Although it still exists, the pay gap between men and women is narrower now than at just about any time in American history, and there are more and more opposite-sex couples in which the woman is the one bringing home the bacon. Forty-two percent of mothers were the sole or primary breadwinners in 2015, and wives out-earned husbands in 38 percent of straight marriages.
Kidding. Well, kind of. Because while we’d like to believe that a woman earning more than her male partner isn’t a big deal these days, it does flip traditional gender dynamics on their ear, which can still cause some anxiety.
Straight marriages were inherently transactional for much of human history. Women often chose or were forced to marry whoever had the best financial prospects, at which point they became the literal property of their husbands. This was, of course, wildly unfair and sexist. It also placed pressure on men to be providers, and largely reduced their social worth to their financial success.
Having a wife or girlfriend who earns more can have a debilitating effect on a man’s psyche and the relationship itself. Straight couples have less sex and are more likely to get divorced when the wife earns more. Apparently wokeness is much easier to accept in the abstract.
To better understand how this relationship dynamic affects men, we interviewed three whose wives or girlfriends earn more money than they do.
Adam Musa, 43, Spokane, Washington
My wife earns about twice as much as I do, and I don’t mind because our finances are merged. What’s hers is mine is hers.
She’s an adjudicator for the Social Security Administration, and I’m a claims associate for an insurance company, helping clients and lawyers get the information they need to process their claims.
It helps that I’m a relatively ascetic person. I’m not big on toys, like watches and cars, so I don’t have that overwhelming, masculine urge to earn lots of money.
It might have bothered me a little bit earlier in our marriage, though. We’ve been married 15 years, and a couple of times I left jobs I loved for ones that paid more money. In my defense, this was during the 2008 financial crisis, when we had two kids to care for, and my wife and I both lost our jobs, then our home, and then had to file for bankruptcy. I stayed at home with the kids for two years after that while my wife worked, and went back to work myself in 2010.
There were some derogatory remarks, sure. I have this neighbor, a self-described “redneck,” who’s very set in his old-school masculinity ways. He’d say, “Are you gonna have dinner waiting for her?”
My stepfather was similar in his attitudes. He was racist and sexist, just a real douchebag, frankly. So I spent a large portion of my life actively trying not to be like him. I’ve never had a traditionally male outlook on life. I’m 6'4" and can’t play basketball to save my life. My hobbies are reading, cooking and video games. I host a pub quiz every Saturday night. I guess you’d call me a geek or a nerd.
My brother is a U.S. military veteran and one of the most traditionally masculine men I’ve ever met, meanwhile, and he supports our arrangement.
Honestly, it’s a huge relief that my wife earns more than me. I do a job I enjoy, and I don’t have to look for the bigger, better, riskier, higher-paying job.
If anything, I’ll occasionally brag to my buddies, “Hey, I’ve got a sugar momma.”
Dave Peters, 49, Detroit
My wife has always earned more money than me, and for a while it absolutely killed our sex life. Dead.
I’m a trial lawyer now, but from 2006 to 2016 I didn’t make a dime. I went back to school to get my master’s and Ph.D. and try to break into academia. You’re not the man when you’re not working. You’re a sponge. And that destroyed our sex life.
Before I went back to school, we were having sex two to three times a week. After a couple years in school, it was down to the obligatory two times a month. By 2015, it was zero.
She made $180,000 and used her income as a means of control. She chose where we went on vacation, where we went to dinner, when we had sex. Whoever has the gold makes the rules. That’s the real golden rule.
She’d make snide remarks about me not earning any money. The kids would ask her for money, and when she said no, they’d respond, “Fine, I’ll ask Dad then.” And she would snort, “Yeah, sure.”
The low point was in 2015. I was upset because I couldn’t get a job in academics, and she was upset about being the sole breadwinner. We were very close to getting a divorce.
I studied female attraction and realized my wife couldn’t be attracted to me if I made no money. So I went back to practicing law, and the dynamic improved.
But I still wouldn’t recommend having your wife earn more than you. It’s always hanging over you that you aren’t the dominant one in the relationship. She’s the one with the power.
Kyle S., 29, Cincinnati
Years ago, I dated a woman who made much more than me, and it caused us to break up. Not because of the emotional toll it took on us, but because she wanted to have a family, and I wasn’t making enough yet.
I started working at a daycare after I graduated from high school, and met a mother of one of the kids there. I was 19 and she was 25. She was much further along in life than me. She was a single mom, with a college degree and a job as a nurse practitioner. I, on the other hand, made minimum wage and didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life.
She made significantly more money than I did, and honestly, I didn’t think much about the income disparity at first. We were only dating, so we kept our finances separate.
But I was intimidated whenever she took me out on a date. When she was paying, it was no holds barred. We’d go to a nice restaurant and a museum. Whereas my idea of a fancy date was Olive Garden and a movie.
Eventually, the income disparity broke us up. We were in two different stages in life. She was well-established in her career and looking for someone to start a family with, and I was considering joining the Army. If things had gotten serious between us, I wouldn’t have been able to hold up my end of the relationship financially. She looked at the situation practically and said, “I hate to do this, but …”
But it helped me grow. Had I not had that experience, I don’t think I would be as cognizant of the wage gap and all of its accompanying issues.
My current girlfriend is studying to be a doctor, and I work as a field service engineer. So for right now, I make more than her, and I pick up the majority of our expenses. But I consider it an investment, because I know she’ll end up making more in the long run.