We Need to Talk: I Earn More Than My Partner

The wage gap is a battle that’s yet to be won, but there are many women who are bringing home more bacon than their significant others. 

Married women are more likely than ever before to out-earn their husbands. According to a Pew study in 1960 just about 4% of married women were the primary provider in their family, whereas in 2013 that percentage increased by 20%. Rising education and employment levels contribute to this stat.

Despite the upswing in changes, the same study found that 74% of adults say that the increase in working women, particularly working mothers, has made it harder to raise children and harder for marriages to succeed. 

So, we need to talk. We chatted anonymously with three women who are primary household breadwinners in various life stages about how they and their partners really feel about earning less. 

A single mom in a relationship. 

A married woman with two kids. 

And a VP living with her fiancé. 

Does earning more than your significant other affect your relationship?

Single mom: It comes in waves, honestly. There are some days when I can tell he’s uncomfortable with my success or that I don’t “need” him in the traditional sense. 

Married woman: At this point, no. But I wasn’t always earning more so that power switch was difficult to get used to. That’s not to say money equals power, but for a long time the person in charge of the bank account was the one making all the decisions. In most cases, that was a man. Banks wouldn’t even loan women money or let them sign for their own credit cards in the ‘70s. I don’t know why we expect this not to be difficult for men. They’ve been told and conditioned to behave one way— and there is a shift among Millennials, sure, but change is uncomfortable. If you watched your parents behave one way or the other it’s hard to break from that mindset.  

VP: This is tough because he’s also successful. When I was dating there were men who wanted a woman in a more traditional role. Logical or not, there are men who want to wear those proverbial pants. I get it, I like wearing the pants too. But I’d like to think that part of the reason we’re getting married is because he values my work ethic and my success. I’d like to think it affects my relationship in a positive way. He supports me and values me. 

Do you think men in general are uncomfortable with a female breadwinner?

Married woman: Yes. Like I said before this is slow shift. A long rolling after-shock. Things are moving and shaking, but in the process books are going to fall off the shelves and jars in the pantry will break. Nothing changes without a little— or a lot — of discomfort. 

Single mom: In general I don't think people want to be in relationships where there is a power play happening. I can only speak to my relationship but my boyfriend doesn’t believe that income reflects power in a relationship. I agree with him and at the same time I can’t help but wonder— if I’m being REALLY honest— he would feel the same way if he made more money. Money is weird. It makes men and women act weird. I don’t know any other way to explain it. 

VP: We’re slowly moving out of the mindset that men are the providers and women are caregivers. There is no longer a “traditional” role. I don’t even know what that would look like— and that's confusing to people. Men and women. Confusion and uncomfortable generally go hand-in-hand. We’re all testing out new models and there’s no one person to point to and say, "they did it right!" And when we do point to a couple that “did it right,” it’s usually someone’s grandparents who have been married for 50 years and held very “traditional” roles. Which, again, is confusing, because most people don’t want what their grandparents had. 

"There is no longer a 'traditional' role and that's confusing to people." 

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Who pays when you go out to dinner? Or when you want to go on a vacation your partner can’t afford?

Single mom: We pay for what we can afford. And if one of us is uncomfortable, we say something. Communication is more important than who earns what. That’s a really annoying PC answer, but it’s also the truth. If we go out to dinner 10 nights and I’ve paid for 9 because I can afford it, I’ll say something. I expect an effort to be made on his part in ways that he can contribute. There are ways to support someone that are not financial. When one person isn’t making an effort, that’s a bigger problem than what’s in your bank account. 

Married woman: I think it’s different when you’re married. Most successful couples have clearly defined financial roles and decide how they are going to split finances. My parents never fought about money because they had independent accounts and one account they contributed to that was a percentage of their earnings, not a lump sum. There’s no tit for tat in marriage and when there is, you’re probably getting divorced. You need to throw this notion of fair out the window. Be fair with your heart if you want your love to last. 

VP: At the end of the day, if dinner is my suggestion or I’m taking him on a date, I pay. And vice versa. Does it work out to be an even split? No and I’m OK with that. MOST of the time. My love for him isn’t based in dollars. That doesn’t mean that emotions and money never get crossed. Somewhere at the intersection of the two there are arguments, feelings that get hurt, resentments. To pretend they are independent of each other would be over-simplifying. 

Do you think women think of their income as “theirs,” where men have to think of their income as “ours?” 

Married woman: Yes. There is a double standard 100%. Since women still earn less on the man’s dollar and are just now in the last decade or so occupying positions always held by men, I think there is this need to hoard or hold onto their income. We didn’t always have the opportunity to make money, so there’s an innate desire to keep it. Is that right? I don’t know. Women still feel the need to protect themselves. 

VP: These are hard questions because I have to be honest about my relationship to gender roles. I want to be breadwinner. I like it. At the same time, I still like a man to open my door and take me on a date, and I don’t know, plunge the toilet. Men are expected to share more than women and I think women like it that way, without always reciprocating. 

"I want to be the breadwinner, and at the same time, have the man to take me on a date." 

Single mom: Ah. What’s yours is mine, and what’s mine is mine. Yeah, there’s definitely some of that going on. I’ve talked to many of my friends about this, who are also higher or relatively equal earners. There are mixed feelings. Nothing is ever going to be an equal down-the-middle split. If anything, I think we should take this as a lesson that shifting roles are hard for both genders and perhaps be a little less angry when it doesn’t come easy. That’s not a particularly feminist thing to say. 

Do you feel more in control in the relationship because you earn more money?

Single mom: I feel more in control of my own life. I feel able and competent which, in turn, creates a real confidence in me that I think is attractive to certain men. I don’t need to be in control of someone else, but I do like being in control of my own life. Knowing that if we broke up, I’d still be OK, able to pay my rent, feed my kid, go on small vacations. I don’t have a ton of expendable income, but I do fine on my own. I think that is empowering, more so than having “control” over another person. I don’t feel better than him because I earn more, I simply feel good about myself. 

"I don’t feel better than him because I earn more, I simply feel good about myself." 

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VP: I don’t think I’ve ever admitted this out loud but, yes. I’m sure that has to do with the relationship dynamics I witnessed between my parents. I had a stay-at-home mom and as much of a job as that is, you don’t earn anything. You’re essentially paid by your husband to take care of the kids and the home. For lack of a better term, you’re a kept woman. I was never going to be for keeping, and for better or worse, money is a part of that. 

Married woman: If I was younger I might feel that way, but marriage is give and take, push and pull, and I know at any point the tables could turn. I would never want him to make me feel lesser than because I lost my job, or got fired, or who knows, life is messy. Money is complicated. Gender roles are complicated. Relationships and marriage, even more complicated. Put it all in a pot and there are good days and fucking god-awful ones. Sometimes that has to do with the all mighty dollar, but if you think you’re in control because you have more money, you should be single. 

Do you make more than your partners? Sound-off in the comments below and join the convo. 

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