Patriarchy pressure: Husbands increasingly stressed as wives earn more money, study finds

BATH, England — The antiquated notion of the male breadwinner providing for his family as his wife stays at home hasn’t been culturally relevant, or representative, in a long time. However, a new study of U.S. data finds that societal norms about a husband’s expected financial role are still weighing on a number of men. Husbands are at their least stressed when their wife earns anywhere below 40% of the family’s household income, but become increasingly stressed out as their spouse’s income rises beyond that percentage.

To that end, according to the research team at the University of Bath, husbands are at their most stressed and uncomfortable when they are completely dependent on their wives from a financial perspective.

“These findings suggest that social norms about male breadwinning – and traditional conventions about men earning more than their wives – can be dangerous for men’s health. They also show how strong and persistent are gender identity norms,” comments study author Dr. Joanna Syrda, an economist at the University of Bath’s School of Management, in a release.

After analyzing data collected on over 6,000 heterosexual, American marriages over the course of 15 years, researchers noticed a “sweet spot” in reference to how comfortable men are with their wives’ incomes. Husbands were found to be very anxious when they were the sole breadwinner in a household, but stress levels gradually declined as spousal earnings approached the 40% marker for household income. Once the wife’s earnings passed that point, stress levels again began to steadily rise.

So, the overall results indicate that husbands are at their least stressed when their wives are helping out financially, but not overshadowing their own income.

“This is a large study but of a specific group – other conventions apply in other groups and societies and the results may change as times move on. However, the results are strong enough to point to the persistence of gender identity norms, and to their part in male mental health issues. Persistent distress can lead to many adverse health problems, including physical illness, and mental, emotional and social problems,” Dr. Syrda continues.

It’s important to note that husbands who knowingly married women with high-paying jobs did not experience the same income-related stress.

Over the past few decades, women have started to bridge the gender pay gap considerably. For example, in 1980 only 13% of married women in the U.S. earned more than their husband. Today, close to one third of married women earn more than their husbands. While this is obviously a positive all around, the research team say they were curious to see how this massive shift in pay scale may have influenced how many men and husbands see themselves in society and evaluate their success.

“The consequences of traditional gender role reversals in marriages associated with wives’ higher earnings span multiple dimensions, including physical and mental health, life satisfaction, marital fidelity, divorce, and marital bargaining power,” Dr Syrda says. “With masculinity closely associated with the conventional view of the male breadwinner, traditional social gender norms mean men may be more likely to experience psychological distress if they become the secondary earner in the household or become financially dependent on their wives, a finding that has implications for managing male mental health and society’s understanding of masculinity itself.”

The research team added that there were a number of discrepancies between wives’ assessments of their husband’s stress levels, and the husbands’ self-reported stress. This suggests that many husbands may not be communicating just how stressed they truly feel.

The study is published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.