You make more money than he does — but you both have to handle the delicate imbalance with care
For decades high-achieving women have been battling for equal opportunity in the workplace. They have also searched for partners who’d support their ambitions, even as old-fashioned mothers-in-law arched their brows and quietly predicted disaster.
Women have gained considerable ground. Many executives and managers are now women, compared to one-third 30 years ago, and about 40 percent of working wives earn more than their husbands. Once, Fortune wryly used the term “trophy husbands” to describe men who put their own career plans on a back burner in order to nurture their wives’ climb up the corporate ladder.
Yet it seems those skeptical mothers-in-law weren’t entirely off base. Women breadwinners “still don’t fit into American society or into most women’s expectations,” reports Joan DiFuria, cofounder of the Money, Meaning & Choices Institute in Kentfield, California, which counsels people struggling with money issues. “This is still a taboo subject, and over time the imbalance causes difficulties, unless the man has very high self-esteem and the woman really respects what he’s doing.”
They Made it Work
Plenty of couples do thrive, even when she makes most of the money. Communication, honesty and a sense of humor seem to help. Then there are the families in which husband and wife take a look at their own personalities and earning power and conclude that he should stay home and raise the kids. When Pete and Lee Caraher were dating, Pete was a chef and Lee a vice president of the video-game powerhouse Sega Corporation. And when they started their family, they decided that he was better suited to running the household. Lee cheerfully explains that their titles are CBO and CHO. “I’m the chief bacon officer, and Pete’s the chief home officer.”
Another secret: The Carahers hold a weekly Sunday-night meeting at which they discuss everything from family budgets to church commitments to long-term plans. “Something this important, you have got to talk about it,” Pete says. Male pals, he admits, don’t always get it. Echoing generations of housewives, he says incredulously, “They think I sit around all day.”
Dealing with Unemployment Men
The situation that seems to cause the most pain is the unexpectedly unemployed husband. Mary Beth, a consultant and mother of two in Woodside, California, was supportive when her executive husband quit work to spend six months rethinking his career. That was five years ago. She had to pick up the tab for an expensive lifestyle in one of the nation’s priciest zip codes as he became increasingly withdrawn, seemingly embarrassed that opportunities didn’t just appear on his doorstep. “We’ve gone into a lot of debt, we almost got divorced twice, and we fought constantly,” she says. Bill’s finally working again, to her relief. But she regrets having badgered him in front of their kids. “I was awful,” she says. “I told him, ‘I would never have married a man with so little ambition.'”
Like Mary Beth, many women are surprised at the anger they feel when they perceive their men to be slacking off. Genevieve, a former litigator, thrived on beating men in court. Yet she admits that when her salary beat that of her salesman husband — it was twice his when they married, and the gap widened over the years — she grew resentful, especially since he showed no signs of trying to match her earning power. Such conflicts sometimes extend to the bedroom, notes DiFuria, where the man’s declining self-esteem and the woman’s disappointment don’t exactly make for good chemistry. “When men withdraw from women financially, sometimes the women will withdraw from the men sexually,” she observes.
Do you truly love each other?
Henry is half of a happy, if financially unorthodox, Texas couple. He remembers well the frustration he felt watching his wife zoom to the top of a fast-growing technology company in the late 1980s. At the time, he was trying hard to build his own business. “You can never convince your partner that you’ve made your supreme effort when things just aren’t working,” he recalls. But soon it became clear that her job was both lucrative and stressful enough for two people. He quit work and started managing their money and, he says, “looking to see how I could make her life easier.” A decade later, she has retired early, they’re traveling all over the world, and the two couldn’t be happier. Henry’s primary advice is to women: “Never hold your earning power over his head like a weapon.” But he also reminds men that any partnership requires sacrifice. “The key is, Do you truly love each other? If you do, then you can deal with anything.”
Making it work
DO…Have a plan. Chart out a job search or agree on how long he’ll stay home. Formally split up duties, from child care to housework.
DO…Network. Career and emotional support are a few phone calls away.
DON’T…Let resentments build. Both partners should lay their emotional cards on the table.