Take an anonymous survey about your relative earning power.
When my husband and I got married I was making more money than he was. We both had steady journalism jobs but I was also writing a column on the side, which put me ahead. At the time, I didn’t gloat, and he didn’t care. Mostly we spent the extra money on treats for both of us—fancy meals, weekend trips—and anyway, the gender-role reversal didn’t last. Three children and several job switches later, he’s edged me out for top family earner. But I wonder: What if our marriage had not gone the traditional route, and I had stayed on top? Would that have changed our dynamic in some way? Would small resentments have built up over time? Or would we have felt perfectly comfortable, even proud to be so progressive?
For many American couples, this is not just a thought experiment. Researchers have recently begun scrutinizing a new kind of family ruled by “breadwinner wives” or “top income wives,” defined as women who make more money than their husbands. About 22 percent of American marriages of people over 30 fall into this category, up from 4 percent in 1970. (For men without a college degree, the rate is higher: One-quarter are married to wives who earn more than they do.) And demographers expect the number of such marriages to grow, as women continue to get more college degrees than young men and to outearn them, especially early in their careers.
Already, younger people’s relationships look radically different. A recent breakdown of census data showed that in all but three of the 150 biggest cities in the United States, young women age 30 and under are making more money than young men. Even if that changes when the women have children, such a vast shift in earning power suggests that the next generation may make different decisions about whose salary counts more and who should be the family’s primary breadwinner. This is all happening despite widespread ambivalence. In a recent Pew Research Center survey, 67 percent of Americans said that in order to be ready for marriage, a man should be able to support his family financially, while only 33 percent said the same for women. A 2007 Pew survey found that working mothers increasingly say they would rather not work full time. And another Pew study out today shows the nation divided over the sweeping changes to family structure that have unfolded over the past half-century, with about one-third of Americans generally accepting these changes, one-third skeptical about them, and one-third opposed to them.
Still, I’ve lately started to encounter more and more women who outearn their husbands. Some couples seem to ease into the dynamic naturally—the woman is a born workaholic and the man lives at a slower pace, picking up contract work, savoring his afternoon coffee. One mother at our preschool can’t stop bragging about her stay-at-home husband—although I am still startled by the sight of him hanging around the school, helping the teachers make handprint T-shirts. Some dynamics are not so pleasant and confirm the few studies claiming that these unions tend to be more unstable. One woman I know never seems to run out of ways to call her husband, who works as a part-time airline mechanic, a loser. Another complains about the small things: Why does he spend all her money on dress socks if he hasn’t had a job interview in over a year and why does he have to subscribe to every damned sports channel and why will he never clean up after himself? In a couple of cases I know of, the disparity never felt natural and the couple got divorced.
These last two women then became part of a different but related trend—the exploding number of single-parent households headed by women, either because the couple got divorced or because they never married in the first place. (Right now, 42 percent of children are born to single mothers.) This, too, is creating a vast new sphere of society where women are in charge, and where tricky and sometimes uncomfortable power dynamics can develop between men and women. (I wrote about this in a recent Atlantic story, “The End of Men.”)
The emotional landscape of these new American relationships and families is a mystery—which is where you come in! If you are a primary-breadwinner wife, or are married to one, I would love to hear from you, either via this survey or via e-mail, at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you are not married but are in a committed relationship where the woman makes more money, I also want to hear from you. I want to hear from you even if the woman earns just a little more than the man, or did for at least some period of time, and even if the relationship is over. Finally, I would like to hear from women who head single-parent households, whether you’re divorced or never-married.
Since financial situations and relationships are hugely personal, the survey gives you the option of remaining completely anonymous. But I also ask at the end of the survey whether you are willing to be contacted. In addition, you can write to me at the above address and I will e-mail you back directly. I am excited to hear your stories.
Take the survey by clicking here.
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