Oh, how fragile is the ego of a man. We must never let him feel like a bonsai in a grove of California redwoods—no, he must always see himself as a towering tree, magnificent in comparison with his female partner. At least that’s what you might assume from a new Harvard University study showing that when a husband is not working full-time, a couple is 32 percent more likely to split up than when the man is fully employed. Upsetting the traditional power role, the research suggests, did them in.
I started thinking about the whole dynamic of women outearning guys while writing a biography of Queen Victoria: I was stunned to discover that, even as a queen, she was anxious about emasculating her husband, Prince Albert. She cringed when he was derided as a pauper, lobbied to procure him the title of king or prince consort, and eventually called him “master” in private. Of course that was the 1800s, a time when women could not vote and were considered the property of men. But this is 2016! Wives now bring home the bigger salary in 37 percent of heterosexual married couples. Forty-one percent of mothers are the sole supporters of their family. It’s so normal you’d think our reaction to it would be too.
Not so, according to the Harvard research. In it, study author and sociology professor Alexandra Killewald, Ph.D., analyzed data on more than 6,300 American couples and found that, whether the wife is working or not, if the husband is not—or has only a part-time job—the marriage is more likely to end in divorce. (Granted, the study mainly focused on straight relationships.) And a series of other recent studies show that even when men are working full-time, just bringing in a smaller paycheck makes them more likely to cheat, do less of the housework, and (you can’t make this stuff up) need a prescription to treat erectile dysfunction. It’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry.
Female breadwinners told Glamour they loved making the money, but many admitted their relationships took a hit. One 38-year-old woman in Albany, New York, with a good job in communications told Glamour she was “genuinely surprised to see how anguished my husband was about not being able to make more of a financial contribution. He considers himself a feminist and believes strongly in equality, so this issue sort of blindsided both of us.” It gets more complicated for a 30-year-old I’ll call Terry. She describes herself as a “can-do, go get ’em” type and is supporting her husband through graduate school, but she’d like some acknowledgment of how hard she’s working. The money, she says, isn’t an issue. What bothers her is the way his shame and guilt mean “we can’t even talk about it.”
Even Jessica Bennett, 35, author of the new book Feminist Fight Club, told me she once spent a year trying to conceal a pay raise from her live-in boyfriend. “I was worried that he would feel more like a failure for not being the male provider than he would feel happy for me as the partner who was achieving,” she says. “He never said that. But do I think that deep down it made him feel self-conscious? For sure.”
Some women admit feeling uncomfortable themselves. Lauren Sengele, 32, a brand marketer in Indianapolis, moved in with a guy knowing she would always make much more than he would. “I was fine with it at first, except I grew exceptionally frustrated that any time we wanted to do something nice I had to pay for it,” she says. “I began to feel more like a parent than a partner.” And the communications pro in Albany confessed that she loved being the breadwinner—until she had a child and wished she could stay home: “But my husband’s income didn’t cover even our most basic expenses. Back to work I went, feeling very grouchy.”
So how do men feel? Norman Baldwin Jr. says his marriage to Leila Noelliste became strained after her website, Black Girl With Long Hair, became so wildly successful that he started working for her. “Culturally, especially in black culture, the man is the one who makes all the money,” says Baldwin, 32, of Brooklyn. “I’m super impressed with her, but it’s been a rough and bumpy transition.” Noelliste, 31, puts it like this: “Last December we really hit bottom. I realized: Our dynamic is effed up; him quitting his job to help me with the business is not going to work. At the time we just didn’t have the tools to navigate a relationship where the woman is the one making more.”
Cuyler Mortimore, 33, a stay-at-home dad in Shelton, Washington, also struggled. “For a long time I felt like I was a financial drain,” he admits. “I grew up with a pretty big emphasis on the man being the head of the house.” Asked what he thought about how income disparities could lead to infidelity, he says, “I can see why a guy might cheat. You feel lonely and vulnerable a lot of the time. I’m constantly surrounded by other moms and rarely any dads, and I can imagine how that could raise temptations.”
When you hear these stories, you start to understand just how maddeningly slow social change is. “Where we’d like to be—OK with having a female partner as a breadwinner, contributing equally to household duties and childrearing, basically the egalitarian dream—and where we actually are,” says Bennett, “are two separate things. Gender expectations run deep, like really f–ing deep, and I think that even the most progressive millennial men and women who say they want these things, and I think most really do, have a harder time acting it out in reality.”
So where do we even start?
First, Harvard’s Killewald urges every couple to “think about what a good partnership looks like for you.” Picture carefully the roles you want to play and then talk about it. And keep talking about it. For Baldwin and Noelliste, it took couples therapy to forklift them out of their rough patch. “I learned to feel proud of working my butt off and not be constantly apologetic—and to allow Norm to show his strengths,” she says. “He’s had to learn, ‘Maybe I don’t bring home the bacon, but there are other ways to be a leader of our household, like contributing to long-term planning.’ So for us it’s been exploring all that. I think we are in a good place now, but it took a long journey to get here.”
Second, keep in mind that along with all those depressing new studies, there’s also emerging research suggesting that traditional marriages are not inherently happier. In fact, the opposite may be true, according to Stephanie Coontz, author of Marriage: A History. Already, she says, “in European countries with good work-family supports, traditional male breadwinner families where the woman shoulders the domestic duties are now less stable than dual-earner couples.”
Finally, men should be free to care for kids or do work they love without stigma. Challenge any fool who can’t see that. And take heart in the fact that we are not just bending toward equality; it is becoming the way we live. Bonsai, redwood, maple, oak: They’re all critical members of a thriving forest.