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It matters not one bit who is the breadwinner in your relationship

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And all this inflammatory talk about it isn’t helping either, says Sali Hughes. Having bread in the breadbin – not who won it – is what matters

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By Sali Hughes on

Morning. Just stop eating the eggs that give you cancer for a moment, or putting on the make-up that makes employers assume you’re stupid, and getting ready for the full-time job that will ultimately make your children incapable of love and at risk of mowing down their classmates with a shotgun, and listen up. The papers have something new for you to panic about – your selfish breadwinning is giving your partner a heart attack.

That’s right, according to a new, widely publicised study by Rutgers University published in the Journal of Ageing and Health. “Wives increasingly out-earn their husbands and this may undermine men’s well-being,” it concludes, having followed 30 married couples for three decades. The academics found that a husband’s loss of “chief breadwinner” status puts him at increased risk of diabetes, strokes and heart attacks. The study reasons that even if men feel consciously at ease with the uneven dynamic of a higher-earning wife, his unconscious tells another story, via a manifestation of poorer physical health. And there you were, thinking the two of you were working to a common aim of keeping a roof over your heads and dinner on the table. You were actually bringing about his premature death.

As with any study, its findings inevitably conflict with another. A 2016 paper by the University of Connecticut, based on a considerably larger sample of 3,000 couples, reported that 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 home the secondary income. When men are the sole earner and provider in their home (a number that, as you might imagine, has steadily decreased over the past decade), their psychological and physical health outcomes are worst of all. Interestingly, this study concluded that while men who are not the chief earners are happiest, so too are their breadwinning wives. In layperson’s terms, everyone’s a winner.

I’m not sure we should much care either way or, in 2017, whether we should even keep asking the question. While it shouldn’t go unmentioned that British newspapers practically never – even when reporting on the infinitely more common “gender pay gap” – talk about how earning less affects women’s health and self-esteem, nor that there are any well-publicised academic papers on the latter, it also seems significant that the two major studies into the effects of lower earnings on men were both undertaken in the States.

Do British men in 2017 really care who brings home the bacon?

In America, it seems to be a much greater social issue than it is here or in Europe (my girlfriends in New York and LA tell me they hide their healthy salary details from new dates, because superior financial health is often the death knell on any fledgling relationship). It’s also notable that the Rutgers study was commissioned in 1987, when male breadwinners were the overwhelming norm and gender stereotypes were undoubtedly more entrenched. And yet the study overlooks any societal progression (there’s no mention of same-sex couples, of course), suggesting instead that there’s some primal, indelible need for man to be the protector – no longer with a club, fending off mammoth, but with a briefcase, fending off poverty. Whether this is still true is debatable (who are these men? Do they exist other than behind frog avatars on Twitter?), but what is certain is that their insecurity is a luxury they can literally no longer afford.

Besides, I’m not convinced one can so easily boil down the financial status of a couple, married or otherwise, by looking only at salaries. I earn more than my partner because his largely home-based job facilitates my travel, late-night work events and stupid deadlines. I couldn’t earn what I do without his ability to be home with the kids, doing laundry where needed, renewing the parking permit, standing at the football matches and booking plumbers when something goes wrong. He hardly feels he’s freeloading when my career would grind to a halt without him. There’s no resentment because we are paid fairly for each of our respective jobs. The comparative earnings don’t come into it if neither of us feels hard done by and we both consider the family income as a whole that is equally dependent on both of us. Even the concept of “two separate incomes” seems a peculiar one in marriage.

But do British men in 2017 really care who brings home the bacon? I see no practical or social evidence they’re that daft, whatever Rutgers may say. Certainly in my sample group of friends (in which husbands frequently earn less than their wives) I’m yet to witness the men dropping like flies, thanks to the crushing emasculatory effects of putting a bit less in the pot than their partner. These men are confident enough in themselves and their relationships, and sufficiently proud of their spouses, to instead relax and enjoy the benefits of being able to take an annual holiday and buy new socks on a whim. Maybe Rutgers’ subjects need to point out to their subconsciouses that having bread in the breadbin is what matters. Not who won it.


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