When She Makes More: 10 rules for breadwinning women

A few years ago, my little brother moved his family to Seattle. His wife had received a promotion and an opportunity to work at her company's flagship location. The offer was too good to refuse. There was just one problem: They moved before Tony could find a job.

Tony's wife enjoyed her new position and increased salary. He pounded the pavement looking for work. He had no luck. When he was in Portland a few months later, he stopped by my place for a beer.

“How are things going?” I asked.

“They're OK,” he said, but he paused a moment, which told me things weren't okay.

“What's wrong?” I asked.

“Well, it sucks,” he said. “It sucks to have your wife be making all the money in the family. I don't feel like a man. I mean, I'm proud of her and everything, but I am the one who should be providing for us, not her. Ever since we moved, I haven't felt good about myself.”

Tony isn't alone. In roughly one-quarter of married U.S. couples, the wife earns more than her husband, up from just 6 percent in 1960. While this fact isn't an issue in many marriages — during the time we were together, Kris almost always made more than I did and neither of us minded — for other couples, this can be a real problem.

This dynamic is the subject of a new book from Farnoosh Torabi. In When She Makes More, Torabi explores statistics, biology, and psychology to explain why relationships often suffer when the woman makes more — and how order and harmony can be restored in this new kind of relationship.

10 Rules for Better Relationships

Torabi cites a lot of research (so much research, in fact, that at times the reading is dry) about how relationship dynamics change when the woman in a relationship makes more than the man. She also includes anecdotes to illustrate some of the pitfalls (and solutions) to common problems, such as shared housework and childcare.

Her book is structured around 10 rules for managing money in a relationship in which the woman is the primary breadwinner. Her rules are:

  • Face the facts. To start, couples have to accept their situation for what it is. She makes more. And because she does, risks of burnout, infidelity, and divorce are much higher than with a traditional relationship where the man is the breadwinner. To deal with the very real psychological costs, each couple must recognize the trade-offs they're making to maintain this dynamic.
  • Rewrite the fairy tale. Torabi says that it used to be that girls grew up “dreaming of marrying a Prince Charming who could provide for them and their children.” To be happy in the modern world, women (and men) must dream of something different. As they date and marry, they have to change their expectations, and look for new ways to achieve an effective partnership.
  • Level the financial playing field. Like me, Torabi believes money management is more an emotional issue than a logical one. It's important to establish a family financial structure that's appropriate for your situation, one that's fair and equitable to both partners. For some, that means joint finances. For others, that means separate finances. Financial chores should be divvied up based on each partner's strengths.
  • Hack the hypotheticals. To make better long-term financial decisions, Torabi says women must consider a series of “what if?” questions. Plan in advance to deal with the unexpected. Consider a prenup (or postnup) agreement. Prepare for the future, including retirement and elder care for your parents.
  • Cater to the male brain. Once you've leveled the financial playing field in the relationship, you need to level the emotional playing field. Don't ignore or trivialize the psychological impact that occurs when men aren't able to act as “providers.” Both partners should be open and honest about their feelings so that neither becomes resentful.
  • Buy yourself a wife. Like it or not, women do most of the household chores — even when they're the primary breadwinners. This can quickly lead to resentment. Torabi suggests a couple of ways of dealing with this. First, the breadwinning woman can change her expectations. If that's not enough, establish clear roles for each partner. But often the best solution is to hire a housekeeper.
  • Break the glass ceiling (but carry a shield). While women balance the needs of their relationships, they mustn't neglect their careers. “If you're a woman making the majority of the family income, you need to create your own ‘insurance policy',” Torabi writes. Acknowledge and embrace the double standards. Be careful to avoid burnout. Learn to compartmentalize the different aspects of your life.
  • Plan parenthood. Kids change everything. Most people realize this, of course, but many people fail to plan sufficiently for the challenges of children. Again, both partners should negotiate roles appropriate to their skill sets. And both partners need to be flexible and willing to compromise as you make it all work.
  • Grow a thicker skin. Everyone has an opinion — and many folks will criticize you for choosing a non-traditional role. Ignore everyone. Do what works for you and your relationship. If you need to, prepare script responses to common questions. Lend each other support during especially turbulent times (such as criticism from family members).
  • Remember to breathe. Finally, remember that your ultimate goal is happiness. Do what you need to obtain it. Get help when you need help. Don't let the haters get you down. Do what's best for your relationship.

I expected When She Makes More to be aimed at helping women level the economic playing field. It's not. There are no tips here about how to negotiate your salary, communicate effectively, or cope with sexism in the workplace. Instead, this book is targeted at women who have already established successful careers.

“This book is not about feminism,” Torabi writes in the introduction. And it's not. She's not trying to push an agenda. Her goal is to provide pragmatic and practical info for couples who find themselves struggling with a specific situation. I think she succeeds. This will be a valuable book for many people.

A Brave New World

Over and over, Torabi stresses the importance of “making it all work.” Framing it like this instead of “doing it all” or “having it all” makes sense. I have some friends who exemplify this notion.

My good friend Mac (with whom I used to write Get Fit Slowly) is a stay-at-home dad. A decade ago, he was a high-school science teacher and a baseball coach. After his wife finished medical school, she took a job as a pathologist at a local lab. She earned more in one year than he did in five. When they had children, the choice was easy: He elected to become a stay-at-home dad.

Yesterday, I asked Mac how he felt about Pam being the family breadwinner. “I'm fine with it,” he said. “It works for us and always has.”

But Mac says the reason it works has more to do with their personalities than anything else. “I'm laid back,” he said. “I don't get jealous of other people. And especially not of my wife for making more money than me!”

Plus, he and his wife have taken turns with the role. During the years she was in medical school, Mac was the primary breadwinner. She plans to retire early, and when she does, Mac will probably resume working.

“You have to remember that we planned this,” Mac said. “We knew we wanted one of us to stay at home with the kids. It would have been stupid for me to have kept working instead of Pam.”

One final note: I think this book can be helpful for other couples too, not just those in which the woman earns more. For instance, after two years together Kim and I have started exploring the world of shared finances. Who pays for what? How often? Do we share any accounts? How do we budget for a shared future? Reading When She Makes More helped me recognize that some of what I'd been asking for tilted the balance of power in the relationship too far in one direction.

Footnote: In semi-related reading, Brett at The Art of Manliness recently published a thoughtful article called “Why Are We So Conflicted Manhood in the Modern Age?” If you're interested in gender differences, this is a worthwhile read.
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