When She Makes More: Gender Dynamics and High-Earning Women

  • About a third of married women earn as much or more than their husbands, a number that continues to rise
  • Disparities in earnings can affect romantic relationships, as both partners can develop resentment
  • As with so many relationship issues, communication is key for couples in which one partner earns significantly more than the other

In 1980, only 13 percent of married women earned as much as or more than their husbands.

These days, about a third of married women outearn their husbands, and that figure continues to rise. Unfortunately, though, our society has had a tough time letting go of the notion that men are supposed to be the primary breadwinners in relationships. Despite shifting gender dynamics, attitudes just haven’t been quick to catch up.

So what does that mean for today’s opposite-sex couples that include a higher-earning woman lawyer? There are certain challenges posed by relationships in which women out-earn their partners whether they’re married or not. The good news is, with openness, honesty, and a little work, these culture-imposed hurdles can be overcome.

Issue 1: Resentment Can Build Up

Despite growing numbers of high-earning women, seven in ten adults say it is “very important” that a man be able to support his family financially, according to a Pew Research Center survey. Many men tie their self-worth up in professional success, in great part because of how they’ve been socialized. As such, it’s not uncommon for men to feel “less than” or threatened when their partners earn more. According to research, this can lead to feelings of resentment and unhappiness in their relationships if the disparity isn’t addressed.

The high-earning female half of the couple might experience less marital happiness, too. Studies have shown that women whose jobs give them greater professional status than their husbands are more likely to experience feelings of resentment and embarrassment around their husbands’ perceived lack of status and how that reflects on them. However, it’s important to note that there is a remedy to this problem: Men doing more childcare and housework strengthens these types of marriages, and the women don’t have these negative feelings as long as the men provide other non-financial, tangible support.

Issue 2: There Might be More Strife

Research is mixed on exactly how earning disparities affect relationships, but plenty of studies and surveys suggest an increase in overall strife, thanks to those negative feelings mentioned earlier. For men, that friction can take many shapes—from outward anger and combativeness to passive-aggressive behavior like “forgetting” to do errands or chores, all the way to cheating. In fact, a University of Chicago study found that couples in which the woman out-earned her male partner were more likely to break up.

Women, too, can develop feelings of shame because of these tightly held beliefs. Research even shows that women who out-earn their partners will under-report their salaries and over-report their husbands’, something that doesn’t significantly occur in reverse when husbands earn more than their wives.

Issue 3: Other People’s Reactions

After a while, those jokes about a woman partner’s “trophy husband” or how an intellectual property lawyer’s artsy boyfriend is a “kept man” can start to feel a little less funny. But thanks to our reluctance to move past outdated ideas about male and female roles, people can be a little weird about relationships with nontraditional gender dynamics. That’s even the case outside of friends and family—a quick Google search reveals stories about financial planners doing double takes when reviewing couples’ finances.

And then there’s what seems to happen to younger high-earning women in particular: frequent questions about whether they’re selling themselves short by being with someone who isn’t a financial equal. Those messages, even when the woman doesn’t agree with them, still have emotional consequences.

How Should Couples Handle It?

First of all, it’s critical to note that not all men with higher-earning female partners are bothered by it. Much of a man’s response to such a situation has to do with how he was socialized and his general feelings around gender roles. But as with so many other issues that occur over the course of a relationship, frequent and strong communication is key when a problem does arise. Issues like resentment, embarrassment, and shame don’t go away on their own, nor do they disappear after a single conversation. Couples in which the woman earns more who notice this fact having a negative effect on the relationship should continue to have calm, open conversations about their feelings and how best to move forward.

Couples shouldn’t hesitate to get help if talking isn’t enough. These issues are complex and deep-seated. Just because the statistics show that couples with a high-earning woman are more likely to split up doesn’t mean all such duos are doomed. An objective party—a family therapist or relationship counselor—can help sort out feelings and attitudes that can be improved with time and work, especially if both people are willing.