The Role of the Bread Winner

Does money equal power in a marriage?

With the exception of a couple of years, I’ve generally earned a paycheck larger than my wife’s. That’s like many relationships; one partner out-earns the other— sometimes by a little, sometimes by a lot. So common is this that couples often don’t pay attention to a question it raises: Does a fatter salary come with special privileges?

Here’s what I mean: Your partner earns more money— maybe the only money— in the relationship, so should he get a breather when it comes to chores around the house or greater say in how the family’s money is spent?

The immediate answer almost everyone gives is “no.” That’s because “no” is the right answer— the answer everyone knows they’re supposed to give. “No” says that you and your partner are equals despite any pay disparity. “No” means that how to save or spend are decisions on which you both have joint say. Of course, that doesn’t mean “no” is the truthful answer.

In many marriages, husbands and wives often assume— even if silently— that a bigger paycheck does provide special perks. Maybe it’s a feeling that “I’m free to spend what I earn; it’s my money, after all.” Other times, spouses might simply believe that because they bring in more dollars, they’re already contributing more to the partnership, thereby absolving them of obligations such as cleaning toilets, cooking or handling more childcare duties. The tacit assumption is that a lower paid spouse must somehow contribute more to the marriage to be equal.

The experience of a longtime friend illustrates this divide. She earns less than her husband, though they work similar jobs and hours. When money grows tight, my friend scrambles to find freelance work for extra cash. Her husband does nothing, feeling that seeking added income simply is not his duty. “It’s this unspoken thing with us,” she says. “He thinks he already is doing more than his fair share because his paycheck is bigger, and therefore it’s my responsibility to deal with any money crises. He feels that until I reach his salary, he’s doing more than I am. And that drives me crazy.”

Or consider the experience of another friend, who became a stay-at-home mom after her first child was born.

Her now ex-husband, she says, “castigated me for not bringing home money and he suggested that what I did was worthless unless I got paid.” To him, raising kids, cooking, cleaning, laundering, grocery shopping, transporting kids to and from school and various afterschool activities held no value since none generated income. In her free time, she also managed his real-estate investments. Even then, she says, her ex “maintained that I wasn’t working.”

I even see the prejudice in my own life, in a disagreement my wife and I had over a $12 lunch I splurged on one workday. My wife generally brown-bags it and would rather I display similar frugality. When she chastised me for this particular lunch, I replied that because I take on regular freelance work to earn extra money for the family, “I think I can spend $12 on lunch.” She glared at me and retreated. Later, I realized my words essentially conveyed the unintended message that because I made the money, I could decide— unilaterally— how to spend the money. Such a presumption certainly was unfair since my spending necessarily affects her life and, thus, my wife has an understandable interest in protecting her own well-being by questioning how I use family money.

Confronting this question of pay-disparity, and the feelings it rouses isn’t easy. So much is so often left unsaid, that talking about the topic is difficult. Earn less than your partner and you might feel guilty about not providing the same financial support, though you work just as hard. Other times, you might hold your tongue because you don’t want to appear ungrateful, given that your partner’s beefier paycheck provides a higher standard of living. And if you’re the partner with the handsome pay, you might feel you’ve earned a certain privilege that you don’t express because you know such sentiments aren’t necessarily fair. So you both ultimately bottle the frustrations, resentments and feelings of entitlement and instead avoid the issue.

Yet there are effective ways to handle this.

If your husband, for instance, says or implies that you’re not pulling your weight financially because you earn less or don’t earn a paycheck, calmly run through the litany of work, chores and errands you perform for the household. Point out that he’s wearing clean clothes you bought, washed and put away; stocked in the pantry are his favorite foods that you shopped for and stored; he comes home to dinner you prepared; he doesn’t have to clean the house or pick-up the kids or ferry them everywhere and back; that you make his doctor and dentist appointments or have the cars serviced while he works.

Now, tell him to imagine paying for all those services or finding the time to do them himself. The point is that an equally fair way to value a partner who earns less is by the costs they save the family, not just the income they generate.

If the pay-disparity leads to assumptions that he who earns the most gets to spend as he wishes, the most effective approach is communicating your concern that such an attitude wrongly implies that you’re inferior in a relationship of equals. No matter who earns the most, both partners must have equal say in the family’s finances. Maybe establish an “up-to limit,” where each partner is allowed to spend up to a certain amount each month without consulting the other. After that, though, decisions must be made jointly. That gives both partners an equal voice.

Depending on your financial situation and the ways in which money equates with power in your relationship, your measure of equality can take different forms. If your spouse assumes a bigger paycheck is a get-out-of-chores-free card, then maybe he should pick up some of the household cleaning duties during the week, or take on the role of chief cook and bottle-washer on certain nights or weekends.

My friend who earns extra money by freelancing says that when she’s forced to find extra income she now asks her husband to cut spending on the pastimes he enjoys. That way he shares the pain, too. “That,” she says, “gives me a sense of financial equality.”