Wives Increasingly Earning More Than Husbands

Men are increasingly likely to marry women who make more than they do, according to a new study on the changing economics of marriage. Columnist Amy Dickinson and clinical psychologist Joshua Coleman discuss what that role reversal means for some couples.

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REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Rebecca Roberts in Washington.

There was a time when marriage was the best way for women, at least economically speaking, to get ahead. While for men, marriage generally meant adding more expenses but not more income. Not anymore. More women are going to college and working and earning more money. Meanwhile, the current economic downturn has hit men harder than women, at least on the unemployment line.

The Pew Center on Social and Demographic Trends released a report last month on the new economics of marriage. Results show that times have changed since the 1970s, when men were the top earners and learners in their families. Now, men are increasingly likely to marry women with more education and income than they have, while the reverse is true for women.

Later in the hour, we'll talk about the new credit card rules with Michelle Singletary, but first the rise of the wife. We want to hear from you. How does one person making more than another affect the dynamic in your marriage?

Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org, and you can join the conversation at our Web site. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Joining us now from a studio in San Francisco is Joshua Coleman. He's the co-chair of the Council on Contemporary Families and a clinical psychologist in the San Francisco Bay Area. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

Dr.�JOSHUA COLEMAN (Co-chair, Council on Contemporary Families; Clinical Psychologist): Nice to be here.

ROBERTS: So as you look over the research from Pew, does it seem like a real sea change in gender roles, or is it more subtle than that?

Dr. COLEMAN: Well, it's a sea change that's been occurring over the course of the past 30 years or so.

ROBERTS: It's a slow sea change.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. COLEMAN: It is a slow but very, very steady sea change, and it's as my colleague Stephanie Coontz, the historian, said, marriage has changed more in the past 30 years than it did in the prior 3,000 years I mean, yes, in the prior 3,000 years.

And these changes have largely been animated by women: by women's increased economic power; their increased education; the women's movement, which allowed women to campaign against the antidiscrimination laws, which brought up their income; women's ability to leave bad marriages. All of these changes that have occurred have, over time, greatly increased women's power not only outside the home but within the family.

And from my perspective, this has largely been a boon to men and to the family because it's kind of compelled men to become much more involved as partners, much more involved in terms of the intimate aspect of the relationship, much more self-disclosing, which is a hugely important predictor of women's marital satisfaction, but also as parents.

Men in the past three decades have tripled the amount of child care that they did just three decades ago and are much more identified as fathers. And this is largely because of women's increased power to navigate these changes and to negotiate for these changes, and they become self-reinforcing for men.

ROBERTS: Well, it certainly explains why more women are college-educated and earning more, but why do you think they're more likely to marry men without as much education?

Dr. COLEMAN: Well, because the pool of men who have education are actually lower than they are for women. They don't have the same kind of pool it's not that women have become less picky. Women in general would rather college-educated women would rather marry a college-educated man. There just aren't as many of them around.

ROBERTS: And college-educated people in general are more likely to be married.

Dr. COLEMAN: They're more likely to be married after the age of 40. So for example, women college-educated women are still less likely to marry than women who have less education than do they, but by the age of 40, they're more likely to be married. And in the 10 years from 40 to 50, they're much more likely to get married within that time frame than are women who don't have a college education.

And part of the reason is that college-educated women and women who marry later this is also true for men who are educated and marry later they're more mature. They often have more-egalitarian ideals about marriage, sharing housework, sharing childcare, and those we're finding that those principles are also very predictive of marital stability.

ROBERTS: Well, it's interesting you say that because a lot of the coverage surrounding this Pew study has been about how threatened men feel by this and how emasculated they are by having a woman out-earn them.

Dr. COLEMAN: I'm interested in that, too. And I think that there are plenty of those men out there. And I think we as a culture have to be sensitive to the fact that we are currently in the midst of a sea change around gender identity. I think there is confusion for both men and for women about what constitutes an attractive woman and what constitutes an attractive male.

So, for example, there was a cartoon in the New Yorker last year that had two women in conversation, and one woman says to the other, you know, I want a guy who will well up with emotion, not one who will actually cry. And for me, that really highlights the ambivalence that many women have about men's potentially being more vulnerable than they are, potentially having lower status than they are. I think there are many men who feel very confused about that.

Now, I think that said, the majority of men certainly that I've talked to in my practice don't, you know, want to be partners with them. They don't necessarily want to have more power or less power than them.

ROBERTS: We're also joined here in Studio 3A by Amy Dickinson. She writes the syndicated Ask Amy column for the Chicago Tribune. She's here with us as a regular. Thank you so much for coming in.

Ms.�AMY DICKINSON (Columnist, Chicago Tribune): Hi.

ROBERTS: This topic has come up in your column a lot, well, a fair amount lately.

Ms.�DICKINSON: It has, actually. And it's - in my case, and in the case of the column, it's happening because of the economic downturn, has created points of tension in families because their circumstances have changed.

It's not a case of a woman, you know, a college-educated woman making more than her husband because of their professional choices. It's more a case of husband loses his job, wife doesn't lose her job. And all of a sudden, as we know, unfortunately in marriages, often the income translates into power, which is something we should really think about and something the circumstances, I think, are forcing families to face: Who has the power?

I urge couples - and I'm recently married myself, and one thing I think it's really important to do is to talk about money when times are good and when things are stable and try to establish a real partnership where it's not his money and her money, but it's our money.

You know, I this is anecdotal, based on my own experience, but I remember a time when the money that the husband made belonged to the family, and the money that the wife made sort of belonged to her. And I think that women are now seeing the pressures of being breadwinners. And one huge pressure that men have borne for a very long time is once you're a breadwinner, you have to stay a breadwinner, and what happens when you're no longer the breadwinner? It's a huge change in a family.

ROBERTS: Let's take a call from Dave(ph) in Des Moines. Dave, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

DAVE (Caller): Hey, folks. Amy, I'm so glad you brought up that last point. Here's my situation. I had kind of lousy education benefits because they cut our veterans' benefits after the Vietnam War.

So I did some college. And when I got married, my wife was younger, and we and I was I said look, I'll go to work. You go to college, and you know, then of course, life happened. We had babies, and now we split that. And my wife is a journalist and all that kind of thing. And the gentleman's name I'm sorry, sir, I forget your name, and the Pew study kind of takes this gender-based thing. But I was just wondering: It seems to me that it's more of a socio-economic-based thing. The people who are going to college right now seem to be people that somehow are either trust-fund kids or someone can support them while they're going. And I was wondering if that factored into the research at all, and I'll just take my answer off the air. Thanks.

ROBERTS: Dave, thanks for your call. Amy Dickinson, you want to take this one?

Ms.�DICKINSON: Well, I don't know if I can tackle sort of what he's talking about, but it does occur to me that Dave's situation is analogous to many where the woman put, so to speak, put the husband through college. And then they both had to face the consequences of that, which is that the man was a trained, educated and highly paid professional, and the woman basically didn't have marketable skills.

And so he is experiencing, obviously, the opposite of that. And I think it's a tremendous challenge, no question.

Dr. COLEMAN: You know, I just want to go back to something you'd said earlier, Amy, which I think is hugely important, and that is that it's we're looking at very different families. If we're looking at, let's say, a woman who's college-educated, she marries a guy who's either not college-educated or is a much lower earner than she is, and everybody's aware that that's the deal going in.

That's a structurally very different family than a couple that gets married, and either the husband is the primary breadwinner or the sole breadwinner, and then he loses his job. That kind of thing, we know, is a fundamental assault on a man's identity, that men still - and this is the problem with where we are in this kind of sea change around gender identity - men still get an enormous amount of self-esteem, maybe the core amount of their self-esteem, around career, the capacity to earn. And so when a man loses his job, there's quite a bit of research that shows that they're far more vulnerable to depression, to anxiety, to becoming more aggressive. Their capacity to parent goes way down. So that's fundamentally, from a couples' perspective, a very, very different entity.

ROBERTS: Well, isn't this sort of getting to the question of how adaptable you are as a couple in general? I mean, if the problem in that scenario is that the rules changed midstream, my reaction is sort of what did you expect? If you're going to be married for 50 years in an ideal world, things are going to change.

Dr. COLEMAN: Well, thank you, and as a couples' therapist, I think that's really the key point. I mean, if you get married, and you have very rigid ideas of what a man is supposed to do or what a woman is supposed to do or how much your partner's going to marry I mean, how much your partner's going to earn or what you're entitled to get from your partner in terms of their earning, you're a little bit you're pretty vulnerable to a really big letdown.

And I have to say, I have worked with couples where one partner was very, very many couples where one of the partners was very, very insensitive to the other's decreased earning capacity because of the economic downturn. And they felt, sort of, well, I got married thinking you were going to be this big, you know, bread-earner, and now you're not, and you know, I feel entitled to something different. And it's really a very, very problematic way to structure a marriage or a relationship.

Ms.�DICKINSON: And you know, this is what I deal with with my column, too, this challenge and the tension in families. It's really tough.

ROBERTS: Coming up, we'll have more with Joshua Coleman and Amy Dickinson, and tell us your stories. If your relationship has an employment or earnings imbalance, how has that changed your marriage? We're taking your calls at 800-989-8255. You can also send us email, talk@npr.org. I'm Rebecca Roberts. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

ROBERTS: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Rebecca Roberts in Washington. A new study by the Pew Research Center finds that men are increasingly likely to marry women with more education and income than they have. That role reversal is changing dinner table conversation around the country. It's also changing who may have cooked the dinner.

And we're talking with TALK OF THE NATION's regular guide to behavior, Ask Amy's Amy Dickinson; and clinical psychologist Joshua Coleman. And we want to hear from you. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Or send us email, talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our Web site. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

That was sort of a throwaway line about who was cooking the dinner, but Amy Dickinson, are you seeing a corresponding change in roles at home as there are gender roles changing at work?

Ms.�DICKINSON: Yes, and of course this won't surprise, I don't think, the moms and dads out there, but mothers tend to think that they can comb their kids' hair, like the best, and when they go off to work and husband starts staying home, the mom tends to notice how poorly the dad combs the children's hair, and this is, you know, a huge problem.

And so one of the things I urge people to do is to remember, women especially, who are expert, you know, if they've been at home with the kids, and their expert child-rearing, you know, machines, that not everybody does it the same and that my I have to laugh because my sister had a situation where her husband started getting the kids ready for school. She was going to work early. She would come home and see the kids when they came home from school, and it was, like, why does Annie(ph) have three ponytails today, and why is her shirt on inside-out? And really came to a point where she was, like, you know what, he does it differently. It doesn't mean it's bad. It's just different. It's, like, the dad way.

Same thing. Women, you know, they're in this sudden reversal where they're at work, and they're coming home, and they realize their husbands really sort of don't know how to cook as well as they do, but they don't allow for the fact that it takes time to learn how to put a meal on the table.

It is hard, and so this is, like, such a challenge for couples when they're facing this extreme change. Obviously, women who are educated and are earning their earning capacity is rising, you know, slowly as the men's maybe is diminishing a little bit. It's not so sudden as this sort of unemployment switch-a-roo, but it's very, very challenging.

ROBERTS: And it seems like there are two dynamics that are hard to parse from each other, but one is the sort of woman not wanting to give up control over the domestic sphere and, you know, worrying that her husband is doing it wrong just because he's doing it differently, but there's also the overcompensating. If you feel like your husband is threatened by you making more or being the breadwinner, then you don't ask him to unload the dishwasher because that will threaten him even further.

Ms.�DICKINSON: Right, and I think I noticed that part of this study is that the women who earn more are also proportionally doing...

ROBERTS: More housework.

Ms.�DICKINSON: More housework, and it seems obvious to you and me, probably, that they are compensating for what they feel is they are probably overcompensating at home to try and make their husband feel good.

ROBERTS: Is that something you're seeing, Joshua Coleman?

Mr.�COLEMAN: I see some of that. I certainly see what Amy's talking about in terms of what sociologists call kind of the gate-keeping phenomenon of women feeling like they're the experts about how the house should look and how the children should be raised.

And I think it's particularly problematic around parenting. In middle-class homes, you know, in the past several decades, we've had this evolution of what has been variously described as intensive mothering, a culture of concerted cultivation where the idea that childhood is supposed to be a place where very, very carefully structured and managed.

And so we now see that with educated mothers, they're actually doing more child care than did mothers in the 1960s who weren't even this is employed, educated mothers are doing more childcare than mothers did that weren't employed in the 1960s.

So it's an important thing to highlight because it puts enormous pressure in the home. Most couples don't spend enough time together under any circumstances. There's been a sociologist Paul Amata(ph) showed that there's a 40 percent decline in how much time couples spend together in the past four decades.

So at the same time that we've had this big we've had big economic downturns, we've had, at the same time, the evolution of the soul-mate ideal. So couples are supposed to get all this marital satisfaction, at the same time they have this enormous economic stress and worry, they have these, I think, absurd ideals around what children need, and men are actually doing much more than they've ever done.

Men have actually doubled the amount of housework that they used to do. They tripled the amount of child care. So men are changing, and actually a forthcoming study that we're going to show in Council of Contemporary Families shows that actually working class men are now doing as much housework as are educated men.

That's a very, very recent finding. It used to be that the less education you had, the less housework you did because you didn't have the idea that there was this egalitarian model, but that's actually changed also.

ROBERTS: Let's get some callers in here. This is Stacey(ph) in Ann Arbor. Stacey, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

STACEY (Caller): Hi, thank you. Yeah, I just wanted to say that my husband used to work for General Motors and lost his job, and I'm a high school teacher, and we have had a complete shift in roles, although, you know, what you were talking about with the woman, you know, having control or perhaps needing to give up control of, you know, some of the things in the home, that's been really hard for me.

You know, I still want to cook dinner. I still want to clean and do all those things. My husband is a great guy, and he's been doing an incredible job, and he stays home with our son. You know, so I was kind of wondering with all this, you know, what my son's view of gender role is going to be as well, you know, because dad stays home with him. It's kind of, you know, more nontraditional, I guess, and mom comes home from work every day. So I was just wondering if you could talk to that a little bit.

ROBERTS: Yeah, Amy Dickinson?

Ms.�DICKINSON: Actually, Stacey, that's one, in my mind, very positive aspect of this. I know it's a challenging time for your family and other families, certainly in the Detroit area, but I urge people, when they've written to me about this, to think about how they can model a whole different way of being in a family for their kids, which I think is wonderful, and how great that your husband is embracing this. and I know it's hard to give up on all of those gate-keeping-type jobs you've done, but I think it's great for your son to see his dad really taking the lead at home in that way. I think that's wonderful.

Mr.�COLEMAN: Well, not only that, but there's actually research to show that dads who do more housework, particularly dads who do housework with their kids, that those kids actually do better both socially and academically. So there's something about kids seeing their dads being involved in that way, dads being more participatory in the household, that's associated with child well-being.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Bridgette(ph) in Lacrosse, Wisconsin. Bridgette, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

BRIDGETTE (Caller): Oh, I just love your program, and I agree with everything that they're sharing. I've been married for 27 years and married my husband while I was still in college, thought that we were both going to have the dual careers.

I went to law school, graduated, practiced law, but then we started having children, and one of your guests mentioned that if you aren't flexible, life is going to be difficult, and, you know, I think one of the things that we both saw is that the career mattered more to my husband than it did to me.

And so I backed off, and we followed his career, which meant that I gave up my law practice. I did it twice, a little bit in Lacrosse, then we moved to Madison with a relocation for his job, did it in Madison, and then again he got relocated for another promotion.

And, you know, it's been one of those things that, you know, my identity was not tied to my career, whereas I felt my husband's identity was more tied to his career. And it's worked for us, but, you know, and we've been blessed that he has a good career, and the downturn in the economy has not affected it. But you know, we've been there at those times when, you know, both of us had careers, owned our own businesses, and I felt, for our family, the kids suffered for it. So I was very happy to make the decision to opt to go home and take care of the kids.

ROBERTS: Bridgette, thank you so much for your call. You talked, Joshua Coleman, about men identifying - their self-identification being caught up in their work, and Bridgette's example notwithstanding, of course you do hear that from women too, that when they do choose to stay home or economically need to be home, as their husband moves around, that their identity from work is also a loss.

Mr.�COLEMAN: There's absolutely no question about that, and I hear many women in my practice complain about that. So I think we can't, as a culture, just say that, well, because men get so much of their identity from this that women should take the hit.

I think each couple has to make a decision about that, and there are some couples that for whom the dad is actually much better-suited, temperamentally, to be home with the kids, and the mom to be the one who's going out and doing the earning. But it really requires the couple to both be very flexible about what they're both the best-suited for and what creates the most self-esteem. The problem comes when one of the people in the couple is much more rigid about what they're willing to and what they're not willing to do, and that's often when you see a conflict begin to occur.

ROBERTS: We have an email from Henry(ph) who says, I'm 58 and I was always the breadwinner. I lost my job three years ago and can't find a job. I can't believe how badly I feel to see my wife go to work and me not being able to help. I cook and clean up around the house, but I feel it's not enough. My wife actually likes that I'm home, but I feel helpless, useless and not man enough to take care of my home. Luckily, our children have grown and away. The hurt would be worse if I had the kids to worry about it.

Ms. DICKINSON: Okay. This is...

Mr. COLEMAN: Yeah.

Ms. DICKINSON: ...sort of a typical comment that I'll get into my column, and what I would recommend - I read an article in The New York Times that just opened my eyes. Some downsized middle level management man started missing that role and they started getting together once a week, and then it became like three times a week.

And basically what they did was - they formed an office outside the office and they're - they weren't sure what their function was. They were helping each other network and look for work, but then it turns out they started supporting one another, and they formed their own, sort of, support group.

And I would recommend that any man who finds himself in this - with this huge life change should seek out other men, because they get you - you're like you know what's going on with one another. I would really suggest that.

Mr. COLEMAN: I think - I love that point, Amy, and I think it's so important. And at the same time, it is so hard for men. You know, we have this data about how men do versus how women do when they're divorced or widowed. Women tend to very well, because they have very rich social networks, they have people that they lean on and people that they talk to.

For most men, their spouses are typically their only friend and their only confidant. And most men have a really hard time talking with other people, men in particular, and saying just the kind of things that they need to say to feel better, which is, Jesus, I feel terrible about myself. I feel alone. I feel humiliated. I feel inadequate. It's a - it's tough to find men to say that.

And - but, we know from research that those who do - who can lean on other men and other people - are much more resilient, psychologically, they have better immune function, they just do so much better. So I think this is such an important point, the need for community.

Ms. DICKINSON: And this is what I liked about this particular group. These men told themselves and each other that they were getting together for professional purposes, but it ended up having this really deeply personal positive result.

ROBERTS: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Let's hear from Sybil(ph) in Denver. Sybil, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

SYBIL (Caller): Hi, thank you for taking my call. And thank you for this great topic. This is fascinating. I guess I had a comment and a question. I'm a working - fulltime working attorney. My husband is a stay-at-home dad who has been a stay-at-home dad since our children were born, and he's great at it. I feel very lucky.

It's interesting the role reversal, though, because just yesterday, he told me dinner would ready at seven. I got home at 7:10 and I said, why isn't dinner ready? And I thought...

(Soundbite of laughter)

SYBIL: ...I'm this throwback to, you know, the 1950s and I quickly apologized to him, because I realized I had been a jerk. But, I guess, my question is, with respect to my children, because I do work a lot more than 40 hours a work - a week, what is the research say about how children of this generation who have a father as the primary caretaker as opposed to a mother? How - what kind of issues might they have if they become adults?

And what do I - should I be worried that my children say to me on occasion, you work too much? Are they going to grow up scarred because, you know, their memory is that they had this great dad, but their mother was always at work? I would love your thoughts on that topic.

ROBERTS: Thanks for your call, Sybil. Joshua Coleman, I'll throw the research question to you and the are-my-children-going-to-be-scarred question to Amy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLEMAN: Okay. Fair enough. Well, the research is that that that exists is pretty clear that children are not harmed by it. That if you - and if you listen to some of the narrative accounts of, for example, sociologist Kathleen Gerson's book - oh God, I can't remember (unintelligible) well, about the riddle it recently came out, where she talks about the narratives of people who had working parents that the - many children felt relieved when their mothers went back to work, are proud of their mothers.

They felt like they can identify with their mother's careers and their independence and their abilities to earn income. So, I don't believe there's any good data that shows that children are harmed by it. (Unintelligible).

ROBERTS: It answers this worrying about your children saying, you work too much, mommy.

Mr. COLEMAN: Exactly.

Ms. DICKINSON: Wait. And you know what, I don't I know - this is gender-based answer on my part, but I don't know a lot of men - hardworking men who worry too much about their kids being scarred by their working hard. They turn it into a positive for their kids or like, I'm out there bringing home the bacon for you, honey, you know? And I would urge women to, sort of, try to embrace the more positive aspects of being a hardworking person. That's - your kids, you know, they'll benefit from that too.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Maria(ph)...

Mr. COLEMAN: I would...

ROBERTS: Now go ahead, Josh, Josh Coleman.

Mr. COLEMAN: ...disagree. Okay. With that, just a little bit, Amy, that - I think dads actually are very worried about that. And then, you'll hear actually these days more fathers expressed in work family conflicts and being upset that they can't be at home or with their kids, and feeling worried that their kids are going to feel the way they did about their fathers, but they're not available enough. So, I think, dads are in much more conflicts than people commonly realize.

ROBERTS: And I'm sorry to the callers and emailers that we didn't get to. Clearly, this is a topic that people want to talk about. So I encourage you to go to our Web site at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION, continue the conversation online.

And I'd like to say goodbye to my guests. Amy Dickinson joined us in Studio 3A. She writes the syndicated "Ask Amy" column, and she joins us regularly here on TALK OF THE NATION. Thank you so much, Amy.

Ms. DICKINSON: Thank you. Rebecca.

ROBERTS: And Joshua Coleman joined us from a studio at San Francisco. He's co-chair of the Council on Contemporary Families, and author of "When Parents Hurt: Compassionate Strategies When You and Your Grown Child Don't Get Along." Thanks to you.

Mr. COLEMAN: Thanks a lot.

ROBERTS: Coming up, Michelle Singletary visited us a few weeks ago to talk about her financial fast. And today she's back. We want to hear from those of you who got onboard with the program and gave up your plastic. Plus, she's going to walk us through the new credit card rules for those of you who can't give up your plastic.

I'm Rebecca Roberts. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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