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‘Sea change’ seen in spouses’ financial roles

Long-held stereotypes about marriage and money are biting the dust as couples grapple  with  today's economic realities, according to our exclusive Elle/ survey.
Duane Hoffmann /

It seems we’ve officially left “Leave It to Beaver” behind.

In the new dynamics of home economics, it’s not just that men want women to contribute financially to a marriage: The vast majority of men say they wouldn't even mind if their wives brought home the bigger paycheck.

That’s not the only gender stereotype that’s being left behind as couples increasingly grapple — as partners — with today’s economic realities, according to our exclusive Elle/ Money, Sex and Love survey of nearly 74,000 men and women.

“This is a real sea change that’s going on in gender roles,” said Stephanie Coontz, director of research and public education for the Council on Contemporary Families, who was not involved in the study.

After years of being conditioned to believe that men relish the role of primary provider, researchers were surprised to discover that just 12 percent of men surveyed said they’d mind if their wife earned more than they do, and in general men seemed happy to share the breadwinner role.

Dan Weinrib, a tax assessor who lives in Homewood, Ala., said he enjoyed it when his wife worked, even though he was the primary earner.

“Even if the roles were reversed and she was the primary breadwinner, I would have done A-OK with it, as long as we had sufficient income,” said Weinrib, who has been married nearly five years.

Still, Weinrib, 37, said he also supported his wife’s recent decision to stay home with their infant son.

More pay means equal say
Couples also were hesitant to tie paychecks to purse strings. The vast majority of both men and women surveyed said they didn’t think the spouse who makes more money should have more say in financial decisions.

“I think men are looking for partners. I don’t think they’re looking to dominate,” said Janet Lever, a sociology professor at California State University in Los Angeles who spearheaded the Elle/ study.

Weinrib said he and his wife discussed finances before getting married and decided early on to let her handle day-to-day expenses while he manages long-term finances. The roles have not changed even though he is now contributing most of the money.

“What has changed is that certainly we’re on essentially one paycheck,” he said. “We don’t eat out quite as much, but that’s OK.”

Margaret Heekin, 49, of New Jersey, stopped working nearly 10 years ago because of health problems. Heekin often takes the lead in shopping around for bargains, but she and her husband discuss any big financial moves together.

“I don’t feel like it’s a matter of power so much. It’s a joint decision," she said.

The couple also tries to value non-material things, like spending time together, over having the latest fashions or gadgets. When her husband opted against Valentine’s Day flowers because the prices were inflated for the holiday, she didn’t mind a bit.

“I don’t need you to bring me flowers to know that you love me,” she recalled telling her husband, a police lieutenant. “When you get up at 4 a.m. and put on a uniform … that’s how you’re telling me that you love me.”

Money fights persist
Overall, however, money remains a relatively common source of marital strife, with about half of all couples saying they fight about money at least once a month. Contrary to stereotypes, couples also said that big money fights rarely lead to steamy makeup sex — or to one spouse being shut out of the bedroom.

In 21 years of marriage, Kathy Orjuela, 45, has been through just about every financial dynamic, ranging from being her husband’s boss — and bringing home a bigger paycheck — to being a stay-at-home mom while her husband supported the family. Now, the Atlanta-area couple has a business together, and yet money issues still crop up.

“If you’re in it for life, then you know you’re always going to run into financial issues,” Orjuela said.

Nevertheless, although men appeared to happily cede the stress of being the primary breadwinner, they aren’t yet always picking up as much slack on the home front. More than 40 percent of women say they do more than their share of housework — and 29 percent of men agree.

“The male ego as head of household seems to have diminished to the point of disappearance,” said Rosanna Hertz, chair of women’s studies at Wellesley College and one of the researchers involved in the Elle/ study. “However, men are still dragging their feet in terms of domestic responsibilities.”

Still, that doesn’t mean they would prefer it if their wives were tending to the house full time.

One quarter of men surveyed said that their wives aren’t working, but 40 percent of those men wish she did. Of the approximately 75 percent of men whose wives did work, only 5 percent wished she was at home.

Experts attribute that in part to men not wanting to bear the sole burden of providing for their families. In fact, 35 percent of men and 40 percent of women surveyed said a key benefit of having a spouse make money is that it alleviates the pressure of being the only financial provider.

“It is a very tough era to be a sole breadwinner,” Lever noted.

Coontz said she thinks men also may enjoy the intellectual stimulation of a working spouse, and not want to “come home to a wife who was frequently either bored or boring.”

“Nowadays I think more men and women than ever before want to be friends rather than (follow) gender roles,” she said.

Still, some women may be working harder than they’d like because of today’s economic realities. The survey showed that 19 percent of women would work less if her partner earned more, compared with only 7 percent of men.

New rules, new problems
Modern financial setups also can breed other stresses.

When Janet Alexander got remarried about five years ago, it was with the agreement that she would continue working in part to support her two kids from a previous marriage, while he would retire early and enjoy golfing, fishing and other hobbies.

But despite their resolve to keep finances separate, Alexander, 54, said financial issues have spilled over in part because her husband, 59, gets stressed about paying the bills on his retirement income. She said she feels resentful because she’s still working and contributes her share.

“He pays the bills and fusses — and fusses and fusses and fusses,” she said. “And it makes me feel very awkward because I feel as though I’m doing my part.”

While the unexpected money stress has impacted their love life, she thinks the couple also has the benefit of experience in dealing with matters of finance and the heart.

“If we were a young couple we probably would not make it, but we have wisdom, age, experience and commitment on our side,” she said.