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For richer or poorer? When wives make more, some men's health suffers

When wives bring home more bacon than their husbands, household budgets surely may sizzle but in some cases, men may pay a price. Some guys who lose their role as primary earners are known to lose sexual steam and may deal with insomnia and other issues, researchers say.  

In relationships where women's wages become slightly fatter than what their spouses pocket, scientists have determined that men are about 10 percent more likely to require prescription pills to combat erectile dysfunction, insomnia and anxiety, according to a recent study by Washington University in St. Louis’ Olin Business School.

"There is a powerful social norm for many men that it's important to make more than their wives and, essentially, when that social norm is violated, what this does is make them feel emasculated," said Lamar Pierce, a professor of strategy at Olin who completed the study in February, working with colleagues in Denmark. Other research has shown that men with wives who earn more are more likely to cheat. 

These reactions among a portion of men are significant in light of a study published Wednesday by Pew Research Center that found mothers now earn more than dads in almost a quarter of all U.S. families — the highest level in history. 

The amount of money that the woman was making when the couple met can make a big difference, found the Washington University study, which traced the entire wage history of more than 200,000 married couples in Denmark from 1997 to 2006.

If men met their future wives when the women already were the bigger breadwinners, "they never have any problems later on," Pierce said. "The problems are all coming in marriages where the guys are making more, they get married, then their pay slips (below their wives' salaries)." The study was published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

The sort of dollar-fueled downfall in dudes isn't a uniform reaction across the entire male gender, Pierce found, adding: "Lots of guys are OK with this, right?"

For the most part. 

Zack Rosenberg, 29, runs an online marketplace of charity-made products called DoGoodBuyUs, and, for now, his wife, Rachel, 28, is pulling in about 60 percent more money a year as an advertising and marketing executive in New York City. When they met, Zack had a different and more lucrative career, selling advertising for companies like BuzzFeed, SmartBrief, and WebMD. 

"I couldn't be more thankful my wife makes more than me (but) it can sometimes be hard to admit," Rosenberg said. "What has made it easier is our communication. We spoke a lot about (my) leaving a high-paying job to pursue starting a business.

"She shares my vision for what my company can one day become and knows how passionate I am. I dislike it sometimes when we are out to dinner or the supermarket and I have to defer to her," he added. "Having said that, our marriage is long term and with it a whole lot more success than failure."

The Olin researchers' motivation in exploring why some men become a bit anxious when they fall to No. 2 in household earnings "was not to say, 'Oh no, it’s bad because women are making more and these poor guys have to deal with erectile dysfunction.' It was to show that these the historical, social norms of men being the breadwinners are incredibly costly," Pierce said.

"That's because these norms impact women’s decisions about what careers to pursue, about their salary negotiations. And if we’re observing this in Denmark — one of the most progressive countries on gender issues — it's safe to say it is an enormous problem in less-progressive countries. In those places," he added, "most women just select out of the workforce."

And what may begin for some men as diminished self-esteem and sleepless nights can eventually lead to feelings of resentment toward their spouse — sometimes conscious, but often unconscious — even if a guy has purposely opted to stay home, take time off, or willingly embark on a less-fruitful career, said Peggy Drexler, an assistant professor of psychology in psychiatry at Weill Medical College, part of Cornell University. She also is the author of "Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, And The Changing American Family."

"Even the most liberated men," Drexler said, "can question their ability to provide for their families when it's the woman who's actually the one doing so." 

Related links:

Mom brings home the bacon in nearly 1 in 4 homes

Guys more likely to cheat on high-earning women