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Millennial Women Are ‘Worried,’ ‘Ashamed’ for Out-Earning Boyfriends and Husbands

It's no longer rare for women in relationships to out-earn their husbands or boyfriends — in 2015, for example, 38 percent of American wives made more money than their husbands — but many women remain ambivalent about being breadwinners, reports Ashley C. Ford for Refinery29.

Ford, who is herself unbothered about making 70 percent more than her own male partner, tries to understand why so many of the millennials she speaks to report feeling concerned, or even ashamed, about the repercussions of their success.

Image: A couple sits on a bench during sunset
A couple sits on a bench during sunset in New York City. Shutterstock

The feedback they receive from the culture is clear: Men should be earning more so that they can provide for their families, and if they don't, it's symptomatic of a problem. These messages produce an "almost unavoidable emotional and psychological consequence," Ford writes. Women feel guilty. Men feel emasculated.

It doesn't need to be this way.

Whose Responsibility Is It to Bring Home the Bacon?

Some of the women Ford spoke to shrug off the issue. A few wish their partners earned more but wouldn't want them to take unfulfilling jobs. Others, like Ford, wish instead the culture would catch up with the idea it doesn't matter who brings home the bacon as long as the family has food.

Largely, though, Ford reports, earning more has negative repercussions for women. They feel anxious, even resentful. "Unlike the traditional trajectory of men who earn more, or are sole financial providers, most of these millennial women either believe out-earning their partners is temporary, or lament the idea that it may not be," she reports.

The laments she has heard are backed up by data, according to Mona Chalabi of fivethirtyeight.com. She summarized University of Chicago Booth School of Business findings for NPR, saying that, in their sample, dissatisfaction increased, and could lead to divorce, "once a woman started to earn more than her husband."

And the amount didn't appear to be relevant: "Whether the wife earns a little bit more or a lot more doesn't actually make much of a difference," says Chalabi.

The University of Chicago found that a wife's making even $5,000 a year more than her husband was associated with a greater risk of divorce.

Higher Salary, Higher Share of Chores

Some women may feel that dissatisfaction in their own relationships. But what many women are lamenting may be the difficulty of supporting, or primarily supporting, a family on one income, since incomes have stagnated while the costs of necessities like education, housing and child care, have risen.

These days, the pressure of being a breadwinner is hard on men and women alike. But since women, on average, have lower incomes than men, especially if they have children, and they still do more of the housework, the burden of being a breadwinner is yet more onerous — even before you factor in the side-eye they get from neighbors and the spiteful comments from relatives.

No wonder that, according to Ford, they're exhausted. They're doing something difficult and being scolded for it.

The issue, after all, is not that women don't want to earn their own money: The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 2014 that even "most mothers surveyed would like to work part-time or full-time."

Women would prefer to share the responsibility. As it happens, so would men.

Families in which both partners work have, in fact, become the norm. Stephanie Coontz reports for The New York Times that "when young Americans are asked about their family aspirations, large majorities choose equally shared breadwinning and child-rearing if the option of family-friendly work policies is mentioned."

The ideal may well be one in which both members of a relationship have fulfilling and lucrative jobs, Coontz writes, citing "the financial advantages of dual-earner couples over male-breadwinner families," which "have increased significantly in recent years."

Related: On Equal Pay Day, Women Rally Against Wage Gap Discrimination

The trouble is that securing one fulfilling, lucrative job per family is hard enough; it's even trickier to get, and keep, two. But is changing ideas about the roles of men and women any easier?

Ford writes that "the overwhelming majority of millennial women breadwinners don't believe the men in their lives should feel emasculated by the gap in their income." Now they're waiting for the overwhelming majority of Americans in general to catch up.