Homes are often happiest when women are the main breadwinners

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Sali Hughes earns a little more than her partner, leading, she feels, to a fairer, happier household. And new research backs her up

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By Sali Hughes on

We’ve all seen the films, the soap operas and celebrity tabloid muckraking. Successful woman earns more than male spouse, man’s masculinity is threatened, man resents woman, man’s loved ones believe him to be pussy-whipped, man’s pride is dented, couple argues, will surely split unless successful woman remembers who wears the trousers and skulks away from centre stage. It’s the curse of the modern age, when women are more likely than men to have a degree and, in some high-profile industries, are as likely to reach the top of their professions and salary scale. Men, still wired to be the hunter gatherers, just cannot handle our increased success, right?

Wrong. According to a new study of 3,000 married couples aged 18 to 32 by sociologists at the University of Connecticut, men who take on a greater share of economic responsibility in their marriages report greater strains on their health and wellbeing than men who bring in the secondary income. When men are the sole breadwinner in their home (ie the only earners – a number that has steadily decreased over the past decade), their psychological and physical health outcomes are worst of all. Overall, men who are not the chief earners are happiest and so, it was found, are their breadwinning wives.

I could have saved the Connecticut boffins a whole load of late nights and aggro. I earn more than my partner. Not loads more, but enough that we’re both aware of it. This is the first relationship I’ve been in where I’ve been the main breadwinner and is easily the most straightforward and harmonious. Several of my closest girlfriends earn more than their male partners and I cannot begin to articulate how little the menfolk care. In fact, they’re proud of us while being positively thrilled they’re not us. None are freeloaders, all take a little more care of the house, do a bit more childcare, take on the responsibilities that can’t reasonably fall on the person most often at work.

I cringe when a woman on First Dates automatically expects a complete stranger to pay for her dinner for no other reason than he was born with a set of balls

And yet, in all sorts of ways, the myth prevails that men alone should provide. I cringe when a woman on First Dates automatically expects a complete stranger to pay for her dinner for no other reason than he was born with a set of balls. For me, it’s only lovely for a man to pick up the bill if I like him enough to book another date and treat him next time. Likewise, dating-book advice on not disclosing a healthy salary to any male suitors until safely locked in a relationship, and the persistent tabloid image of female gold-digger and obliging sugar daddy – neither bears any resemblance to the real-life relationships of anyone I know. And while, as a feminist journalist, I’m usually looking at how these stereotypes work against women, as the mother of sons I get just as furious on behalf of the boys.

As this study proves, gendered expectations can be as harmful to men as to women. I don’t want my boys growing up thinking they’re solely responsible for bringing home the bacon, any more than I want their partners to feel similarly about housework and childcare. I welcome a cultural shift that relieves my kids of the pressure heaped upon their dad’s generation to provide for the family at any cost to their marriage, mental or physical health, because I know from bitter experience that these men are more likely to take jobs that don’t fulfil them, work way longer hours than could reasonably be expected and still feel they’re letting everyone down. It’s a hiding to nothing – not fun, not fair and ultimately not helpful for anyone in the family.

There are times, of course, when it’s unavoidable. Women are likely to go through a period of financial reliance on men, simply because we are the ones who get pregnant, give birth and breastfeed. Woefully inflexible (if significantly improved) working patterns for both men and women mean we’re still far more likely to stay at home for a period of time. And, unless you plan sensibly (set up a standing order for “mum salary” is my first-hand advice), it can be grim for many women to be beholden to the breadwinner. While only few of us suffer the very real horror of financial coercive control, most women in even the healthiest relationships will experience some unwelcome money moments, particularly during maternity leave. My meltdown came just after I’d given birth, when I had to ask my husband if I could have £30 for a pair of Topshop sandals on a hot day. The old me would have bought them without a care. Now, here I was, cap in hand. And I felt smaller than an amoeba.

But, for the most part, as a culture we really must stop seeing a problem where it simply no longer exists. Ideally, one obviously wants equality. I may earn a bit more than my partner, but it’s extremely important to him that he contributes the same amount financially to our domestic costs, for as long as that’s viable. And, as freelancers, we happily accept there will be times in the future where one of us has a lean year while the other has a good one, and we will alternate as crash mat for the other. In healthy relationships, checks and balances should even out over time. What matters to us both is that everyone is provided for, that the bread is won – not whose name is on the loaf.


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