When women out-earn men at home do relationships suffer?

Female breadwinners are challenging traditional thinking regarding the role of men at home, with women now the major wage earner in more than half a million Australian households, an increase of 140,000 since a decade ago.

So how is this shifting trend affecting the relationship balance within Australian households? And does the shift mean men are comfortable accepting their partner is or could be the main breadwinner?

Kate Johns, Marketing Director at Sidekick Communications, certainly thinks so.

Johns returned to work full time when her eldest child was five. "I have always had more earning potential than my husband, so initially went back to work for financial reasons," says Johns. "But, within weeks, I felt like an entirely new person and the fire and drive I previously had was reignited,"

It was this fire that saw Johns establish her own communications company, a goal which her husband fully supported by taking on the role of full time stay at home Dad.

"There is no way I could've started my business and worked at the pace I have without his support, especially on the home front," says Johns. "There's never been any kind of resentment expressed by him, and he's only ever been positive, especially when explaining my time away to the kids. He tells them how exciting it is that I have my own business, that I'm building my dream, and uses it as a way to inspire them."

Charlotte Green* is in a similar financial situation, despite the fact her husband also works. "While we are both professionals, I am the major income earner for the household with my husband's wage equating to approximately 60% of mine," says Green.

"He is very understanding and supportive and contributes a great deal to the parenting and household duties. We both accept that without his input at home, I could not make the appropriate commitment to work."

But it's a different situation for Jane Tinder*. "I was previously married and was the main breadwinner after having children," she says. "My then husband hated this and behaved badly, trying to interrupt my work and progress at every possible turn."

So why is it an issue for some couples and not for others?

Psychologist Lissa Johnson believes that the extent to which this is an issue comes down to the individuals. "Personalities who appear to have the most difficulty with this situation are more traditionalist, hierarchical, and possibly competitive, with preferences for familiarity and order, and who value predictability and a clearly defined status quo," she explains.

"Sometimes it occupies centre stage in a couple's relationship difficulties, and sometimes it is a more peripheral issue that aggravates and adds to their difficulties and distress."

Johnson says that when it is an issue for the man, it generally comes down to pride and traditional gender role expectations. "There can be a sense of not being good enough, not measuring up, not being a 'man' and having failed in his role and responsibilities to provide. Men can also feel disempowered or controlled in terms of choices about spending and allocation of the couple's resources."

Johnson goes on to say that subsequently men who are struggling with the situation often "overcompensate in counterproductive ways, for instance, by over-asserting their authority or withdrawing from domestic work, to re-assert a traditionally masculine role."

However, Johnson says women can sometimes be just as much to blame for the tension as men. "Like men, women who have internalised traditional gender identities can have difficulties adapting to a non-traditional arrangement, and sometimes feel let down, dissatisfied and burdened as the primary provider," she says. "Women who are the higher earner through necessity rather than choice can sometimes feel resentful and trapped in their role as provider."

Despite all this, Johnson believes that attitudes towards women earning more are changing. "Research says that younger men are more egalitarian in their attitudes toward their female partners than previous generations, and more willing to participate in domestic work and childcare, so I think that things are looking up."

Melissa Ferrari, a psychotherapist and counsellor, echoes Johnson's thoughts. "I notice that men are definitely starting to accept the new 'roles' when it comes to who is the breadwinner," she says. "Generally they are becoming more flexible about this and many even welcome it."

Ferrari advises that when roles are changed within a household, it can be really helpful to have a contract about how things are going to work, taking into account emotional and practical aspects of the situation.

"Contracts that meet the needs of both people in the relationship and offer clarity about how the situation will work can be enormously helpful," she explains.

"Consider how a relationship or marriage can thrive under these conditions, and focus on listening to each other's thoughts and feelings about the arrangement, and don't be afraid to seek help from a therapist if necessary."

* Names have been changed.

Last modified on Friday, 13 November 2015 16:35
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Jo Hartley

Jo Hartley is a freelance writer and blogger.

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