 in the UK – will young couples begin to question why they should bother (for more on this read my earlier post on why marriage is losing its appeal)?

No doubt family lawyers are rubbing their hands with glee, and certainly there is every reason to believe the courts are exploiting these newer sources of marital conflict.

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