Out-earners: When the Wife is the Bigger Bread-winner

Even though - on average - women earn 82 cents for every dollar that their male counterparts make, in the new economy, there are many women that are able to out-earn their husbands.  And, it appears that this trend is likely to continue.

For some couples the wife’s out-earning salary is a blessing that allows them to run their homes and finances.  Other times, having a high income wife becomes the kiss of death to a marriage. There are four ways female out-earning plays out in a marriage.  One way works and three don’t.  When it works, there are four factors that make it work:

1. There is a clear division of labor.  Being married is great. Because you have two partners, each spouse can take responsibility for a share of the life tasks.  No one has to have everything on their plate.  And, for many couples, they get to do the tasks that they enjoy and avoid the tasks that would feel more like drudgery.  As long as a couple is clear what each of them is in charge of and each of them fulfills their part of the bargain, everyone can be very happy with the deal.

2. Each partner values the others contribution.  When a partner has the attitude that their contribution has more value than that of their spouse, trouble is right around the corner.  Instead, it’s important that each partner be satisfied with the division of labor and appreciates their spouse’s contribution.

3. The couple has a shared vision and shared values.  When a married couple has a shared vision they are clear where they are going and what they want their lives to look like.  When a couple has shared values they know why and how they are going there.

4.  The family is living within its means.  Money problems don’t crop up from lack of money, they appear when a family is not living within its means.  In my divorce mediation practice I see many couples who have above average incomes but still have no net worth.  They are spending more than they earn.  This spending puts a strain on a marriage.  It is critical that couples live within their means in order to avoid marital money issues.

Sadly, for many out-earner couples these factors are missing and the wife's earnings become a negative. While every couple is different, there are three common patterns I've found in out-earner couples who are not able to hold their marriages together. Here they are:

1. The Competitors.  These are partners who come to the marriage with high expectations and big potential for themselves and each other.  And, while he does OK somehow he doesn’t quite live up to the expectations and his potential as much as she does.  In the competitive environment these couples create there is a winner and a loser.  Keep in mind, these husbands would not be considered “losers” on the open market.  Its only when they are compared to their wives that they fall short.  But, falling short makes respect difficult.  (Both self-respect and partner-respect.)  And, without respect no marriage can survive.

2. The Loser.  Here is the man who would like a free ride.  He doesn’t really want to work and he is not a real Mr Mom either.  He does a bit of this or that but when his wife looks closely she finds that he is little more than an occasional baby sitter.  The bottom line is that the children, the money, the house, and all the big responsibilities, are hers.  Then one day she wakes up and realizes he is making such a minimal contribution to their lives that she would be better off without having to pull his dead weight.

3. Crummy marriage.  Sometimes, a marriage is just crummy and over.  In this case the fact that the wife earns more may be a detail that the couple looks at but it’s just one of many factors.  I believe that partners with failing marriages fall into four categories:

  • Mismatch.  They are simply a mismatch, with conflicting values, goals, or temperament.
  • Addiction. One or both partners has some addiction issues.
  • Balance sheet mentality.  There is a balance sheet mentality that keeps the spouses from working together as a team; instead each one is looking at their individual contributions and feeling they are giving more than they are getting, and
  • Unmet expectations.  One of both partners not living up to what was expected of them.  (My best example of this was a great couple we worked with a few years ago.  The husband was a dashing fire-fighter and army reservist.  His adorable wife was initially drawn to his strength and expected he would always protect her.  But, during a string of Florida hurricanes she found herself in their house, with two kids, and a leaking roof.  He was in Iraq - protecting us all.  She had an affair.  The end.)  In general, these expectations could be anything from a wife who loses her youth and innocence to a husband who loses his business.

As our economy continues to evolve and the demand for certain skill-sets changes, we are going to see interesting shifts in earning and income potential for men and women.  These changes are going to continue to challenge marriages but couples can still make their marriages work and reap the rewards that can only be gained by having a committed partner.

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