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Stats tell us 42 percent of mothers are the sole or primary breadwinners for their families, and nearly 40 percent of wives outearn their husbands. And studies (like one out of Harvard Business School) show this definitely has a big impact on relationships. But you earned that MBA/promotion/corner office, dammit; your marriage is just going to have to catch up to your paycheck. Psychiatrist and best-selling author Dr. Gail Saltz shares the most common stumbling blocks for couples with unbalanced bank accounts, and strategies for sticking together.  

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couple sitting in their bedroom

Gender role reversal is killing your sex life

“The numbers of women in the primary breadwinner role, or who are simply making more than their spouse means gender stereotypes aren’t as defined or as extreme as they used to be,” says Saltz. “That’s a good thing. But where this tends to take a toll is in the bedroom. That’s where people have sexual fantasies that may revolve around [traditional stereotypes]—not the way they want things to actually be during the day, but that play an important part of their sexual fantasy life. And if the way they’re viewing each other goes very far against that, it can affect intimacy and arousal. It’s not that you therefore have to change your actual roles, but you have to tip your hat to those things. The question is, How can you, in the bedroom, do things that help each other feel more excited about your roles even if it’s more of a fantasy than a reality.”

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people hanging out in bed

You’re being dismissive

“Some men feel [that earning less] diminishes them, or emasculates them, or that competitively, they’re ‘losing’ to their spouse,” says Saltz, adding that this is not a universal reaction. “Perhaps they don’t want to embrace the role of doing more at home; it doesn’t make them feel better, it makes them feel worse. That can be difficult for them. When there is conflict or discord about this, the answer really can’t be, ‘Oh, stop feeling emasculated for goodness' sake.’ There has to be a certain amount of understanding and empathy, as you would show with any other kind of issue or problem. Think about how to help each other to feel more comfortable in these roles. Maybe there are tasks he can take on to make himself feel more ‘masculine.’ Dealing with the house, fixing the car, whatever that might be.”

woman working on the couch with her daughter

You’re ambivalent—and you’re not owning it

“For women, [earning more] can also be difficult. The same woman who may want to be a big breadwinner and may want a high-powered job may also still feel conflicted that the onus is on her [to be the provider],” says Saltz. “She may feel conflicted about having less time for being the primary caretaker for her kids. And she may have ambivalent feelings about [her husband not] being there to lean on [financially], or not being protected in that way.” None of this, cautions Saltz, is simple. Of the invisible workload, she says: “Women may have that burden and resent it, but they also may, at some level, want it. They want to be the one to take the kids to the pediatrician, to see them be weighed and measured, and they feel a sense of loss if they don’t get to. For many women, there’s an ambivalence that’s harder to tap into of both wanting and resenting.” It may help to identify and take ownership of a few things that matter most (your kids’ doctors appointments, their extracurricular schedules)—then delegate the rest.

man sadly eating froyo

He’s lost his sense of purpose

“Spouses always think, ‘Well, I don’t compete with my spouse.’ But spouses definitely do compete, whether they’re aware of it or not,” says Saltz. When a wife earns more and/or her husband’s career has stalled, that can breed insecurity and questions like “‘Well, then, what’s my domain?’ Insecurity often drives anger and resentment. For many people it is important to have a sense of purpose outside of family. It’s unusual for a man to feel that he really doesn’t need that.” But purpose doesn’t necessarily equal a big paycheck. “It might be a business he runs out of the home. It might be, ‘I’m a researcher or a writer.’ But ‘I’m a something’ is usually important. And for both spouses to support his ability to do that—that is going make a difference. Most people think, ‘My partner should make me happy, and if they’re not making me happy, then I’m getting a divorce.’  But the reality is that each person has to make themselves happy. Your partner can’t really make you happy. But your partner can support you making you happy. If you don’t have that, at least to some degree, and you’re really depressed, that’s doesn’t bode well for a relationship’s longevity.”

father holding his baby on his shoulder

You’re gatekeeping

Taking care of the kids, the house, all the family admin and obligations, “There are men who would say, ‘Just don’t! I’ll do it, whatever it is…’” says Saltz. “But it’s not going to be done the same way you would do it. Two different people, a man and a woman, may have very different sensibilities about how these things will be done. He may be fine if they have cake for breakfast. ‘They’re not gonna die, they’re gonna be fine, and it’s fine.’ And she may hear that and be like, ‘Ugh, now it's on me.’ Work out what you can let go of. One thing that really does divide the marriage is if someone is saying, ‘It’s never good enough because it wasn’t my way.’ Therefore he’s not only not the primary breadwinner, but he’s taking on this other job of primary caretaker and primary homeowner, but he’s being told that he’s a failure at it all the time. You have to appreciate whatever you each bring to the table and communicate that.” In other words: Relinquish some control. And say thank you.

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