According to the Wall Street Journal last week, around 40% of American women serve as the primary breadwinner for their families, in some cases leading to significant marital strife. For most of my working life, I was part of that 40%. And I’ve seen the breadwinner role from a few different perspectives. I’ve experienced it as a touchy subject in a less-than-healthy relationship, then as a single mother, and finally in a healthy way with a husband who saw us as teammates rather than competitors. Sometimes circumstances dictated that I would be the primary earner, at other times, it was a strategic choice that Chris and I made for our family. More recently, Chris has taken over as the breadwinner.
No relationship is perfect, and no matter what kind of wonderful Prince Charming you marry, you will at times experience financial strife. But looking back, I think there are three things that make a big difference when it comes to the breadwinner issue.
The right kind of guy. Frankly, some men handle this situation better than others. This is something to be aware of and watching out for when you’re dating. In Work, Love, Pray, my friend Lisbeth recommends that dating couples who are thinking about marriage have a serious, “all cards out on the table” discussion about finances (she and her now-husband compared W2’s).
I think ideally what you’re looking for here is the right combination of humility and confidence. Often when men have a problem with making less money, it stems from what is basically a good impulse; the desire to be a caretaker. Pride, insecurity, or plain old competitiveness can skew that caretaker impulse, leading to frustration and relational strife.
The right attitude. Ladies, I’m talking about you here. Relationships are a two way street, and the responsibility isn’t all on him to make this work. Men are naturally wired to want to take care of their families and to desire respect. Don’t punish him for that or get disdainful if he shows some insecurity.
Show your husband that you respect him and value his contribution to your family. If you want him to view you as an equal partner, you have to do the same. Let go of the money issue, don’t treat it as “yours” vs. “his,” especially when you’re making financial decisions together. Be aware even of the little things, like joking in public that you “bring home the big bucks,” or calling him “Mr. Mom.” Should you have to walk on eggshells all the time? No. But you’re not powerless here either. You should take responsibility for your attitude, because that’s what teammates do for each other.
The right perspective. Whether you actively chose to be the breadwinner, or circumstances dictated it, know that life will bring different seasons. As I moved through my life, the term, “breadwinner” meant some very different things for me. And since 2010, Chris has taken over as the primary earner, allowing me the flexibility to focus on 4word and to help my family through a difficult phase. Just know that wherever you are in life, situations can and will change, so you can’t get too caught up in the status quo.
Do you earn more than your guy? What makes it work (or not work) for you?