Comedian Ali Wong makes more money than her husband. When her mother worries he’ll “leave [her] out of intimidation,” she quips in her Netflix special “Hard Knock Wife” that “the only kind of man that would leave a woman who makes more money is the kind of man that doesn’t like free money.” When her mother presses further — “But Ali, doesn’t he feel like you took something away from him?” — Ali sardonically adds, “Oh, do you mean like the pressure to provide? Which I have lifted from his shoulders.” It seems Ali’s marriage survives despite her onerous burden of outearning him. If the internet (and her mother) were any indication, you would think she was one of the lucky few.
A standard internet search about women being the primary breadwinners results in pages of negative vibes, with article titles such as “Marriages with Female Breadwinners Still Struggle” and “Do Men Resent Female Breadwinners?” In 2015, 29 percent of wives earned more than their husbands in heterosexual dual-income marriages, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Yet a Pew Research Center study found that “71 percent say it is very important for a man to be able to support a family financially to be a good husband or partner,” and only 32 percent say the same is important for a woman.
As primary earners in relationships with men who definitely don’t hate free money and support our career aspirations, we find it hard to relate. Despite hearing occasional “concerns” from older relatives, for example, “Is he okay with having a lower position than you?” or “Make sure he still feels like the man of the house,” we find it easy to brush off such comments as a mindset of the past. Surely modern relationships are different.
We set out to find an example of a millennial couple that faced hardship in the form of relationship issues as a result of the woman’s outearning her partner. In working through our lists of successful female co-workers, SWE members, or longtime friends, we found that none of them seemed to be struggling romantically due to their financial stability. For those in well-established, long-term relationships, their main obstacle was coming up with the courage to start financial discussions in the first place. Once the communication channels opened up, the female breadwinner “elephant in the room” disappeared.
Considering the importance of “firsts” in a relationship — first date, first kiss, first “I love you” — it’s important to keep another important first in mind: the first serious talk about money and shared finances. Regardless of what each person earns, a couple can nip many issues in the bud by openly discussing any concerns when they come up. There’s no perfect formula for sharing finances other than what both partners agree works for them, whether it is splitting expenses directly in half, going by a percentage of earnings, or coming up with a custom equation. It is open communication that ultimately creates a solid foundation of respect and trust in the relationship.
Another valuable lesson from our candid conversations with couples was that money is not the only thing a partner is bringing to the table. Helping with household chores, running an errand, or being there to listen are just a few ways that a partner can bring support to their counterpart in the relationship. Maybe you’re spending a late night in the office and your partner prepares a delicious meal so you’ll have dinner when you come home. Maybe your partner is running into a tricky roadblock at work and you can share your own advice to help them tackle the issue head-on. Being able to depend on your partner domestically, physically, and emotionally allows you to truly be a team.
If your partner isn’t as naturally open to free money, and the two of you aren’t able to come up with an ideal solution together, having external support can come in handy. Connect with confidants — perhaps a childhood friend or a workplace mentor who’s gone through the same battles. Hearing different perspectives from those you trust can help you identify the best path for your relationship. In addition, seeking advice from a professional third party in the form of a counselor or financial advisor can bring an objective perspective and enable an informed decision. Some companies even offer free financial education seminars to you and your partner as part of their benefits packages. Communication between you and your partner may be rock solid, but it never hurts to get a second opinion.
At the end of the day, regardless of who makes what, it takes a mature partner, mutual respect, and communication to make it work. Just like we both braced our partners that we’d be referencing them in this article, and the same way Ali Wong runs her jokes past her husband before broadcasting them onstage, our advice to all couples for sensitive topics such as money is to be considerate of their feelings, communicate early and often, and enjoy tackling life as a team!
Content written by Sarvenaz Myslicki and Nicole Woon.
Sarvenaz Myslicki has been an avid SWE member for more than 10 years. She has held leadership positions at the section and Society levels and currently serves on the editorial board. An engineering director at American Express, she holds a B.S. from the University of Florida and an M.S. from Georgia Tech, both in computer science.
Nicole Woon is a SharePoint program manager at Microsoft. She graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with an M.S.E. (mechanical engineering) and two B.S.E.s (bioengineering and entrepreneurial management). An active SWE life member, she currently serves on the editorial board and the WE Local advisory board.