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Woman as main breadwinner = happier marriage?

Categories: Money, Parenting & Family, Working Women Issues


I was fascinated to read this article in the New York Times suggesting that the rise of women breadwinners has led to happier and more stable marriages. According to the Pew Research Center report, in 22% of couples women are now the main breadwinners, up from 7% in 1970. And in 1/3 of all couples women are better educated than their husbands.

First of all, wow. Second of all, according to the New York Times article, this gender role reversal is having a surprising effect — it’s making marriages happier.

Here are some interesting points from the article that support the idea that when both the wife and the husband work, their marriage is more stable:


  • In states where fewer wives have paid jobs, divorce rates are higher.
  • American couples where both the husband and wife work have lower divorce rates than couples where the man is the main breadwinner.
  • Divorce rates in the US have fallen as women have gained more financial independence.

Sociologists interviewed in the article suggest that as women become more financially independent and better educated they choose their husbands differently. Instead of just looking for someone who can support them financially they are looking for a good life partner, which leads to a happier and more stable marriage.

I completely buy this argument. I also think that when a woman feels self-sufficient — i.e. able to support herself financially if need be — she is overall happier and more secure, which then leads to her being happier in her marriage. But I am still a skeptic when it comes to families where moms are the main breadwinners. I’ve been one and I’ve been honest about the fact that it caused me to feel some resentment for my husband. I’ve heard this from endless number of friends who are the main breadwinners.

The main resentment-causing issue seems to be that even when the wife earns more than her husband, she still handles the majority of household and childcare responsibilities. And I tend to think that both the husband and the wife are partly responsible. As in our case, part of the problem was that I just couldn’t let go of trying to do everything at home and the other part was that my husband wasn’t jumping in to take on more responsibilities. Either way, this did lead to stress in our marriage and I’d be hard-pressed to argue that more women as primary breadwinners leads to happier marriages. Perhaps in time this can be true, as men and women get more comfortable about the reversal of traditional gender roles.

I’d love to hear what you think about this topic and the idea that when both the wife and the husband work the marriage is more stale or happier? Have you found this to be true in your marriage?


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12 comments so far...

  • I can’t speak for married people, but I will say that it feels great to be the sole breadwinner in my family. It is a female instinct to provide food, shelter, and education for one’s young. I really don’t think I’d like it if I got married and “the man” “relieved” me of any of my duty to care for my kids. That would just make me feel detached from something so important to me.

    I’ve mentioned before - I am kinda glad I’m not married because I am happy to do everything for my house / kids, and I never wonder if I ought to resent the fact that somebody else isn’t doing it. Society tells women that they should expect/demand their husbands to contribute in particular ways - financially, sharing housework, girls’ night out, etc. What if society sent women a different message - that if they could provide materially for their families in addition to nurturing, that would make them happiest?

    Then, of course, you’d still have to get men on board; but who knows, this might not be so difficult. I always believed that mens’ duty to “provide” is more learned than instinctive. And recently, the learned roles have been in a lot of flux.

    SKL  |  January 25th, 2010 at 10:03 am

  • I think this is fantastic, but not necessarily always true. Recent family violence reports have shown that when women are better educated than their husbands they are 8 times more likely to experience spousal abuse and domestic violence

    Ashley  |  January 25th, 2010 at 10:42 am

  • Although both my husband and I work, I am the main breadwinner. However, I wouldn’t say it makes us happier. He feels bad about himself because he can’t fulfill his “manly duty” and support me. And I get resentful, because, by God, I still do the lion’s share of the work around the house.

    But, because we’re both able to take care of ourselves financially, we do stay together because we love one another and not because we’re obligated to, so I guess in that sense, we are happier.

    amber  |  January 25th, 2010 at 12:37 pm

  • It’s great for me to have my financial independence and the kids get a more balanced experience from our combined work schedule.

    My husband shares the household chores very fairly.

    books kids love  |  January 26th, 2010 at 2:26 am

  • Matthew and I have always switched roles, and we’re back to where I am the primary breadwinner and he is the primary caregiver (Daddy Daycare, we call it).

    I wouldn’t say that I’m any happier, though I’m thankful that I have the ability to provide for our family. Coming home to dinner on the table and a glass of wine poured for me isn’t so bad either. :)

    Angella  |  January 26th, 2010 at 8:56 am

  • No, I am not happier as the “breadwinner.” I’m a more-educated wife, so I fit the study profile pretty well. I can see where a career woman-type might be happier if she had a SAHD husband, but my husband still works. He gets the kids off to school, which I resent because I’m already sitting in my office across town before they get out of bed. He still gets home earlier, but he doesn’t whip out dinner before I get home (it’s usually something frozen). His income is variable, so I pay for the major bills and he takes care of the flexible stuff like vacations and home improvements. . .that puts more pressure on me. Nobody cleans much, but I do most of it and all the laundry. We split shopping duties and running the kids around. I am not thrilled with my career, but again, as the breadwinner, it’s hard to change because it’s a major blow to the family’s lifestyle. Also, my husband doesn’t dutifully follow my lead. . .I imagine the 1950s-1960s and I think women just traipsed around the country for their husbands’ careers (my grandma did). Even though I’m the breadwinner, I don’t get to say, “Hey honey, pack your bags, we’re moving to Denver.” So, I guess I am a powerless, trapped breadwinner. No wonder it’s no fun.

    I’ve been on the other side, too. When we first got married, I was a college student and made no money while he supported the three of us. I had the flexible schedule. He would get home at 6:30, and dinner would be ready for him. I could stay on top of housework and I was the primary caregiver. I spent 40 hrs+ per week at the university, so I had comparable free time to what I have now. . .somehow it was still better. I think part of it was that I was the last one out, first one home and no one was wrecking the house while I was gone. . .

    AJB  |  January 26th, 2010 at 10:58 am

  • First of all, let me say that I don’t have children yet, so we’ll see how things change when THAT happens, but for now I’ve found that my relationship with my husband seems to grow stronger when I am the main breadwinner.

    I enjoy cooking, and am happy enough taking care of things around the house, but in the rare spans when my husband worked and I stayed home, I found I felt increasing resentment toward the stereo-typical ‘housewife’ role that fell to me. It wasn’t that my husband demanded much, but his lack of participation around the house caused me to resent every misplaced dish and stray sock under the couch. Hardly fair, I confess, since he was working 10 hour days and I was off!

    For some reason, we just seem to work better when I am working and more of the household chores fall to him. He values the freedom working less gives him, while I value the satisfaction of making a living outside of the home. Of course the inverse is also true, just possibly to a lesser degree.

    I am absolutely NOT a workaholic, and could, in fact, find ways to fulfill and amuse myself indefinitely if not working, but free time is something I’m willing to sacrifice to maintain a more even balance of power within my happy marriage.

    Tessa  |  January 26th, 2010 at 11:02 am

  • I’m a working mother, and my significant other (not spouse) is laid off and is the caregiver at home. Financially it makes more sense for one of us to stay home right now. Child care would take up much of one of our incomes, making the work pointless. It isn’t necessarily his fault, but I’m not happier, because I resent the time he spends with our son that I don’t get. What might help is if the flexible work schedule I thought I would get was a reality. That isn’t even really my employer’s fault. I have work that is perfectly suited for working at home, but it is difficult to focus at home because my significant other feels neglected when I’m home but not giving him attention when the baby is napping. I also do feel like he expects me to do all the cleaning still when I get home. He cooks dinner, but I feel like we should work out a schedule and split the chores up.

    Cindy  |  January 26th, 2010 at 1:05 pm

  • I’m happy with my spouse for many reasons, but not because I’m financially independent and better “educated”. Intellectually, though he has less formal education, he’s far and away smarter.

    I was also better educated and the main breadwinner in my last (childfree) marriage and that ended in divorce.

    I wonder if we’re not trying too hard to create concrete links where they may not be on such firm ground?

    Phe  |  January 26th, 2010 at 2:36 pm

  • I mentioned this article to my husband (we both work full time) and he said that marriages like ours are happier because no one has time to fight. On a more serious note, I am happier now then when I was on maternity leave and also happier then when he was home with the baby for a while. I think because when we are both doing outside work and both doing some housework and both getting about the same amount of time with the kid it seems fair - and I think we have more empathy for the other because we’re doing the same thing. I think one key to this is that I am a naturally very messy person so don’t mind if the house is a wreck. I never thought of that as a key to a happy marriage, but I’m starting to think I should thank my mom (and dad) for passing on their low household standards! The downside is no one can come over to visit without fair warning.

    ksea  |  January 27th, 2010 at 2:44 pm

  • God - I’m tired - Of working - I have massive guilt from not ever spending the time to get my housework done - my home looks like a junk yard - and it’s hard to keep up with everything -
    often I feel as if i want to jump off a bridge - it’s overwhelming and i’m very very frustrated -
    i have so much on my shoulders and the rest of my ‘princess’ friends are just living the plush life while their husbands provide the perfect life for them - what do i get stuck with?
    bills, squalor and misery.

    mamannw  |  April 4th, 2010 at 1:26 am

  • Enjoyed your article. I have started a group on Linked In called Female Breadwinners UK, you may want to join

    Jenny Garrett  |  May 11th, 2011 at 4:35 pm