WHEN THE WIFE EARNS MORE...

By Shoma A. Chatterji

Women determined to make a success of their career in any field often decide to remain single. The reason is obvious marriage could bring complications when a wife brings in a five-figure income and the husband earns a four-figure one. With corporate salaries soaring, these problems are getting more common than, say, they were a decade ago. Marriage threatens not only the career prospects of the wife, but even the harmony and peace that is anticipated in an ideal marriage. Much more than money is at stake when financial roles are reversed. The "rules" of a marriage can change in unexpected ways.

In a ground-breaking study released recently by the Families and Work Institute, USA, women earn half or more of the income in an astonishing 44 per cent of dual-earner homes. Figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labour Statistics (1993) show that 22 per cent of women earn more than their husbands which is a rise from 17 per cent in 1987. These figures reveal a sea-change in American society that is turning the traditional family upside down. More than money is at issue. When wives are higher earners and thereby, the main providers, couples are forced to rethink the way they make decisions and take care of their children. For most couples, this implies a shift in the power-equation within the family, more complex terms of negotiation, and of course, sacrifice.

Husbands, however, are learning to adapt to changes in career-jumps and pay-hikes for the wife. Because, urban lifestyles offer few or no options. Couples now need two incomes to settle their bills and pay the kids' school fees or crèche money. According to the Families and Work Institute study mentioned above, 88 per cent of women surveyed said that they would work part-time, rather than full-time, if they could still live comfortably. Thirty-one per cent said they would prefer staying home if they could afford to, obviously, because of small children who they hate to leave behind. Kay Snyder and Thomas Nowak, Ph.D., sociology professors at the Indiana University in Pennsylvania, discovered from their research on 2,839 couples that the likelihood of divorce doubled when women earned 51 to 75 per cent of the family income. The likelihood decreased however, when the women earned more than 75 per cent, probably because such a large discrepancy was caused by the man's retirement or disability.

"My feeling is that the circumstances make all the difference," says Snyder. In other words, a husband who consciously fosters the wife's career because she has a better salary and benefits is likely to fare better than one in which the man and woman feel the situation was thrust on them. One major source of tension arises from the fact that even when women earn more, men rarely contribute their share at home.

Cloe Madanes, a family therapist in Rockville, MD, and author of The Secret Meaning of Money, unfolds a case where a female patient began to experience severe phobias, including a fear of the dark, as soon as she began to out-earn her husband. "The fear made her childlike and her husband more powerful," says Madanes, who treated the couple. "The husband became very important and serious and started telling me how his wife was really very shy and insecure. I told them--I can help you, but I'm not sure you want to be helped."

Barry Dym, Ph.D., a family therapist in Cambridge, MA, thinks men should deflect questions about their well-paid wives. A man should never feel emasculated by a wife who earns more than he does. Madanes advises couples to keep separate bank accounts and a common pot, contributing the same percentage of their incomes to each. Women are more willing then men to negotiate spending decisions, even when they have more financial clout. Collaborating on household tasks and child care could also help diffuse tensions and prevent resentments. Talking openly about insecurities and frustrations will help couples air feelings that could sabotage their relationship. We now have to reconsider what gives a person value, both as a professional and as a private person.

"We need to understand that there are some jobs that will always pay less than others, and that it is a mistake to attribute the difference only to talent and hard work," says Madanes. "But we also need to look at a person's non-material contributions to the family. A lot of times, a man who is a good father and partner in running the home is a big help to his wife's career." There is no point in competing because both husband and wife have common interests so far as the family goes: children's education, acquiring a house of their own, savings for old age, money for vacations. The more a husband and wife look upon themselves as "family" rather than as rival breadwinners, the more they can share in each others successes and failures, without keeping score.








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