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.

Time to call time on marriage?

It’s probably not a surprise that I’m not a huge fan of marriage, given my recent acrimonious divorce, however it is well documented that men benefit more from wedlock than women.

The presence of a wife may bring benefits for men in terms of household management and healthcare, whereas women are “more likely to feel stressed”

Interestingly and perhaps not surprisingly, this is not the case for same-sex marriage where marriage is mutually beneficial for LGBT couples from physical and mental health perspective.

In heterosexual relationships, studies show that married men have lower rates of depression, anxiety and suicide than never-married men. Meanwhile, married women have higher rates.

Moreover, men live longer when they are married, while their wives’ longevity is impaired.

This is because the presence of a wife may bring benefits for men in terms of household management and healthcare, whereas women are “more likely to feel stressed and find their role restrictive and frustrating,” according to Dr Caterina Trevisan at the University of Padova, who also notes that when men die, their widows often bounce back.

This does beg the question, should women bother getting married? And increasingly, they are not.

According to the UK’s Office for National Statistics marriage rates for women have dropped from a high of 60.5 per 1,000 in 1972, to 20.9 in 2014 (I’m not sure why they don’t have more recent numbers).

Figure 1b_ Marriages rates for men and women, 1934 to 2014

There are many reasons out there for the decline in popularity of marriage, including the increasingly punitive costs involved in walking down the aisle (the current average cost of a wedding in the UK is £27k, according to hitched.co.uk).

Another driver of the decline in matrimony is women deliberately choosing not to marry.

“We are living through the invention of independent female adulthood as a norm, not an aberration, and the creation of an entirely new population: adult women who are no longer economically, socially, sexually, or reproductively dependent on or defined by the men they marry,” explains Rebecca Traister in her book, All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation.

Where this leaves men is rather more worrying, according to The Good Men Project. Women are more likely to reach out for help when they need it and to maintain their support networks.

For men, their wife is usually their sole best friend. Moreover, men don’t tend to share with other men, certainly not on the same emotional level that women do.

“As men feel unable to meet women’s needs for economic, emotional, and social support, they feel more inadequate and distance themselves even more, often escaping into pornography, increased alcohol consumption, and compulsive work habits,” writes Dr Jed Diamond, author of The Enlightened Marriage.

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Choosing a marriage of equals

The decision not to marry is a bold one for women to take, but a decision that could result in them living longer, happier and healthier lives. But for those who do want to publicly commit to their partners, there is the option to choose a marriage of equals.

When I married my ex in 2008 I’ll admit to being carried away by the romance of it all and pushing most of my feminist ideals to one side.

However, even then I saw little point in changing what was a perfectly good name, one that I’d had all my life, and questioned why I should be “given away” by my father as if I was simply a man’s property.

Some women say they take their husband’s name because they want the same surname as their children. But if marriage is losing its appeal, perhaps children should start taking their mother’s surnames? But that’s a discussion for another day…

 

Shouldering the mental load

Since I split from my husband, my “happily married” friends seem more willing to share their frustrations about their husbands with me. I suspect they don’t feel the need to pretend their relationship is all rainbows and unicorns with someone whose marriage has failed and isn’t going to judge them.

So recently I’ve noticed these stories slipping out. Most have a similar flavour and speak to a deep, underlying dissatisfaction with the division of labour in many modern marriages.

They involve husbands not identifying (or choosing not to identify) when they need to step in and share the load… until it is too late and their wives are royally fucked off.

Husbands or partners needing to be told to entertain their children/bring in the shopping/get the dinner ready suggests these roles are still considered to be a woman’s domain. Even when both partners are working.

 

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Working mothers continue to shoulder more than their fair share of the “mental load” (described brilliantly here by French cartoonist Emma, illustrator of the above image), according to the Modern Family Index, a study commissioned by Bright Horizons Family Solutions.

And these household responsibilities only increase when it’s the woman bringing home the dough, with breadwinning mothers:

  • Three times more likely than breadwinning fathers to be keepers of their children’s schedules and responsible for them getting to activities and appointments (76% vs. 22%)
  • Three times more likely to volunteer at school (63% vs. 19%)
  • Twice as likely to make sure all family responsibilities are handled (71% vs. 38%).

It’s the little things that seem to add to women’s mental load, things that we often don’t even question doing: organising play dates and activities, packing school bags, buying gifts, organising holidays, sorting through clothes drawers. Even trimming fingernails and toenails (which is more challenging than it sounds) and regular bathing.

Much of the most valuable talent in the workplace is playing double duty as manager of family life as well

 

Even though my ex is more liberated and hands-on than many men I know in my circle, post-split I continue to feel unfairly lumbered. However, life is much easier now we have a shared care arrangement and both children are in school.

I don’t miss the daily grind of jumping straight from my home office desk into homework/meals/bedtime routine with barely a pause for breath. I did all this partly out of a sense of duty, a smidge of working mummy guilt and because once my working day was over, my ex assumed I would step in and relieve him.

After all, he’d had a busy day attending toddler groups, drinking coffee and chatting to other parents. Well that is how it felt, if I’m being brutally honest. It felt as though as the “stay-at-home parent” he had cherry-picked all the best parts of raising our little darlings, while I was left to do the grunt work… after I’d paid the bills and spent half the night breastfeeding!

Overhauling outdated stereotypes

I don’t have all the answers for how to overcome these issues. However, I have stopped trying to be superwoman and learnt how to ask for help. I pay a cleaner to come once a week, do my supermarket shopping via an app on my phone, never iron any clothes and (shock horror) sometimes send the girls off to school in the pinafore they had on the day before and shoes that haven’t been polished.

I prioritise and communicate. I’m learning a few mummy “hacks”, I cut every corner possible and empower my children to do simple chores themselves (although I am not beyond yelling at them to open their mouths whilst I frantically swish the toothbrush around before pushing them out the door to go to school).

I make fish fingers for tea, rather than something more ambitious/nutritious that my children will turn their noses up at. The school makes excellent cooked meals for their lunch so a straightforward, crowd-pleaser at dinner time is fine.

Ours unfortunately is a pioneering generation and hence, it is our marriages being put to the test. Not that this is an excuse for the dinosaurs out there. Working fathers need to step up to the plate, and parents raising boys need to teach them (through doing) that men and women are equally responsible for running a household.

Change is also needed in the workplace. The Modern Family Index blames outdated workplace cultures and stereotypes for failing to keep up with women’s professional strides. It suggests employers could do their part to ease the load.

“The fact is that for most employers, much of their most valuable talent in the workplace is playing double duty as manager of family life as well,” notes Bright Horizons CHRO Maribeth Bearfield.

“By creating environments where men are encouraged and valued for taking advantage of work/life supports as well, workplaces can start to catch up with the culture this generation of working families demands.”

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It started with a divorce…

It took the breakdown of my marriage to open my eyes to a what I believe is a growing problem for marriage and society: the curse of the breadwinner wife.

Women are now the main breadwinner in nearly half of UK households. Yet statistically, those marriages in which women earn more than their husbands are more doomed to failure.

It’s not simply that men can’t stomach the emasculation or that women are feeling stretched and resentful. Although these are common themes I hear and read about time and time again.

I started this blog in an effort to explore the challenges facing female breadwinners. I hope it will offer insight, support and comfort for those out there who are breaking the mould but feel society is pitted against them.

 

Here’s to strong women. May we know them. May we be them. May we raise them.