Men ‘less satisfied with life’ when women are the breadwinners in the relationship

BATH, United Kingdom — For decades, cultural stereotypes have depicted working men as the family “breadwinners,” while women largely stayed at home. Fast forward to today, and these antiquated notions have largely faded away in favor of more inclusive business practices. However, new research suggests many out-of-work men are struggling to cope when their female partner is the sole earner in the relationship.

Scientists at the University of Bath found that men report lower levels of well-being when women are the sole income earner in the relationship. If the man is the sole breadwinner, or both members of a heterosexual relationship have a job, however, men have higher levels of well-being.

These findings come from an analysis of data encompassing over 42,000 people across nine countries. Researchers measured well-being by asking participants how satisfied they felt with their lives, ranging from zero (extremely dissatisfied) to 10 (extremely satisfied). Most people typically placed somewhere between five and eight. Men’s “life satisfaction” was 5.86 when women were the sole earners, compared to 7.16 when men were the only earners.

Researchers note well-being appears at its lowest among female-breadwinner couples when men are “unemployed” rather than “inactive” (not actively looking for work and/or doing housework or other care responsibilities). Generally, unemployment is usually associated with more psychological costs, including self-doubt, uncertainty, loneliness, and stigma.

The study also found that men’s well-being is higher when women experience unemployment instead of men. Conversely, well-being is just as low among women when either partner is unemployed. Thus, while both men and women appear to find the man being unemployed concerning, only women seem to find their own unemployment as difficult.

young wife holding money next to dissatisfied husband
young wife holding money next to dissatisfied husband (© alfa27 – stock.adobe.com)

Study authors suggest unemployed men may be especially susceptible to isolation and loneliness since they tend to be less likely than women to have community or care-based social networks to fall back on.

Also, gendered expectations of selflessness may be at play, leading unemployed women to go further than unemployed men in shielding a partner from their distress. This could work both ways; when the man is out of work, the woman may be more affected by his struggles than he would be if the roles were reversed.

In comparison to two-earner and male-breadwinner couples, female-breadwinner couples had lower household incomes and were more likely to find it “difficult” to cope on their income. Moreover, a larger portion of men in female-breadwinner couples reported poor health and low educational achievement. All of those factors have been linked with lower life satisfaction.

After the research team accounted for all relevant factors, including marital status, age, attitudes toward gender, and partners’ relative contributions to household income, they note women’s well-being is only slightly lower when they are the sole earners. For females, then, it appears it is the characteristics of female-breadwinner couples that mostly explain lower well-being.

Even after accounting for all that, men’s life satisfaction scores remained notably lower when the woman was the only earner. In Germany, for example, the difference is over one full life satisfaction point (-1.112). Next comes Spain (-0.616), Ireland (-0.609), France (-0.586), Finland (-0.566), and the U.K. (-0.423).

Study authors theorize that the observed low levels of well-being among men in female-breadwinner households likely reflects upon the importance of being the breadwinner for most men’s identities. Providing financially for one’s family remains key to masculinity and being a “good” dad.

Couple splitting money between them
(Photo by Mikhail Nilov from Pexels)

“Our findings suggest that gender norms affect how couples cope with unemployment, with men placing more value on their own employment status than their partner’s,” says lead researcher Dr. Helen Kowalewska from the University of Bath’s Department of Social & Policy Sciences in a university release.

“We hope our results can stimulate a debate around this important area, both within couples but also among policymakers. More needs to be done to break the link between breadwinning and masculinity. This might include greater study of gender norms in the school curriculum and campaigns and incentives to get more men to use Shared Parental Leave, for instance,” Kowalewska continues.

“Ultimately, we need to keep challenging the ingrained belief that men should be the breadwinner, so that men don’t feel like failures when they can’t meet this expectation.”

The study is published in the journal European Sociological Review.

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