Managing Couples Impacted by the Reverse Breadwinner Effect

Managing Couples Impacted by the Reverse Breadwinner Effect


Time to Read: 5 Min

Kristy Archuleta

Female partners are increasingly out earning their male partners. This changing relationship dynamic goes against the grain of conventional gender roles in the U.S. Traditionally, men brought home the bacon while their wives worked full-time running the household and raising the children. However, times have changed — and it begs us to ask the question about whether there are important differences in couples where the female partner makes more, versus couples where the female makes the same or less than her partner.

Is there a "reverse breadwinner effect," and, if there is, what does that mean for you as an advisor?

What Does the Research Say?

Let's first look at the research on this topic. This won't take long, because information on the impact on couples when the female is the breadwinner is somewhat sparse. It is not new news that female breadwinners are increasing and that money is one of the most intensely argued-about issues in couple relationships1. When women financially contribute more to the household than their husbands, especially when children are present, they are more likely to engage in money arguments.2 The intensity of these emotionally charged arguments may be why husbands are less committed to the relationship and more likely to engage in infidelity when their wife earns more. 3,4

Could intense arguments be contributing to why men tend to be less happy when their wives earn more?5,6 Or, is it due to the shift in the perceived power in the relationship?

Traditional gender roles in couple relationships have often pointed to the husband as the one holding the most power, and this includes decision-making. If couples have been brought up with this sense of traditional gender roles in a couple relationship (i.e., observation of their own caregivers), then they may view the breadwinning partner as the person who has the most power. If this is the case, and roles are reversed, then men may feel like they have lost their place in the household. They may feel shameful or anxious that they have not met their perceived expectations of themselves.

When women financially contribute more to the household than their husbands, especially when children are present, they are more likely to engage in money arguments.

Although couples may claim they hold modern viewpoints and nontraditional gender roles in the relationship, they may actually still be holding on to traditional cultural norms of how females and males should contribute. Female breadwinners may perceive that society shames them7 for earning more than their spouse or working in a position where there is less time for traditional duties of childcare and housework. In other words, these women are maintaining an incredible balancing act; they may never feel like they are doing enough. You might see an overwhelmed and stressed female who appears to be trying to meet the demands of being a "superwoman."

With all of the pressures of balancing parenting and work for both partners, it is no wonder that partners may become less satisfied. Mendiola and colleagues' research8 found that there is an interconnectedness among issues about money, household chores, and demands of time that may wear on couples. However, Mendiola's research uncovered differences, at least for some, in the couple relationships between female breadwinners versus female partners who earn the same or less. In situations where women earn the same or less, they tend to focus on arguments in the relationship as a couple issue rather than blaming their partner for the problem. The opposite tends to occur where there is a female breadwinner.

Dealing with the Reverse Breadwinner Effect

Navigating against the cultural norm for these couples may create tension in the relationship. They may have never talked about it before nor even realized that this is where the tension comes from. As their financial advisor, you may be the first person to notice depressive symptoms in the male partner, in which he withdraws, or is snippy in his responses to you or his wife. You may be the one who recognizes that the root of his behavior might just stem from the couple being in a modern relationship but going against what they were taught about how each gender should behave in a couple relationship.

How do you know if you have encountered the reverse breadwinner effect? You may see resentment from the female breadwinner, blaming the other for not contributing more financially or to household duties. You may see the male partner withdraw or disengage from the conversation.

What Can You Do?

First, keep in mind that conflict is normal and is expected in a ny couple relationship. Conflict can be good as it brings up issues that need to be discussed. However, what is problematic is when conflict over the same issues is perpetual and partners do not take responsibility for their part in the conflict.

In the case of the reverse breadwinner effect, a perceived power differential may be at play and may not be consciously understood by either partner. The couple may only know that they are fighting but don't understand why they are so reactive to one another. As an advisor, you do not have to tackle the underlying emotions and dynamics of the relationship. However, you can help the couple redirect the conversation to engage in "we"-oriented conversations.

Here's How:

Step 1: Acknowledge both partners' emotions and assure the couple that their feelings are normal. Example: "Janet, it sounds like you feeling irritated." Wait for confirmation or correction of the emotion from the partner expressing irritation. Then, say to the other partner: "And, I sense that, Jim, you may be feeling overwhelmed." Again, pause for confirmation or correction, then note: "Having strong emotions about financial expectations in the relationship is normal."

Step 2: Discover each partner's financial expectations. Everyone has expectations about how things ought to be, but these expectations are not always expressed and so couples may be expecting the other partner to do something that they have no idea they are expected to do. Example: "Tell me about your financial expectations for your relationship and your family. What are your expectations of yourselves and of each other?" Knowing the couple's expectations can help them better tackle problems.

Step 3: Help couples focus on their mutual goals and values in order to engage both partners to think as a team rather than blaming or withdrawing. Example: "Let's look at how we can plan for your retirement together. What are your shared goals and values of how you want to experience retirement together?"

Step 4: If needed, recommend professional help for the couple. Navigating these complex feelings and relationship dynamics can be tricky, and referring them to a relationship expert (e.g., marriage and family therapist, licensed clinical social worker, licensed professional counselor, psychologist, or financial therapist) skilled in helping couples resolve conflict may be the best solution. Example: "I have a list of professionals who help couples solve conflict. They are relationship experts and work with couples who have difficulty solving problems together."

Step 5: If the client consents, consider working with the relationship expert at the same time in the same room. Or, continue working with the couple simultaneously as they seek help from the relationship professional. Not all conflict is equal; some couples may need to seek help from the relationship expert before they can make progress with their financial goals and plans.

Key Takeaways:

  • Modern couples may be in situations where the female is the major breadwinner, which may run counter to the couple's perceived views of traditional gender roles in a couple relationship. This could cause tension and anxiety over money and power in the relationship.
  • Be alert to clients in that situation and be attuned to any conflict around money that arises between them. You may be able to help them identify and manage the source of their conflict – the reverse breadwinner effect.
  • You can also help your clients by connecting them to professionals who can help them deal with the emotional issues around the reverse breadwinner effect.

1Papp, L. M., Cummings, E. M., & Goeke Morey, M. C. (2009). For richer, for poorer: Money as a topic of marital conflict in the home. Family Relations, 58(1), 91-103.

2Britt, S. L., Huston, S., & Durband, D. B. (2010). The determinants of money arguments between spouses. Journal of Financial Therapy, 1(1), 42-60.

3Inesi, M. E., Gruenfeld, D. H., & Galinsky, A. D. (2012). How power corrupts relationships: Cynical attributions for others' generous acts. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(4), 795-803.

4Munsch, C. L. (2015). Her Support, His Support: Money, Masculinity, and Marital Infidelity. American Sociological Review, 80(3), 469-495.

5Dew, J. P. (2009). The gendered meanings of assets for divorce. Journal of Family and Economic Issues, 30, 20–31. doi: 10.1007/s10834-008-9138-3.

6Schaninger, C. M., & Buss, W. C. (1986). A longitudinal comparison of consumption and finance handling between happily married and divorced couples. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 48, 129–136.

7Mendiola, M., Mull, J., Archuleta, K. L., & Klontz, B. T. (2016). Income differences between partners: Exploring factors related to relationship satisfaction. Proceedings from the Association for Financial Counseling and Planning Education Conference: 2016 Annual Research and Training Symposium. pp. 75-83

8Mendiola, M., Mull, J., Archuleta, K. L., & Klontz, B. T. (2015). Does It Matter Who Makes More? Exploring How Income Disparity Impacts Types of Relationship Arguments. Proceedings from the Association for Financial Counseling and Planning Education Conference: 2015 Annual Research and Training Symposium. pp. 55-66.

Dr. Kristy Archuleta

Program Director of Personal Financial Planning at Kansas State University

Dr. Archuleta's research relates to the area of financial therapy and includes dyadic processes influencing financial satisfaction and marital satisfaction.

Dr. Archuleta is a past President of the Financial Therapy Association.

View all articles by Kristy »


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