Are Higher Salaries for Women Leading to More Divorces?

wife thinking about divorce because of a high gap in salary with husband

We’ve beaten this issue to death on this blog, but this latest study out of the University of Chicago does a neat job of summarizing the conundrum faced by women who earn more than men. Sure enough, marriages are threatened by a higher-earning wife.

“The evidence suggests that while men tend to applaud their spouses when they help to bring home the bacon, husbands aren’t always as enthusiastic when women start bringing home the filet mignon…While women prefer men to be intelligent and ambitious, men have these preferences for women only to the point where women threaten to earn more than they do.”

It’s not merely that the man is threatened; it’s that the woman looks down on the husband who earns less.

“What happens when a man marries a woman who has the education and skills to earn more than him? The couple can avoid violating the “man earns more” social norm if the woman works part time or leaves the labor force altogether. The authors found evidence of both choices. But what if the woman stays in the labor force and does earn more than her spouse? How does this affect the marriage? The findings here are striking. In such couples, surveys show, both wife and husband generally report being less happy about the marriage…The divorce rate rose by half, to about 18 percent, for couples in which the wife earned more than the husband.”

So what we have here is clear evidence of one thing at this point in time: marriages where the woman earns more are less stable. But that doesn’t begin to answer WHY.

If you’re inclined to side with women on everything, the answer is clear: men are threatened by smart, strong, successful women. Just look at the study! However, if you have the ability to see things from the other side, you’ll get a much more objective picture.

Are women earning more than their husbands because their husbands are unemployed? Because an unemployed husband is a depressed and emasculated husband and that has to put a strain on a marriage. Then there’s the other explanation for the dissolution of these marriages – it’s not merely that the man is threatened; it’s that the woman looks down on the husband who earns less. It would be hard to be in a marriage where your biggest fan looks down on you, no?

The article acknowledges this as well, saying, “Is there any way to tell whether it’s the wife or the husband who becomes unhappy when the wife earns more? Does he think that she is threatening his manliness, or does she think that he’s a slacker?”

In equilibrium, it’s impossible for you to be happier than your spouse.

That may be impossible to answer, but, it doesn’t really matter. In equilibrium, it’s impossible for you to be happier than your spouse.

If you and your spouse both understand that rule, you’re both likely to be happier – regardless of how much money either of you make.

What I coach women is to a) avoid men who are threatened by your success and b) not look down on men who make less than you or worry about dating a guy who makes as much as you. Because if two people make $300K combined, it doesn’t matter if you make $200K and he makes $100K. Really.

Read the article here and share your comments below.

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  1. 1

    Hmmm interesting. I think women basically want options and choice. Women were brought up by feminism to expect and demand options and choice – there is no similar “men’s movement” to push for the rights of men to as much choice or options as women (eg. we are constantly bombarded by all sorts of policies to open up to women, fields formerly the preserve of men while we don’t see the same kind of push to open up fields formerly the preserve of women, to men).
    By having a man earn as much or more, it gives women the option to stay home with children if she so wishes. It gives a an “out” if work life proves too stressful and distateful. It allows her more options to spend the money she earns – to get herself a pair of Manolo’s without having to worry about money for diapers.
    Essentially quite a bit of selfishness on the part of women – which is what she was brought up by feminisim to feel entitled to.

    1. 1.1

      Yes yes yes

  2. 2

    Simple solution: Women- make as much as you want, but don’t put your income toward providing for the household. Let your husband be the provider while you use your money for other things, i.e. kids’ college tuition, vacations, shopping, days at the spa, etc. Everyone’s happy.  

  3. 3

    I think they’re likely unhappy because if the women are making more, they’re probably working a lot of hours.   Somebody has to be home with the kids at dinner.   That becomes a power struggle-especially if the husband is resentful if he has to drive kids to dancing, soccer and scouts-after working all day.   Which is something working women have been doing for years.

  4. 4
    Evan Marc Katz

    A previous blog post, Sue, indicated that, on average, women spend more time at home with the kids and less time working, but both spent the same amount of hours contributing (58 hours or so). Men work about twice as many hours because women are more likely to work part time or not at all.

  5. 5

    This is a toughy. Life is full of choices and this is no different. Maybe high earning women need to choose between a happy marriage and a high paying career. The idea of “having it all” is a myth that has been debunked for years now. The big job with the big paycheck, and a happy home life where someone takes care of the kids while the man still makes as much or more than the woman sounds like a big fairy tale to me.

  6. 6

    I think the conundrum comes when the woman can earn more…but in her ideal world she wouldn’t have to. In an ideal world working would be more of an option.  
    She’d choose to stay home with the kids, at least part time, but the family can’t afford to do it because her husband can’t earn enough and is not willing to work as hard as she does. So she works long hours, gets very little time being the mother she wants to be at her core, and watches her mate get to spend time with the children instead. She gets resentful. She starts to disrespect him. She perceives that he doesn’t have a sense of urgency to bring home the bacon because…well…it’s coming home just fine with her efforts.
    On dark days, she does the math and realizes she could pay for childcare for less money than it costs to pay his part of the bills.
    The conundrum builds because he happens to be a very good father, and does well staying at home with the kids, but the pattern is locked in and neither feels happy with the role their gender got allocated.
    Not an equation that creates a happy equilibrium over time. She stays for the children though…until perhaps she realizes she’d have more freedom (and still as much money) pursuing a life on her own.

    1. 6.1

      You just said a mouthful! #applauds

    2. 6.2

      And, crucially, she hasn’t got a huge social construct, historical precedent, and indoctrination from childhood to tell her that this is “the way things should be” and she should be happy rather than resentful about this situation – in contrast to the generations of men who typically find / have found themselves in this position…

      In other words, if we swap the gender of the pronouns around in your post, we see it describes the traditional stereotypical male experience – welcome the downside of men’s experience.

  7. 7

    I make more than my boyfriend, but we work the same amount of hours. I definitely don’t look down on him for his salary. In fact, I’m proud of where he’s gotten himself, and I tell him that…especially when he doesn’t feel so great about his career.   I still cook him dinner almost every day, and we share cleaning duties.
    Perhaps some people feel entitled to certain things because they make more money, even if the same amount of effort is put forth for the differing pay.   To me, business is completely separate from my personal life, and I’d like to keep it that way.   Money complicates things in ways it shouldn’t.

  8. 8

    I am not married or have kids so I cannot speak to the implications there but as a single women I would not reject a man who made less. I would reject a man who didn’t work and didn’t have ambition or goals outside of the home but I would not reject his earnings. As long as he respects my money and doesn’t want to use me, and as long as we are “more” together than apart, I would not say “no”.

  9. 9

    I am one of the “high” earning women who is divorcing, though I didn’t earn more than he did  every year, it teetered back and forth – always virtually equal for 23 years.   Lately, we both made 130-140k each.   My income was a factor in the divorce…but it was more that I was being forced to earn that much – I had no choice, due to his spending habits (not mine, I had to self-deprive, and my needs were far simpler)   He always wanted a bigger house, high end stuff, was free wheeling with money – giving gifts to his family, bailing his siblings out, etc.   I was verbally abused if I did not cave to his every whim.   I suggested counseling, going with separate bank accounts and sharing agreed to expenses…he refused.   Household chores were not equal either…I did more of the core housework, and had my parents help with various things when they could.   He did what he wanted to every day…and it wasn’t ever what needed to be done.   He would never “allow” me to work part time…I really  couldn’t have, given our expenses,  plus I  was afraid of  how that would impact my career.     Having  my income freed me to ask for a divorce when my kids were 15 and 20.   I felt they were far enough along to handle it –   I couldn’t bear it when they were younger.
    He also did things that sort of sabotaged his career and promotion potential…was smoking pot, was not following rules at work and getting into difficulties.   I felt he was a risk and I had to go.   I am so happy I kept my job.  
    I never believed he needed to earn more…but I began to believe if he was the materially needy one, and   if he was not responsible with money…that wasn’t really my issue, it was his.   I feared he would lose his job eventually, and I would be the one shouldering everything, which I knew I could not do with the large mortgage, college expenses, etc.   His dream was to be self employed…but he did not want to make the sacrifices that people generally make to make that happen.   I could picture myself years from now, having our savings dwindle if his self employment didn’t work out.   I could not be a cheerleader, because I knew the reality was that it probably wouldn’t work, given his character traits.  
    Now that I am beginning to date, I am not necessarily looking for a partner that earns more.   I am looking for a partnership, where we agree on a lifestyle, and we each contribute as agreed – with the caveat that things change…and you then cooperate on alternatives.   One person does not over-function on behalf of the other.   One man I date probably earns 250k as an attorney  – one earns 45k as a state politician, and has another job where he might earn 50k one year, and very little another year.   I like them both for different reasons.  
    And as for the reference in #4…on average, I am sure that is absolutely true (and a nicer way to live, IMHO).   But the context of the article is when women earn more…and I know in my situation, that study could not have been further from the truth.   I was working more than  full time, really, really busting my butt at the job, and then coming home and doing more than what I believed was my share.   I was also extracting very little in the way of anything for myself…no expensive car, makeup, clothes, shoes, bags, vacations, spa, fitness, etc.   It mostly went to the kids, him and savings.
    But I bet if you asked the high earning women, they’d all have different reasons for their divorce.   And how do we know they initiated it – statistics tell us they probably did.   I can say having the high salary made the decision and process  easier – but it wasn’t without going through what a normal person might do to try to save a 23 year marriage.  

    1. 9.1

      I am glad you came up with your story and gave the right perspective to things! I was so disappointed reading the article and comments, I knew it was because a high earning woman can actually leave an abusive man and survive on her own and not tolerate gender discrimination.

  10. 10

    Corrected version: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Leo Tolstoy     I don’t think there’s one answer to why the statistics are the way they are.   In my case, my (ex-)husband and I made approximately the same amount when we married.  I knew I would eclipse his salary shortly because of the difference in our education and our priorities.  He was a high school drop-out that chose not to get his GED but had a good  union job that he’d held for years.  I had a Bachelors in Engineering and was already moving up in my company.For all the years of our marriage, we had a joint account to pay for the mortgage, utilities, and other agreed-upon expenses.   At the end, I was putting in twice what he did.   Most of his “toys” ended up coming out of this money (boat, tractor, other farm equipment, 4-wheeler). We each had our own account with spending money; my one “toy” bought later in marriage (boat) came out of my spending money. I never was concerned about his money or job as I was fine with it; however, he hated my job and any success I had.  He was jealous of all the guys I worked with and complained excessively whenever I had to work long hours.   I generally cooked dinner every night, took care of the kids single-handedly (a point of contention), grocery shopped and did all the “inside work”.   I was unhappy in the marriage but not due to who made more money.   The last straw was related to drugs and alcohol but the one thing that surprised me in the end was when he looked at me all hangdog (through alcohol-laden bloodshot eyes) and said “A man’s supposed to be the bread winner in the family.”   In my case, I think it was his insecurity and general unhappiness with his life that led to the end.    Ask him and he’ll tell you it was my job.

  11. 11

    As usual with statistics, I always wonder about the correlations implied. What if the increase of divorce rate in couples where the woman earns more is not due to unhappiness stemming from the difference in wages, but simply by the fact that women work earn more can more easily afford a divorce if they are unhappy for other reasons?
    Just two cents.

  12. 12
    Sparkling Emerald

    Fusee – I think you hit the nail on the head.   I am not proud to say this, but if I was a higher income earner, I would be legally divorced by now.   We are working on making it legal, I still have to work out paying for my own health insurance, how much   a divorce mediator & financial planner will cost, and then live with the prospect of having to spend at least the next ten years working 2 jobs and/or having room mates.     I actually had a nice comfy lifestyle when I was single, I owned a condo, a brand new car, could afford nice clothes.   I wish I could go back to that lifestyle, but condo’s are MORE expensive as the balance on our home, so it’s really not feasible.   Just think back to the days when women stayed at home, or worked part time at a minimum wage job just to have some spending money and something to occupy their time other than household duties.   The divorce rate was much lower, but does everyone really think that it was only because couples were HAPPIER, or was it because divorce was out of their reach financially ?   I think many couples stay together because it’s “Cheaper to Keep Her”  

  13. 13

    I would like to add a bit of a different spin on this issue. Women in my profession and in my generation can be straddled with a different set of complex dynamics surrounding this issue if they aren’t already married to another physician or working part time. Many of my female colleagues and I were devastated to learn that our husbands had married us primarily for the income. My ex whined to two separate marriage counselors that that is the reason that he married me – so he could be a stay at home husband. Isn’t that what a spouse of a physician is supposed to do? And, I found out, this was not unique to me. Quite a number of my colleagues also have, thankfully, ex-husbands who shared the same sentiment. Unfortunately, we all had to pay alimony and many of us are paying child support for joint custody due to the income inequity, but it is a small price to pay for our freedom. Now, as I and my friends and colleagues navigate this dating carnival with Evan and his follower’s profound wisdom, I am left mystified at the end of the night when all the tickets are strewn on the ground and the faint smell of cotton candy lingers in the air. This carney says, No, you can’t ride this ride because you are over-educated. The guy at the milk bottle game will only let me try 3 times even though I can purchase more because he says it bothers him too much that I can outspend everyone else, even though I am overly generous. I have learned not to ride those fast, spinning rides because while they make me feel euphoric for 45 seconds, I end up feeling dizzy and nauseated for far longer. I am hoping for a nice game of Bingo with someone who will share his card and let me know if I missed a number. I think that’s the ticket.

  14. 14

    Fusee, Emerald: Yeah, you both hit on something. If people break up it’s pretty safe to assume that it’s because they were unhappy. But if people stay together you can’t assume that it’s because they’re happy. People get married and/or stay together for reasons other than happiness. That’s why I don’t understand the big push to marry people off or to keep them married. Why aren’t we pushing for people to be happy instead? If that’s through marriage, cool. If that’s through divorce, also cool. If that’s through being single, also also cool.

  15. 15

    I’d be interested to know if these statistics also apply to couples where the wife has inherited money which makes her wealthier than her husband.   How much is about the “job” – the nature of the work, the hours spent away from home, etc – and how much is about the net worth?

  16. 16
    Sparkling Emerald

    Jeannie #14 – Yes, Bingo.   If half of all marriages end in divorce, we know for sure that AT LEAST half were unhappy, but of the other half, many of them are miserable anyway.   My marriage will still show up on the “success” side, because we aren’t even legally separated, yet mine could hardly be called a happy marriage.   Then there are the other miserable marriages where the couple won’t even consider divorce for whatever reasons.   I would say the number of marriages over 20 years that still have a reasonable level of contentment left is very slim indeed.   I think the big “push” for marriage is to provide a stable environment for children.   (or at least a greater chance that both parents will provide them with financial support)   Of course, when I got married (and like the typical bride) I had a starry eyed vision of happily ever after.   Unfortunately, (like typical marriages) it turned out to be crappily ever after.   We all go into marriage (or mostly all, I think some shotgun brides know they are entering into a doomed marriage) thinking we will be the exception.   And sadly, I think marriages that stay happy until the end are the exception, not the rule 🙁

  17. 17
    Sparkling Emerald

    PIA #13 –
       As far as women and success goes, it seems to be a damned if you do, damned if you don’t.   Women who are highly salaried/highly successful at their jobs cause men to complain that women aren’t women any more.   Women who want to stay home with the children are accused of being gold diggers sponging off of their husbands and society in general.
       One would think that I found the sweet spot.   I worked and was able to make a substantial financial contribution to the marital household, and I did focus on motherhood for the first five years of my son’s life.   (either worked very part time, or watched other people’s children in my home)  
       But no, even tho’ I was neither a “ball crushing” career alpha woman who couldn’t take off her managers hat when she got home, nor could I really be considered a “gold digging sponge off her husband whilst eating bon-bons on the couch”   type of woman either, I still haven’t found that sweet spot.

  18. 18

    I feel in agreement people stay together for reasons other than happiness.

  19. 19

    I’m not going to try to re-write the wheel so…
    “The main problem with women earning more than their men is far more hardwired into both gender’s psyche   than the  experts consigned by the feminine imperative will ever be allowed to relate.
    On the feminine side we have the cruel reality of feminine Hypergamy that’s constantly reminded that the man she’s paired with (or would pair with) isn’t capable of, or is less capable of, the provisioning her Hypergamy ultimately demands of him, and which she can provide for herself. For the single professional woman this imbalance results in their constant search for a man they consider “her equal”, and is the cause for many post-Wall women’s common lament of not being able to find the guy she thinks she deserves.
    By this distorted logic, professional women subscribe to the social convention that they can ‘buy Alpha’; that their credentials, financial and social status ought to be the deciding factor for men’s intimate estimations of them, and any man not abiding by these conditions is by definition “infantile”, has a “fragile ego” and is “threatened by successful women”.
    Feminine Operative Social Conventions are the meta-hamster of the gestalt consciousness of the feminine imperative.
    On the masculine side the problems are twofold. The first comes from men’s evolved subliminal understanding about how being a provider is his last, best, resort of securing a mate who will send his genes on to future generations. Once this capacity is removed, he becomes conscious of his vulnerability to the predations of his wife’s Hypergamy.”

  20. 20

    I like Pia’s carnival analogy. 🙂

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