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Ask Dr. Helen: When Wife Out-Earns Hubby

Okay, male readers, today, a female reader — let’s call her “Lilly” for clarity’s sake — is asking for your help. Here is her email:

Dr. Helen,

I’ve recently found myself bringing in more money than my husband, and it’s causing problems. It’s not because he doesn’t work hard — he works more than me (which probably just adds insult to injury).

I’ve been looking up this topic online. Everywhere I look it is just women commenting on how to make the man feel better, but I’d like to hear from men on what works for them.

Thanks — Please don’t use my name! For my husbands sake!

Dear “Lilly,”

You didn’t tell me much about yourself or what the specific problems are between you and your husband in terms of money issues. I will, therefore, have to be a bit general and you can use what you find relevant. I will start with some stats on women who are the chief breadwinners in their family, what advice is out there and then move to some specifics about what you can do to keep money from coming between you and your husband.

This letter could have been written by many women around the United States. Times are changing and women are bringing in more and more of the household income, about 43% according to one study [this percentage seems awfully high to me, given that so many women work part time]. Although there are no official stats on this trend, wives are the chief breadwinners in one-third of all marriages, according to the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. In addition, women from ages 21 to 30 living in New York City and working full time made 117 percent of men’s wages, or a median wage of $35,653, and even more in Dallas, 120 percent.

I remember reading in a women’s magazine, Cosmo, I think, some good advice to women in these cities who are bringing in more than their guy — first, don’t brag about it, and second, pay for dinner and don’t make a big deal about it.

Simplistic advice but not bad for a start for the woman who earns more than her guy.

However, much of the advice for women who earn more than their husbands ranges from the downright sexist to the ridiculous (although some of it is sensible) and is hard to sort out. For example, MSN (who seems to slam men every chance they get) had the following “gems” for breadwinner women:

We could spend hours debating the emotional nuances of what it means — for feminism? for the family? — that the male-as-breadwinner species may be as endangered as the two-toed sloth. But in order to find and keep your financial sanity as a female breadwinner, you have to accept a few basic laws of nature: You’re in charge. This doesn’t mean you and your partner can’t share equally in financial decisions, but you need to accept the fact that you will probably be the one to initiate most discussions, monitor how your money is organized and orchestrate your financial future.

Clarify roles and expectations. Given that female breadwinners lack for role models, you have to start with what you’ve got — and improvise. That means sitting down with your spouse and expressing what your ideas and expectations are for everything from spending to laundry — and likewise listening to his.

If you are hoping to emasculate your husband, turn him against you and possibly end up in divorce court, follow the above advice. Otherwise, it is not worth the pixels it’s written on. You are not in charge just because you earn more money than your husband, this is ridiculous. When men treat their wives like this, is is considered abuse and they are told to knock it off. Redbook has a good article on how to handle money issues more gracefully:

Which brings up another he-makes-less hazard: battles over the proverbial purse strings. “It’s essential to give him a sense of control over financial issues,” says Haltzman. “One of the most destructive things you could do to your marriage is say, ‘I earn all the money, I make all the decisions.’ Powerlessness is death to a man.” Jane and John Metcalfe’s solution: “We make all decisions based on a collective need, rather than on who earns what,” says Jane. All their money goes into a joint checking account so that “his” and “hers” immediately become “theirs.” Combining resources is actually common, says Minetor: “The majority of these couples pool their money, and the spouse with more time and interest manages it.” That’s a good idea, says Haltzman, because having to ask for money can be humiliating for the lower earner.

A high-earning woman needs to make it a priority to respect her husband — or she could end up with a man who feels like this:

Craig, an actor and scriptwriter, meanwhile, feels equally unhappy.

“Being a kept man does strange things to the male psyche,” he says.

“The price is no cash, no liberty and precious little respect.”

“Our respect for our partner rests on whether they are fulfilling their gender expectations,” says Professor Janet Reibstein, psychologist and author of The Best-Kept Secret: Men and Women’s Stories of Enduring Love. “Higher-earning women struggle to respect their low-paid men because social prejudice says that a man should keep his woman.

This struggle to respect him may be apparent to a man who makes less money or he may feel he is not getting respect even if the woman feels she is giving it to him. How can you make sure that your man feels appreciated for who he is and his qualities and not just a paycheck?

First, treat him the same way you would want to be treated if he made more money. Don’t make it the focal point of your lives but rather use it as a tool to make your life easier and more manageable. Be open about finances and talk over purchases as equals, not as the “person in charge.”

Make sure your resentment doesn’t build up over time. Men tend to do things a bit differently at times around the house and you may have to change your standards if you find that you expect him to do things exactly the way you might. Let him know how great it is when he does other chores, such as yard work, fixing electrical or plumbing problems or throwing ball with Johnny. These are equally important to household chores but often get overlooked because women do not do them as often.

Keep an eye on your sex life. In this article on high-earning women, it states:

When low-earning men feel belittled and high-earning women feel resentment, their sex life inevitably wanes.

“It’s common for high-earning women to withhold sex,” says Kathleen Cox.

Being sexually available is a large part of the way a “kept” woman “earns” her spending power.

“But if women are the richer partner,” she says, “they have power to refuse sex. They think, “I don’t want to have sex, so why should I?””

Using sex as a weapon is a big no-no and should never be done if one wants a decent marriage.

Finally, Lilly, these are only suggestions. You may not have any of the above problems and it may simply be that your husband feels upset that the traditional roles are reversed and this has lead to unpleasant feelings on his part. In that case, I turn the floor over to male readers to help with what you can do to help him and yourself cope.

So, male readers, do you have any advice for Lilly on how to help her husband cope with her increased paycheck? Does your wife make more than you? Does it bother you or do you feel good about it? Let her (and the rest of us) know if your significant other’s increased paycheck is an issue for you and if it is, how you felt and what you wanted your wife, girlfriend to do or not do?

If you have a question you would like answered, please leave it below or email me at [email protected]. Your questions may be edited for length and clarity. Please note that your first name only or no name at all will be used to identify your question — if you want me to use your name, tell me, otherwise you will be referred to by your first name or as “a reader” etc. And of course, if any women have experience dealing with this type of money issue, please comment also.

Helen Smith is a psychologist specializing in forensic issues in Knoxville, Tennessee and blogs at drhelen.blogspot.com. This advice column is for educational and entertainment purposes only and does not purport to replace therapy or psychological treatment.