Relationship issues for female breadwinners

Dr Suzanne Doyle-Morris writes about how the opinions of the friends of female breadwinners’ partners might affect relationships.

For many men who live with female breadwinners, the views of others colour how they see their own situation. Research shows men attach huge importance to social comparisons with other men, particularly with regard to their roles as providers and protectors of their families.

Indeed, when you are half of a partnership that is bucking traditional gender roles, it can be difficult to ignore the judgements of others. A recent Redbook magazine survey found 26% of breadwinning wives said friends or family had remarked that they thought their situation was odd.

The men who struggled most were those subject to criticism from others outside the relationship. As one lawyer I interviewed for Female Breadwinners: How They Make Relationships Work and Why They are the Future of the Modern Workforce explained: "I can tell when he’s been spending time with certain ‘friends’. If we argue, he will retort: “Don’t emasculate me!” as if I am being too controlling. I know our set-up has soured a few of his past friendships." Sometimes it is the comparison with other male friends that can make or break a man’s perception of his role.

Such was the case for Grace and Dan. Grace runs her own public relations consultancy outside Glasgow and is married to Dan. When they met in their twenties, she was enjoying a fast track career in PR. Dan worked in the automotive industry for many years, never hugely enjoying his work, but always aware of the path that was expected of him.

Grace says: "His closest university friends have done very well in business, but I could tell his heart was never in it. He was a square peg in a round hole." This comparison led to an uncomfortable period of questioning for Dan. Grace explained: "I think men have a tough time. They are conditioned to be the main person who brings home the money. They see other men taking that mantle on and compare themselves. But at the end of the day, we are all individuals and that responsibility doesn’t suit everyone."

She says: "He was the main earner early on, but went through a period of being really despondent about his options. He would look around at all the guys ahead of him in corporate life and say, ‘You know, Grace, none of them seem to smile. They don’t laugh enough and I just don’t aspire to that.’ He’s such a fabulous guy, really funny and personable. I hated what this expectation to be the “big man” was doing to him."

Wrong career
In the years after their first daughter arrived, it became increasingly obvious Dan was in the wrong career. Grace says: "Once he recognised I was willing to take on the responsibility and he didn’t have to be a wage slave, he became a lot more confident about his status in the marriage. He was also less resentful of me and the success of his friends." Interestingly, for many men self-esteem was a challenge only if he didn’t like his own work – whether he worked full-time, part-time or stayed at home.

Grace, on the other hand, was keen to return to work after having her second child. While on her second maternity leave, she remembers: "I really struggled with not bringing money into the household and losing my status as income generator. I actually love to work." Grace and Dan’s turning point came the day before she went into labour with their second child. Timing is everything, and Dan chose that moment to announce he wanted to start his own bespoke cabinetry business. Grace laughs as she remembers shouting, "Now is the time to tell me this?"

They compromised and decided he would stay in his corporate role for one more year while she was on maternity leave. At the same time, he would do further woodwork training before she would take up the reins with full-time work.

She says: "People think I’m so great for taking this on. Actually, once he realised what he wanted to do, he was so much happier and a lot easier to be around." Grace now brings in two-thirds of their income, and she explains: "He may earn hardly anything compared to his old job, but he’s the envy of all his friends who commute to Edinburgh and Glasgow while he drives around in a beat-up old van, taking on the jobs that interest him."

This and other cases show the importance of social pressure. If a man’s friends are putting pressure on him to conform to a certain role it can have a big impact on your relationship.  If you are the main breadwinner, make sure your partner spends time with male friends who think his secondary earner role is enviable. Extra time with the kids, less pressure to earn all the income, the ability to do a job he loves – who wouldn’t be envious? Those friends will make all the difference to your relationship.

*Dr Suzanne Doyle-Morris is author of Female Breadwinners. She will be leading a Women in Technology workshop on 9th March on Female Breadwinners: Managing a Successful Career and Relationship as the Main Earner. She is also leading a twitter discussion on the workshop today between 1 and 2pm - on #femearners9march and will be asking and answering questions related to the wide world of female breadwinners.  

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