American men in heterosexual marriages experience high levels of anxiety and stress when they are their family’s sole breadwinner, but their stress levels tend to be even higher if their wives are working and contributing to more than 40 percent of the couple’s household income, a new study has found.
“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,” says Joanna Syrda, the study’s author and an economist at the University of Bath, in a released statement.
“They also show how strong and persistent are gender identity norms,” she adds.
Interestingly, no increased psychological distress was observed among husbands whose wives outearned them from the start of their marriage.
As background information in the study reports, the percentage of American wives who earn more than their husbands has grown from 4 percent in 1970 to 28 percent in 2017 — “a trend that is likely to continue into the future,” writes Syrda.
How the study was done
For the study, which was published this week in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Syrda analyzed 15 years (2001-2015) of survey data collected from a representative sample of more than 6,000 heterosexual couples living in the United States. Among those couples, 88 percent of the husbands and 74 percent of the wives were employed outside the home.
The survey included questions about household income, as well as ones designed to measure psychological distress.
The data revealed a U-shaped relationship between husbands’ psychological stress and the proportion of money their wives contributed to their household coffers. Men expressed elevated levels of anxiety and stress when they were the sole source of their family’s income. Those distress levels declined, however, when wives were working — but only when the women’s earnings did not exceed 40 percent of household income. Once the wives’ earnings rose above that threshold, the husbands’ stress levels began to climb again.
The husbands’ anxiety and stress peaked when they were entirely financially dependent on their wives’ income.
This U-shaped curve was not observed, however, among couples in which the wives earned more than their husbands before they walked down the aisle — an indication, says Syrda, that men who enter marriage with such an income gap are psychologically comfortable with it.
Another interesting finding from the study was that the wives who were surveyed believed their husbands’ stress levels were lowest when each spouse was earning 50 percent of the household income. The husbands, however, reported being most comfortable when they were contributing 60 percent.
“The fact that wives observe to a lesser degree [their] husband’s elevated psychological distress when husbands are financially dependent on them may be simply because they don’t communicate it,” Syrda writes in her paper.
“This in turn may be yet another manifestation of gender norms,” she adds.
The study comes with an important caveat. “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,” Syrda explains.
It’s also unfortunate that the survey data did not allow her to see how income gaps between husbands and wives affect the psychological health of women.
Still, “the results are strong enough to point to the persistence of gender identity norms, and to their part in male mental health issues,” says Syrda.
Of course, gender norms are constantly evolving.
“It will be interesting,” writes Syrda, “to see whether the established relationship between male psychological distress and wife’s relative income will remain significant and U-shaped in the future, and if so, will the male distress minimizing wife’s relative income remain around 40% or will it increase, and, if not, how will the changing norms be reflected in these patterns?”
FMI: You’ll find an abstract of the study on the website for the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, but the full paper is behind a paywall.