More Couples Are Embracing Female Breadwinners, Despite Decades-Old Stigma When women earn more in the relationship, it can make both parties uncomfortable. Some lie about it to family and friends — and other couples have lied to the government about how they actually live.
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More Couples Are Embracing Female Breadwinners, Despite Decades-Old Stigma

More Couples Are Embracing Female Breadwinners, Despite Decades-Old Stigma

Kalina Newman and Alex Peña say though there have been moments of doubt and tension, the two have come to terms with Newman making more than double Peña's salary. Courtesy of/Kalina Newman hide caption

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Courtesy of/Kalina Newman

Kalina Newman and Alex Peña locked eyes for a quick chat in a busy D.C. coffee shop. The couple talked about finances as the afternoon crowd sipped lattes and ate pastries.

A 3 p.m. conversation about budgeting might not be ideal for everyone. But for Newman and Peña, 22, it's become the norm. And their knack for spreadsheets isn't the only thing that might set them apart from other couples. With a salary of nearly $90,000, Newman earns more than twice what Peña does.

"It's not as if I am paying for everything around the house. I'm not his sugar mama or anything," Newman says with a chuckle.

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Nearly 30% of American wives in heterosexual dual-income marriages earn more than their husbands, according to 2018 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That's been increasing over time: In 1987, only 18% of wives claimed breadwinner status in marriages where both partners worked. This trend upsets established gender norms, and research shows it can increase strife in relationships and even lead couples to misrepresent their incomes.

'Your Success Is My Success'

When Newman landed her higher-paying job two months ago, the couple decided they could afford to rent a pricier, better-looking place with more amenities, and they moved to Arlington.

"She told me that she applied for this job and that she had an interview for it coming up, and that if she got it, it could really open a lot of doors for us," Peña says. "I was like, 'Sweet, go for it, your success is my success.'"

The two, who have been dating for four years and aren't married, split rent payments in proportion to their salaries. Peña, the one who drives, covers the cost of their parking spot. The couple splits the bills 50-50. And they typically track and pay for their own individual purchases. It's a system that works for them, the couple says. But it hasn't always been this smooth.

"There was a brief period where I was, not jealous, but I was more like, 'Am I doing my part?'" Peña says. "I felt inadequate and I felt bad, almost."

Peña's feelings weren't unusual. A study published by the American Psychological Association found that a man's self-esteem took a hit when his female partner outperformed him in general. Women, on the other hand, were unaffected by their partners' success.

"There's some men who certainly feel really proud of their wives. This is their partner. She's smart and she's successful. And it can be intimidating to a man as well," says Dr. Angela Snyder, a Washington-based clinical psychologist.

Snyder says the concept of a female breadwinner contradicts what's been the societal norm for decades. Men were typically the ones who "brought home the bacon," and adjusting to that shift can be difficult for couples.

Hiding A Higher Income

When women earn more in the relationship, it can make both parties uncomfortable. Some lie about it to family and friends — and other couples have lied to the government about how they actually live.

A 2018 paper from the Census Bureau suggested that what respondents told census surveyors about their earnings was different than what their employers told the Internal Revenue Service in tax filings.

"I think they're even hiding it from themselves. And when people come into couples' therapy, it's amazing how little is being talked about in their relationship about what they're expecting," adds Dr. Snyder.

In opposite-sex marriages in which women earned more, women reported on the Census, on average, that they earned 1.5 percentage points less than they actually did. Their husbands said they earned 2.9 percentage points more than they did.

Newman and Peña talk openly about their finances with the people closest to them. They say to their generation, a female breadwinner isn't such a big deal.

"I know all of my friends' salaries and my family knows [that I earn more] and it's not a secret," Newman says. "I earned this job, I love what I do, and I work really, really hard."

When Reversed Gender Norms Take A Toll

One Silver Spring woman, who's originally from Nigeria, describes being the female breadwinner in her recent relationship as a "nightmare." Her 18-year marriage ended in divorce in 2017. At the peak of the relationship, she says, she was making $120,000 in the public health industry while her husband chose not to work.

The woman shared her story with WAMU on the condition of anonymity so she could speak freely about the couple's finances and relationship.

"He's an extremely smart guy, he's just lazy," she says of her ex-husband.

Constant arguments about money led to health problems and hospital visits. She attributes multiple mental breakdowns to the shame and stress of being married to a man who didn't provide for the family. In traditional Nigerian culture, she adds, a man is expected to take care of his wife. This was evidenced by the response of her friends and family. When the woman bought a new Mercedes, she says, everyone assumed it was a gift from her husband.

"My cousin came to visit and she saw the car outside. She then ran straight to my husband, she totally ignored me, and shouted, 'You're taking care of her! Thank you! Thank you!' and she went on and on," the woman says.

After consulting with doctors, the woman eventually sought the help of her in-laws, to no avail. That left divorce as the only option.

Uncomplicating The Female Breadwinner Dynamic

These examples show just how sticky gender roles can be — and how slow they are to change, even when reality progresses at a faster speed.

Women are now much more likely to have an education and career. Yet across most marriages, they still do more child care and housework than their husbands, and men still feel strong pressure to be the family breadwinner.

So, what does it take to have a successful marriage when gender earning norms are reversed? Dr. Snyder says it boils down to communication. Be honest with yourselves about how you feel about the situation, clarify expectations and get to the bottom of it.

"With any change, there are stumbling blocks and there is resistance," Dr. Snyder says. "And that doesn't mean it's bad, it just means it's an opportunity for further growth in the individual and in the couple."

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