Wives who are the major breadwinner suffer loss of sleep and depression
A number of studies have revealed deep-seated guilt and shame among women who are the major breadwinner in their relationships in the West, where more women work.
Whilst many major breadwinner women endeavour to prevent their partners feeling intimidated by their higher earning power by performing a higher share of household chores, they suffer loss of sleep and depression.
Women bewildered by feelings of shame as income exceeds their partners’
Working women are par for the course in today’s society, and it is not unusual for a woman to earn more than her husband or partner. However, the tendency to regard this as a cause of tension in the relationship continues to run deep in the West, where female workforce participation is higher.
A number of research bodies have published results that indicate the chance of divorce is markedly higher for marriages in which the wife earns more than her husband, but no-one has really delved into what causes the higher divorce rate.
A major breadwinner woman participating in the research commented that when she realised her own income exceeded that of her partner she felt surprised and ashamed, and then experienced bewilderment at why she felt ashamed. In what is this tangle of feelings rooted?
Women do more housework the more they earn
Some say that since a woman who is the major breadwinner often works longer hours than her partner, the traditional “wifely” role (housework, childcare) becomes hugely burdensome. But, despite longer working hours and higher income, women in relationships where both partners work still spend significantly more time on household chores and childcare.
US communications consultancy Whitman Insight Strategies carried out a survey into the share of household chores undertaken by couples who make an equal contribution to the household finances. It found that the woman does twice as much as the man, with 90% of women but only 65% of men doing the food shopping, 85% of women to 48% of men preparing meals, 88% of women to 48% of men doing cleaning and 55% of women to 39% of men looking after children and other family members.
Strangely, the more a woman earns the greater her share of housework and childcare becomes. This is diametrically opposed to the situation for most men, who devote less time to the home as their working lives become busier.
Sociological theory attributes this to the wife’s sense of guilt: a woman who feels she has usurped the role of major breadwinner that traditionally belonged to the man drives herself to work harder in the home as a kind of sop to her partner. This theory regards the woman’s behaviour as a kind of penance or atonement, and suggests that she is at one and the same time protecting her value as a woman and a wife and also attempting to make herself a less threatening presence to her partner.
The pressure of replacing her partner as major breadwinner
But it is not easy to have a challenging job and also the responsibility for running the household. It seems that major breadwinner women who also do the lion’s share of household chores are under great pressure.
Washington University in St Louis (Missouri, US) implemented a study of 200,000 Danish couples between 1997 and 2006 which revealed that wives who earn more than their husbands take more antidepressants and sleeping pills.
The precise reasons why these women are suffering from depression and insomnia are unknown, but the researchers speculate it is likely to be the stress of combining paid work and responsibility for the home, plus guilt that they are earning more than their husbands, or shame and/or anger that their husbands are earning less than them.
The fact that unmarried couples do not display the same tendency indicates that there is a decisive difference in the pressure experience by the female half of married and cohabiting unmarried couples (whose numbers are increasing). Major breadwinner wives’ comment that being the major contributor to the household finances instead of their husbands is a pressure demonstrates that this pressure originates in the weight of responsibility these women feel.
Demonising of higher earning women linked to educational attainment
Another interesting result has emerged from research conducted by The University of Chicago Booth School of Business (Illinois, US): the tendency to think badly of major breadwinner women is affected by one’s level of educational attainment.
Among 4,000 couples surveyed, 45% of couples whose highest educational attainment was high school graduation (or lower) agreed with the statement that a wife earning more than her husband inevitably leads to tension in a marriage. However only 28% of university graduate couples agreed with the statement. And, indeed, it is the husband who is the major breadwinner in the vast majority of couples with low educational attainment. This is probably because, with the gender wage imbalance compounded by the impact of educational attainment on wages, it is very hard for a poorly educated woman to earn more than her husband.
In any case, there is inarguably correlation between a wife’s sense of guilt or shame and the markedly higher divorce rate for couples in which the wife is the higher earner. The wife’s insecurity probably drives a wedge between couples in some form or other.
It is impossible to create a society in which women can shine if, whilst they are encouraged to go out to work, they are earning more than their spouse leads to divorce. A major breadwinner wife who came close to divorce told researchers that it boiled down to a lack of communication between her and her husband. In her case, the couple’s relationship improved when she confessed her own inability to cope with the pressure and asked for her husband’s understanding and help.