Female breadwinning less likely to result in break-ups than in decades past

December 16, 2020
A couple snuggles outdoors. ( Kelly Sikkema, Unsplash)

A couple snuggles outdoors. ( Kelly Sikkema, Unsplash)

Women making more money than their male partners is less likely to lead to dissatisfaction in or the end of a marriage or cohabiting relationship than in previous decades, with female breadwinning more accepted and male breadwinning less the norm, according to new research.

In 1967, only 46% of married women were employed, contributing about 26% of the family income, compared to 2015, when 61% of married women were employed and they contributed 37% of the income. In 2015, women also earned more than their partners 29.3% of the time compared to 17.8% of the time in 1987.

The research, set to be published next month in the Journal of Population Economics, was authored by Gigi Foster, associate professor at the University of New South Wales, and Leslie Stratton, associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Foster and Stratton used U.S. National Longitudinal surveys between 1997 and 2015, as well as Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia surveys between 2001 and 2016. Equal earnings are reported by about 6% of U.S. couples, irrespective of married or cohabiting status, and 5% of married Australian couples and 2% of cohabiting Australian couples.

Unlike previous studies that examined the connection between female breadwinning and the dissolution of relationships, Foster and Stratton also examined measures of relationship health and stability, which previous researchers have shown to be stronger direct predictors of breakups than measuring the economic power of women.

“When you talk about male-female differences in wages brought into the family, for example … that’s just one dimension of a massive array of different dimensions of a partnership,” Foster said. “And we know that partners provide many different things to each other, not just the income that they bring in. If you want to really understand the health of the relationship, it involves many, many other factors.”

Foster and Stratton found a much weaker link between female breadwinning and both marital dissolution and marital health, though female breadwinning has more significant consequences for young cohabiting couples despite generational changes in social norms. Though the data provides no clear reason for this, Foster and Stratton hypothesized that it may be because cohabiting couples find it less painful to violate norms and yet easier to break up than their older, married counterparts.

“Cohabiting couples, in some instances, reported … to have healthier relationships when she brought in a substantial share of the income,” Stratton said. “Women in particular were more likely to respond that they were happier, that they were more satisfied in those situations.”

In Australia, though, women appear to be less satisfied when they become the breadwinners in cohabiting relationships, which Stratton chalked up to market mechanisms. The researchers found they tend to leave those relationships to seek higher-earning partners.

“If you know as a woman that you’re kind of in the market for a guy and that the average male-female wage difference is positive, then you sort of discover that, 'Oh, he’s not making as much as me, maybe I could do better,’” she said. “So it’s kind of a market selection mechanism that we’re seeing rather than sort of a norms violation kind of mechanism.”

Less-educated couples were also more likely to follow male breadwinning norms and report dissatisfaction in the relationship if the woman made more than their male partner.

“I think the norms in the society do change over time, and we definitely find evidence of that overall, but for that particular component, they change less quickly,” Stratton said. “And, you know, maybe that’s something that’ll just stick there for a while because people are in bubbles a bit. We don’t have full mixing of different types of groups of people … and norms propagate through interaction and influence by other people.”

It’s hard to say how applicable this research is outside the U.S. and Australia, Stratton said, because of cultural differences and data availability.

“It depends on the norms,” she said. In some areas in Southern Europe, for instance, "Norms are a bit more traditional, gendered," she said. Meanwhile, those same European countries have stronger parental job protection policies than in the U.S., making it hard to compare the effect of norms across the Atlantic.

Foster and Stratton have written several other papers together examining the relationship between gender and power in order to better understand the dynamics in the home and the dynamics influencing the broader society.

The duo was also influenced by previous research that showed female breadwinning negatively impacted a marriage, a study that both Foster and Stratton said they had reservations about because of the older data used and the focus on income as a measure of happiness. 

“I was concerned about the results,” Stratton said. “I would hope that our society has evolved a little beyond the implications posed by that initial article.”

One thing the study was not able to touch on, Foster said, was how breadwinning impacts the satisfaction and relationship dissolution of same-sex couples, but she said it would be an interesting potential future direction of research that could help test some theories about what may or may not be going on in mixed-gender households.

“That’s sort of a big area, a big unknown area,” Foster said. “And it’s not clear to me actually how you would really go about it because obviously you don’t have this sort of traditional norms kind of thing.”

The study “Does female breadwinning make partnerships less healthy or less stable?,” published in the January 2021 edition of the Journal of Population Economics, was authored by Gigi Foster, University of New South Wales, and Leslie Stratton, Virginia Commonwealth University. 

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