Study: Breadwinning wife, happy life

Written on Aug 31, 2016

It's long been the conventional wisdom in the U.S. that married men are happiest when they're the family's primary breadwinner—and that married women are good with that too. But a new study of Millennial (and borderline-Millennial) couples turns that wisdom upside down.

It appears that when men are the primary earners in their marriage, both their psychological well-being and health suffer, according to a new University of Connecticut study. And the greater their economic contribution to their marriage, the greater the decline—with their psychological well-being and health being the worst during the years when they're the family's sole breadwinner.

Conversely, women's psychological well-being improves as they make greater economic contributions to their marriage. Overall, married men and women are happier when the wife is the bigger breadwinner.

The study results, presented at the American Sociological Association's 111th Annual Meeting, were pulled from data from the 1997 through 2011 waves of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. Researchers examined the financial contributions of approximately 3,100 participants—all married people between the ages of 18 and 32 chosen from a nationally representative sample—and analyzed how their contributions related to their psychological well-being and health. Researchers controlled for influential factors including age, education, absolute income and number of hours worked per week.

In the years when men are the only earners in the family, their psychological well-being scores dropped by 5% and their health scores were, on average, 3.5% lower than in years when their partners contributed equally. Researchers believe this may be due to pressure that men feel: "Men who make a lot more money than their partners may approach breadwinning with a sense of obligation and worry about maintaining breadwinner status," says Christin Munsch, Ph.D., an assistant professor of sociology at UConn.

As for women: "Whereas men's psychological well-being and health tend to increase as their wives take on more economic responsibility, women's psychological well-being also improves as they take on more economic responsibility," Munsch said. That's because women approach breadwinning as an opportunity or choice, so they may feel a sense of pride about being the primary earner, Munsch speculated. In addition, unlike men, who are often expected to contribute more financially to their marriage, breadwinning women don't have to worry much about what others will say if they can't or don't maintain their breadwinning status.

The study theorizes that men's and women's expectations and resulting feelings about breadwinning are changing with the new marriage generation, perhaps because Millennial partners have a greater preference for a more equal marriage than their parents did.

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