Men suffer when they make more money than their wives

Being the breadwinner is a burden.
Being the breadwinner is a burden.
Image: Reuters/Toby Melville
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These days, most heterosexual couples in the US divvy up the financial responsibility in their marriages; only about 20% of women stay at home while their husbands work. And this could be good news for the overall health and well-being of married men in the country.

Researchers from the University of Connecticut analyzed survey results from over 3,000 married men and women between the ages of 18 and 32 from 1997 to 2011. They found that when a man’s contributions made up a larger share of the total household income, their overall physical and psychological health was lower than when both partners contributed equally. Women, meanwhile, showed increased psychological well-being as they earned a larger share of income. The UConn study, though unpublished and not yet peer-reviewed, will be presented on Sunday (August 21) at this year’s American Sociological Association’s meeting in Seattle.

For their work, the researchers analyzed the results of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth over 14 years. They limited their results to heterosexual married couples, and analyzed questions regarding self-reported income, psychological well-being, and physical health. They found that that generally, after accounting for factors like age, total income, and whether the couple had children, there was a link between the percentage of household income men earned and their health: They reported being 5% less happy and more anxious and about 3.5% less physically healthy when they were the primary breadwinners in the family. Women, however, reported higher levels of mental health as they earned more, although their physical health was not affected.

“Our study finds that decoupling breadwinning from masculinity has concrete benefits for both men and women,” Christin Munsch, a sociologist and lead author of the paper, said in a press release.

Munsch told New York Magazine that often, men are thrust into the role of breadwinners because women typically earn about $0.79 (pdf, fifth page) for every dollar a man earns. Logically, the person who earns less to begin with should work less outside of the home to maximize total income.

Additionally, she suggested that perhaps men who were the primary breadwinners were suffering from a phenomenon called lifestyle creep: as their households became accustomed to a certain level of income and standards of living, they feel pressure to perpetually provide more, meaning they aren’t able to to take time away from their desks to actually spend with their families.

To be sure, these results were self-reported. Munsch and her team were not able to look at medical evaluations of their responders’ mental and physical health. And these results aren’t able to shed light on partners who are in same-sex relationships or cohabiting relationships and are unmarried.

Still, the results of this study help make the case for the benefits of a dual-income household where financial responsibility is shared equally. “Our study contributes to a growing body of research that demonstrates the ways in which gendered expectations are harmful for men too.” Munsch said in the press release. When men are expected to fit a masculine mold, they are less able to express emotion and affection, which can lead to feelings of alienation. “Men are expected to be breadwinners, yet providing for one’s family with little or no help has negative repercussions.”