Men get increasingly stressed if their wives earn 'too much' money, study says
The role of women in the workplace has been slowly evolving over the past 60 years. However, in the U.S. and around the globe, much progress remains incomplete in the quest toward equal opportunity and the eradication of sexism in our work, politics and culture. Consider a few glaring examples: Women still earn less than men for the same work, even the U.S. Women's Soccer Team made national headlines this year in their efforts to receive equal pay to their male counterparts. And in politics, more than half of men say they are still "uncomfortable" with the idea of being governed by an elected, female leader.
In some ways, it's a fascinating psychological question: Do men hold onto antiquated and outright sexist ideas because our cultural institutions lack true equality, or do those powerfully lingering sexist ideas maintain the gap in gender inequality at home and abroad?
Regardless of who or what is to blame, these antiquated ideas remain powerfully entrenched.
Consider a new study from Bath University, which found that men become "increasingly stressed" if their wives earn more than 40 percent of the household income. And that stress peaks if husbands find themselves "economically dependent" on their partners. Think about that for a second. It's certainly within bounds for anyone in a romantic couple to feel some stress if their partner is bringing home more than 50 percent of their shared income. But that's not what the study found. Instead, it found men become increasingly stressed out as their wives merely approach economic parity their male partners.
"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. They also show how strong and persistent are gender identity norms," said Dr Joanna Syrda, an economist at the University's School of Management.
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The study looked at the responses of more than 6,000 heterosexual couples over the course of 15 years. And while there's no empirical evidence to contrast against how homosexual or nonbinary couples compare, the headline is clear that societal constructs of gender expectations are still having a massive toll on the male psyche. And in turn, that can only have a negative impact on the women and other men affected by those unhelpful expectations.
The study found that marriages where stress surpassed the 40 percent income level, even led to increased rates of cheating and divorce. Meaning, it's not just men feeling bad about falling behind economically, those bad feelings often lead to negative behavioral choices in response.
"The results are strong enough to point to the persistence of gender identity norms, and to their part in male mental health issues. Persistent distress can lead to many adverse health problems, including physical illness, and mental, emotional and social problems," Dr. Sydra said.
Interestingly, Dr. Sydra said the Bath University study found that in couples where the wife was already the higher income earner before marriage, there was no increased levels of stress. That strongly implies that some men are comfortable with the idea of having a female romantic partner as the so-called "breadwinner" in a relationship. However, men that are eventually outpaced economically by their partners are either inherently uncomfortable with such scenarios or find themselves vulnerable to gender norms about economic power dynamics in marriages.
We still have a long way to go before men and women are truly equal in society. Understanding the psychological impact our culture places on men and women to fit into certain gender roles can go a long way toward making a difference.