There’s a stereotype of a man whose wife makes more money than he does, and so he feels emasculated. He must reach into his pants every few minutes and feel the cool of his testicles against his hand just to assure himself that they are still there. At the gym, the other men whip him with towels and tell him not to forget his purse on the way out.
Research does support the idea that men’s identities and confidence suffer when they aren’t the breadwinners in heterosexual marriages. They feel worse about themselves and are more likely to cheat on their wives. In her book When She Makes More, journalist Farnoosh Torabi cautioned career-oriented wives that “making a relationship work when there’s an unusual income disparity takes a lot more effort than relationships with no or a traditional income disparity.”
But the new reality may be the opposite.
“A lot of the gendered expectations in marriage are left over from a different era,” Christin Munsch, a sociologist at the University of Connecticut, explained to me. “We expect women to be primarily responsible for child care. When men ‘help out’ they get brownie points.”
Expectations that women take primary responsibility for housework and childcare—while men make most of the money—are relics of the breadwinner-homemaker model that, to Munsch, “isn’t really relevant to today's couples.” In most marriages now, both people have jobs. And in this new paradigm, these leftover expectations aren't really serving couples well.
Munsch’s research deals with how modern families are dealing with the consequences of those gender roles. At the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in Seattle on Sunday, she will present research findings that challenge the stereotype of the emasculated, non-breadwinning husband. Her team tracked the relationship between married men’s and women’s income contributions and their health over the course of 15 years. All were between 18 and 32 years old, non-transgender, and in heterosexual couples.
Social identity theory suggests that, in men, breadwinning would come with better health—a sort of harmony with their understandings of themselves and the world’s. But the Connecticut researchers actually found that as their income increased relative to their wives’, men’s psychological well-being and health declined. The men’s mental and physical health (measured by self-assessment) were at their worst during years when they were their family’s sole breadwinner.
But the men’s psychological well-being and health increased when their wives took on more economic responsibility. In step, women’s psychological well-being also improved as they took on a greater share of the family’s financial contributions (though the women’s physical health didn’t change).
I’m no expert in this, but I told Munsch I would have expected that if these breadwinner-homemaker stereotypes are still around, then men could feel emasculated by not being the breadwinner, and that would be harmful to them.
“To be perfectly honest, that's what I expected, too,” she said. “I'm very familiar with the emasculation literature. I was really surprised to find this other relationship.”
She believes that anxiety is driving this effect. Depression scores don’t really change, but “their anxiety increases tremendously."
But why would the effect be essentially opposite in men and women?
She attributes that to gender performances that cloud our judgment. Men are taught to see breadwinning as an obligation; women to see it more as an opportunity. Women are less likely to dwell on what other people will think of them if they aren’t the primary source of income, while men feel the need to take on higher-paying positions, even when the role might just be an anxiety-inducing, taxing, stressful experience.
Of course, generalizations like that reinforce the gender binary at the root of this, but in service of understanding the flaws in that conceptualization.
“I would encourage men to feel more free to ask, ‘Do I really need to do this? Do we need this extra money?’” she said. “I think women are more likely to ask themselves that.”
Instead of taking a job to fulfill an expectation to make as much money as possible for their families, women are more likely to do so because they want to. When you enjoy a job, it’s not perceived as stressful. When it’s not perceived as stressful, it’s not detrimental to a person’s health.
Munsch sees her work as part of a growing body of research that demonstrates the ways in which gendered expectations are harmful for men, as well as women.
So the suggestion is that decoupling breadwinning from masculinity has physical and emotional benefits for both men and women. She suggests that the same study done 30 or 40 years ago might not have had the same results; being a breadwinner would have been more emasculating and stressful then.
But it’s not entirely due to changes in gender-based expectations. “I can't help but think there's something about our modern era of consumption that's driving this,” Munsch said.
She recently talked with a local couple whose family was growing, and the man felt obliged to scale up in his career—meaning moving into a high-level administrative role. Meanwhile the woman felt obliged to scale back her career to take care of the kids. His justification was, well, if she can make $500,000 a year, then I'd stay home with the kids.
“My initial thought was, $500,000?” Munsch confided. (Especially in Storrs, Connecticut. I think with that income you could own a skyscraper).
Realistically, the couple has a vacation home, luxury cars—things that add up quickly, such that $500,000 started to feel necessary. As Munsch put it, “Our lifestyles expand to take up whatever we’re making.”
Were we all to ditch that cycle and reexamine what we need in life, these income-gender dynamics might be of less consequence. In my little writer-ish bubble world, many people do seem to be growing less materialistic with age. Some of us are buying tiny homes, giving up shampoo, and spending money on experiences, not things. As in all things, the solution seems to be some abandonment of expectations, both consumer and gender-driven.
And at the same time, it's important not to make people feel wrong for wanting something traditional.
“There are women who want to stay home with kids, and there are men who want to be breadwinners,” Munsch clarified. “But if we can take the gender component out of this—and just ask our partners what everyone wants to bring to the table here versus what we're expected to bring to the table— I think everyone is going to be better off.”
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