When the Woman Earns More
Money is a common cause for disagreement in relationships, particularly if the distribution of money is uneven. Money is a proxy for power, and power imbalances lead to disagreements.
Because of the pay gap, most heterosexual relationships involve a higher-earning man and a lower-earning woman. But in 29% of hetero relationships, the woman out-earns the man. This figure has been increasing for decades, but is still a small minority of couples, and because of that, society hasn’t quite figured out how these couples can best work. Because of the newness of this type of relationship and the high likelihood that women lawyers will be involved in such a relationship, this can lead to some growing pains.
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Societal Expectations Haven’t Changed
Many have told me, the men who are uncomfortable with your high salary aren’t right for you. But men don’t start out fearing the success of their female significant other; the truth is society constantly reinforces the idea that men should feel uncomfortable earning less.
For instance, I ran a poll last week about hetero dating when the woman earns considerably more. Only 20% of those polled thought the woman should pay for more dates than the man.
Isn’t this weird? If a man made significantly more, the majority would certainly say he should pay more. But less than 20% think a woman should pay more in this situation. That’s because society isn’t comfortable with the woman taking the financial lead. So even if the woman makes more, the man is still expected to support her. And society will certainly tell a man if he is not living up to expectations.
Why It’s Not Easy Bucking Societal Norms
There was this rumor going around that Prince William cheated on his wife, Kate Middleton. Rumors of celebrity affairs are nothing new, but I was surprised that women responded by mocking William’s looks, touting how he should be grateful that Kate would marry him.
I’m not saying cheating is acceptable, but I’m surprised at how the tides have turned for William.
Yes, Kate Middleton is beautiful and carries out her duties like the best princess of all time, but Prince William was once the most eligible bachelor in the world. First, he is a prince – anyone he marries becomes a princess. Plus when he was younger he was good-looking, rich, had good social skills, and maybe he was even smart and funny.
When he was single, it was “who’s the lucky lady going to be?” Now that he is married, it’s “you’re so lucky! You should be grateful!” It must cause some psychological scarring to always be the lesser-than spouse, particularly when up til then, you have always been the prize.
Image Source: Getty
In typical hetero relationships, the woman is judged on her beauty and the man is judged for his finances. If a rich man marries a beautiful woman, they’re equals and equally lucky. He’s lucky to have a beautiful wife and she’s lucky to have her financial needs met. If a rich woman marries a handsome man, he’s lucky. If you are a man who marries a woman wealthier than you, society will make sure you feel inadequate. And even if you’re a real-life prince (i.e. rich), your beloved spouse can still overshadow you, causing a status imbalance that society loves to pick apart.
It almost makes sense to marry someone a little less-than in terms of looks or finances, in order to just escape the fray. And also you might escape the many problems that female breadwinner relationships have.
The Problematic Relationships When Women Earn More
Societal expectations have a way of infiltrating and poisoning relationships so that women’s breadwinning is associated with a lot of problems.
First, couples are typically embarrassed to be in a female breadwinner situation. When the woman earns more, both husband and wife downplay the difference, with women and men underreporting their salaries and/or overreporting their husband’s. In one study, in couples where women made 80% or more of the household income, either the husband or the wife was hesitant to call her the “breadwinner.”
Second, these relationships are more likely to fail. Being nominated for the Best Actress Oscar (a sign of a woman’s success) increases her risk of divorce. In fact, any woman out-earning her husband increases the couple’s likelihood of divorce.
Another theory is that in relationships with women breadwinners, the spouses are less likely to work as a unit. For instance, female breadwinners are more likely to make decisions on paying bills, budgeting, saving, and investment by themselves rather than consulting with a partner. Women who outearn their husbands are more likely to make hostile comments to their husbands’ financial management, and “police” their husbands more to ensure that he’s not “stealing” from the couple. As you can tell, if it comes to this, the relationship is on a downward spiral.
Third, women and men don’t understand their roles in these relationships. In a “typical” higher-earning male scenario, the man brings the money, the woman takes over household responsibilities. But counterintuitively, the more financially independent a woman is, the more housework she does (and the less he contributes to household duties). This can lead women into wondering what utility she is getting from being married.
When the Woman is a Lawyer – the Problems Multiply
Let’s talk lawyers. There are three aspects that make a woman lawyer’s dating even more difficult than a typical higher-earning woman – a potentially significant income disparity, navigating new power dynamics, and the fact that everyone will know about the differences between the lawyer and her man.
Potentially Significant Income Discrepancy
Women lawyers may face a significant difference in income in their potential relationships. The median wife-breadwinner earns a salary of $50,000, and her husband earns a median income of $30,000. The median personal income in the U.S. is about $33,000 so this couple is a higher-earning woman and a slightly below-median-earning man.
Lawyers make a median salary of $120,910, which is a top 10% of earners salary; in other words, 90% of people will make less than this salary. Thus, if a female lawyer is dating, assuming she doesn’t self-select for men with higher earning power, she’s unlikely to date a man who makes a comparable salary to her. As compared to a median female breadwinner, a lawyer breadwinner is likely to stay the breadwinner for the rest of her marriage. It’s much less likely that her husband will spring up to the top 10% of salaries sometime in his career than to achieve a median salary. Further, as opposed to a couple with median salaries, in a relationship with a female lawyer, it becomes more likely that the man’s salary is irrelevant.
Navigating New Power Dynamics
Because women lawyers likely seek men with similar educational credentials, they will partner with men who may earn high salaries for the area, even if their salaries are not as high as a lawyer’s. For these men, it’s likely a power reversal compared to other relationships. For instance, many of the men I have dated earned six figures and were used to earning more in a relationship. Only 6% of American women earn six figures or more, compared to 14% of men. It’s uncommon for men to earn less than a female significant other, and probably even less likely if the man is high-income. A high-income man could easily find a woman in the 94% that would appreciate his financial contributions. It makes the relationship seem quite precarious.
Everyone Knows the Disparity
As I stated earlier, couples downplay an income disparity where the woman makes more than the man. But any differences between a woman lawyer and her male partner will be apparent to all onlookers. For instance, the income differential is always going to be apparent. For most jobs, it’s not clear what your salary is. In DC, many people works for the government or a defense contractor, and people have ambiguous titles like “consultant.” In contrast, lawyers maintain a stereotype of earning a lot of money.
Then there is the prestige. Except for doctors and professors, other professions generally don’t require so many years of education. And like income, difference in education level is apparent, creating a disparity that is clear to onlookers.
Finally, there is the social group. Lawyers hang around other lawyers and talk about law. That means that a lawyer’s date will inevitably be around other lawyers. This means that not only will the parties suck (just kidding – the free alcohol makes it tolerable), but also that many of the people in your girlfriend/wife’s social group will be well-educated, high income, and nerdy.
Plus, lawyers aren’t exactly laid-back. They’re often gauging others for their utility and status.
The New Rules of Marriage
I’m reading a book, The New Rules of Marriage. And I’m sure you’re thinking, as I did, aren’t the rules the same? But the institution of marriage has changed dramatically and we need new tools to cope. Decades ago, when women were financially dependent on their husbands, they had no choice but to suck up any complaints about marriage. Now that women can work and support themselves, feminism has taught them to demand more.
Still, this doesn’t mean that women know how to communicate their new desires or that men have any idea how to meet them. It’s a very different relationship than what our parents may have modeled. As a society, we are still learning how this relationship will thrive, but it obviously requires patiences,
My Experience Earning “Too Much”
I don’t feel ashamed that I will likely date and marry a man who earns significantly less than me. I would be lying, however, if I said that I don’t worry at all about ill effects due to outearning my spouse.
I haven’t had a full-time job in a year, and it hasn’t affected my dating life whatsoever. Men generally don’t care if the lady they’re dating is making money. In fact, one of my exes asked if I had quit my job so that I could FINALLY date a man who made more than me. (No, but it’s an interesting take).
I mean, my only fight about money I’ve ever had came about because of my high income. Bob and I had been dating six months. We never disclosed our salaries but we both knew I made significantly more than him. Still, we were both earning good money and neither of us had debt.
Bob picked up the tab most of the time. By my calculations, I paid for 1/3 of the meals out and cooked somewhat elaborate meals. I was paying for half our total meals (eating in and eating out) though I was spending less because cooking is cheaper than eating out.
He was resentful. And I was resentful because if I made less, this wouldn’t have been an issue. It wasn’t that I was contributing less – it was that more was expected from me because of my income.
Of course, it was fair. When I was 23 and making an entry-level salary, I dated a lawyer who paid for most of our dates and he would cook as well. Ten years later, the tables have turned. But I wasn’t ready to pay for more than half.
You can be a part of a team and still be jealous of your over-performing teammate or resentful of your underperforming one. We would like to think that this jealousy or resentment will stir in us ambition to greater self-improvement or empathy but for many, it can be corrosive.
When reading about personal finance, it always seems that women are dating or are married to men who make more than them, often significantly so. And I’m a little jealous.
Little girls are taught to want to be princesses, not breadwinners. That seems completely backwards, of course, but it’s the reality and it’s easier for couples to do what’s expected of them. I will admit that I had had a little dream of being Meghan Markle. But that tale is becoming less fairy and more cautionary by the minute.
Turns out, in my own fairytale, I’m the one riding the horse. And I’m learning to be ok with that.