In the U.S., 22% of marriages have women breadwinners over the age of 30. These relationships face unique challenges and experience as much as 50% increased divorce rate. In addition to being a full-time radiologist, I’m also a writer and host a podcast on this topic. Stemming from financial inequities experienced in my own marriage, and the resulting challenges, I was inspired to delve into the psyche of the Female Breadwinner. I learned that my situation was not unique.
Women earning more than their spouses are like pioneers; we don’t have mentors to show us how to navigate this dynamic. In addition, long-standing societal norms still portray husbands as the primary breadwinners.
In my first book, She Makes More-Inside the Minds of Female Breadwinners, I share insights from my experience and research for couples where the women are out-earning their male spouses. However, many of these concepts apply equally well to any partnership. Let’s have a look at some issues that may arise in these relationships and how to handle them.
1. Domestic Duties: How to Navigate Conversations about Roles and Responsibilities
The higher earner in a relationship might work longer hours and have greater stress levels as a side effect of their demanding careers. A result is that they often have less time at home to attend to household chores and the family’s needs. Some women may find that they are in a position where their partner does not want to take on some of the duties. In these instances, it’s important to bring the issue into the open and have a gentle conversation with your spouse. Marriage is a partnership. We should both be willing to pitch in to be sure that our home and family are running smoothly.
In situations where both spouses are working the same number of hours, the conversation is slightly different. Irrespective of what you bring to the table financially, the time and energy that each partner invests in their family and home life should be fair and not lead to either person overexerting themselves physically or emotionally. In both situations, outside household or childcare help may be needed.
2. Higher Earning Women May Still Want a Partner with Strong Leadership Qualities
Some women, despite being the higher earner, still want their partner to bring strong leadership qualities into their everyday home life. This could be in a spiritual sense, for financial planning, DIY around the house, childcare, or scheduling holidays and the family’s social calendar.
Some partners may not realize this fact and may refrain from taking on certain leadership roles because of their position as the secondary breadwinner. This may be especially true when it comes to financial leadership of the home and family. This is a common situation that can be worked out by learning how to have difficult conversations. I cannot emphasize enough how gentle, honest, and transparent conversation is an effective way to reduce frustration, damaged pride, and hurt feelings.
An essential conversation that all couples should have when setting out on a journey together is that of one another’s expectations of each other going forward.
- What do you expect from each other in terms of domestic duties, chores, and DIY that need doing around the house?
- What are your expectations from each other from a financial standpoint?
- If you plan on having children, who is going to be their primary caregiver?
If a partner is unwilling or unable to contribute in an aspect of your relationship, there is the possibility of outsourcing those skills. For example, if your partner is reluctant to take charge of the family’s finances in terms of building wealth, look into employing a financial advisor.
As more women begin to navigate this less talked about relationship dynamic, oftentimes maladaptive behaviors develop due to guilt, shame and other emotions, resulting from their greater success.
Coddling is one of these behaviors. In other words, protecting your spouse from negative experiences or feelings. How do you avoid over-compensating and perpetuating a cycle of dependence on the part of the lower-income earner? The solution to this may begin with a change in mindset.
Many women naturally fall into the roles of being nurturers and caregivers. They tend to fill these types of roles despite having taxing careers. A woman may seek to protect her husband from failure and negative judgment by society. Ideally, partners in a relationship should refrain from initiating behavior patterns that are not sustainable. By picking up the pieces time and again, women in breadwinner positions may experience fatigue and frustration over time. If you notice a potentially destructive or unhealthy pattern forming, it’s best to nip it in the bud.
In addition, protecting a spouse from negative experiences or conversations, failing, or falling, robs them of the opportunity to grow and learn from those experiences. Both spouses will benefit tremendously from growing their successes independently.
4. Channeling Feelings of Resentment
Another maladaptive behavior that is common in women breadwinner relationships is using harsh, insulting language when speaking to her partner. This can be incredibly destructive to a partner's emotions and self-esteem and can damage the relationship long term.
Many of these explosive moments stem from months or years of allowing instances to go by where the woman has remained silent and not had conversations with her partner immediately when issues arise. To prevent this from happening, gain the courage to learn when to have those ‘gentle, constructive conversations’ so that it doesn’t come to a point where you want to explode and say things that you can never take back.
Women Supporting Women
While more women are becoming the breadwinners in their relationships, it is still far from the norm. As a result, society and the conversations around who earns more, and financial equality in a relationship are still lagging. Some women may feel ashamed or be reluctant to speak out about the fact that they earn more than their partners. Finding community here can be very helpful (easier said than done at times I know). As female physicians we should look to each other for advice and support as many of us may find ourselves in this boat. This can help tremendously with the sense of isolation and alienation that plagues many of these relationships.
Achieving the Perfect Balance
In any relationship where one spouse has a more demanding career than the other, finding balance is going to be key to the relationship's success. This will look different for different families. It may be a case of creating space for more connection and conversation with your partner, or making family time a priority. Create a career and a life that gives you the time to pursue your passions and be present in your relationships. Seek opportunities that give you the space to design the life that you really want.
For me, a major factor causing an imbalance in my life was the initial practice where I was employed. It left me feeling stressed out and lacked the flexibility I needed both as a mother and spouse. Making a change allowed me to not only be more present with my family, but also greatly reduced the stress I was experiencing. I recently spoke more about making my switch to vRad, which you can watch if you're interested.
If you’re interested in learning more about the topic, you can hear more on my podcast, She Makes More, pick up one of my books, or reach out to me directly.
When it comes to relationships and finances the topic doesn’t need to be taboo. I hope that we can all work on creating more conversation and openness to let our relationships thrive.
 (2007) Women, Men and the New Economics of Marriage, Pew Research Center, https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2010/01/19/women-men-and-the-new-economics-of-marriage/
 Bertrand, M., Pan, J., & Kamenica, E. (2013). Gender Identity and Relative Income within Households. National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper Series.