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Maria Shriver

Female Breadwinners Renegotiate Relationships

Farnoosh Torabi is a financial expert, author and speaker, but she’s also a breadwinning woman, and in her new book, “When She Makes More: 10 Rules for Breadwinning Women,” Torabi uses her own experience, as well as a host of research, to explore how a woman’s paycheck can impact her dating life, relationships, and marriage.

Torabi’s data presents a pretty grim picture, showing female breadwinners are less likely to marry and are more likely to divorce if they do so. And while she did find couples who are navigating the dynamic with success, she also found breadwinning women who feel resentful of their partners and find themselves asking: What do I need you for?

Here, Torabi discusses the pull of primitive instincts when it comes to gender roles, the pressures men face when it comes to work-life balance, and why she felt the need to state her book is not about feminism.

How has your husband handled your decision to talk about the fact that you’re the breadwinner?

He has been really supportive and throughout the process we have been very communicative. We did have some ground rules, not because I was trying to protect his ego, but because money is something that I feel very passionate about, but I also believe that some things are best kept private. We decided as a couple that we weren’t going to disclose things like our income. I don’t mention where he works. I was very sensitive to the fact that while I was writing what I thought was the reality of our life I wanted to make sure that it wasn’t just my interpretation of things either.

You have refereed a lot of heated dinner party conversations about female breadwinners. Why do people get so charged up about this issue?

Well, money, for both genders, is a very emotional topic. And then when you add to the topic this layer of gender complexity, and people coming at this idea of a woman earning more with such different ideas of whether it’s appropriate or not, or how they would feel about it, or how this dynamic can or can not work, or whether it’s healthy.

It all stems from the fact that we all come from various backgrounds culturally and also in terms of our upbringings. How we were introduced to money and our memories of financial events in our lives, all shapes how we relate to money.

You talk about how our economic and public lives have changed faster than our social, emotional lives, and you point to the pull of our primal gender instincts.

Yes, and those are very, very strong instincts, and for some of us it’s stronger than for others. That is where I think we’re going to have to work hardest to overcome the challenges that we have, and the difficulties that couples may have over this kind of a dynamic. Certainly we need help from a societal level and institutional level. There’s a lot of moving parts to get the new generation accepting of a woman making more and for couples to thrive in that environment.

There’s a lot of moving parts to get the new generation accepting of a woman making more and for couples to thrive in that environment.

Ultimately, what sometimes holds us back is this resistance to the evolution that’s happening in society and in the career space and financial space, because we are still tied to what our primitive instincts want us to do. We need to recognize those instincts. We like to think that they don’t control us, that we’re beyond them, but what I see in researching this is that a lot of times it’s unconscious or it’s subconscious but they do take over our ability to embrace this nuance.

For men, generally speaking and not all men, but men derive their sense of self-worth and identity based on their ability to provide in their relationship, and how to provide financially is really the key there. Whereas women perhaps traditionally got that from their ability to manage the household, gather rather than hunt. So, you can’t ignore biology and evolution. That was one of the most fascinating things to explore because we often forget that part of the conversation.

Your data shows breadwinning women are more than twice as likely to make all the financial decisions in a relationship. Why is that and why is that so toxic?

I can speak personally to this. When she makes more and he makes less, I think there is sometimes a communication breakdown and there’s an insecurity on his part to say, “Hey, let me get involved too with the financial decision making.” He many not feel as much of a team player because he’s making less. And so she takes on that role, because that’s the de facto role that she falls into. And perhaps in her head she’s thinking, “Well, I make more, so I’m going to assume the power here in making these kinds of decisions."

The last thing you want to do in a relationship is to equate who is bringing home the bigger paycheck with power.

The last thing you want to do in a relationship is to equate who is bringing home the bigger paycheck with power. Money should not equal power in the relationship.

You also say that salary should not be regarded as a measure of character.

I think because our culture is so obsessed with money and power that those two things often get bundled in the same equation. I think that’s where couples fall into traps where one is thinking, “Because I make more...” or “Because I work in the spotlight...” or “Because I have a more prestigious title...” or “Because I have more serious responsibilities at work...”, that suddenly one of them has a bigger veto power in the relationship or can call the shots and the other has to follow what they say.

I think that perhaps we saw that in traditional relationships of old where he brought home the bacon, so everybody bowed to him like he was he master of the house. The mistake is to think that whoever holds the bigger paycheck suddenly can inherit that role. Absolutely not. Even though I make more than my husband, he works damn hard at his job and he’s extremely good at what he does. I could never do what he does and what he does is very important.

Before you get all high and mighty over the fact that you’re the breadwinner, realize that that could change overnight.

We also have to remember that things can change too. Before you get all high and mighty over the fact that you’re the breadwinner, realize that that could change overnight. The best couples are the ones who anticipate their roles changing and are OK with it.

You point out that work-life balance is not just a women's issue but a men’s issue too. Do you feel that understanding is gaining steam?

Increasingly, you’re seeing men admit to the fact that there’s more to their happiness in life than getting the corner office and working. That they thrive as fathers, they thrive as husbands, and they have other goals. And, frankly, it serves the family when both parents can have the flexibility and the freedom to work less at times and work more at times and share in the household responsibilities and childcare. That not only makes for a happier home, it makes for a happier work life. And ultimately institutions will benefit when their employees can continue to keep their momentum in the workplace and continue to want to be ambitious as an employee.

Can you talk about how the the issue of paternity leave comes into play here?

We’re seeing larger companies like Yahoo and others expand their maternity leave to include paternity leave, recognizing that this is not just a women’s issue, but really a family issue and a men’s issue too. If we’re really going to move the needle on this, we need to get the men involved as well, but unfortunately what we’re seeing is that even when paternity leave is offered, men generally are anxious or insecure about taking it because, as studies show, there is an even bigger penalty for men who take time off from the workforce to raise kids and then go back.

What we’re seeing is that even when paternity leave is offered, men generally are anxious or insecure about taking it...

We know women’s income suffers and it’s really hard to get back into the game after being out of the workforce for a couple of years, it’s even more challenging for men because there is a cultural stigma attached to men leaving the workforce to be a primary caretaker.

Stay-at-home dads are on the front lines of these changing dynamics.

Absolutely. I wanted to herald men in this book. This wasn’t just about, “Look at these women who are succeeding and life is so hard for them. Why can’t the men just get it together and help these women?” The best relationships where she makes more are the ones where the men really step up and are supportive in some role, whether that’s playing primary caretaker or some other capacity.

That’s the good news: couples can find ways to redefine their roles and their relationship to make it work, it doesn’t have to be traditional. But I will say that I’m very sensitive to the idea of stay-at-home parenting for both genders...what I would ideally like is for both parents to be able to balance work and home life in such a way that where they don’t neglect either thing.

What I would ideally like is for both parents to be able to balance work and home life in such a way that where they don’t neglect either thing.

It’s just a matter of economics: when you’re out of the workforce for a period of time and then want to go back in, as many stay-at-home parents eventually do, it’s very difficult. And then what happens if one parent loses his or her job? I encourage parents to really think long and hard about the trade-off of one parent being 100% full-time home and that there is value in investing in some childcare, even if it’s at a loss for the first couple of years. Because what’s often lost in the equation of whether or not it’s worth it to work or stay home, is what about in the next three years or five years? Often we make a decision to exit the workforce at a time in our careers when there’s still a lot of momentum to be built.

At one point you say, “This book is not about feminism.” What do you mean by that and why did you feel the need to state that?

I felt a lot of pressure because I was worried about what feminists would think. I never meant to write this book to tell women how to live their lives. I just wanted to give them the tools to empower them to make the right choices. There are a number of issues that I bring up, and some of the tips even, that I would write them and then think, “Oh gosh, is this anti-feminist? Is this bowing to patriarchy?”

I wanted to release myself from that pressure, that I’m not coming out here to stand up for any cause or movement. Rather, I’m trying to help couples, and sometimes my advice might be taken the wrong way, but I don’t want to label the advice as feminist because there are a lot of people out there who have a different definitions of what feminism means and that’s a lot of pressure to take on and say this is a feminist book. So, I just wanted to make that disclaimer more because I was just concerned that some of the advice might be take the wrong way and it would spark a debate that wasn’t really what I was intending to spark.

To read an excerpt from "When She Makes More: 10 Rules For Breadwinning Women," visit MariaShriver.com