Last week, a report from the Pew Research Centre about what it called ‘the rise of wives’ revived the debate. Based on a study of census data, Pew found that in nearly a third of marriages, the wife is better educated than her husband. And though men, overall, still earn more than women, wives are now the primary breadwinner in 22 per cent of couples, up from seven per cent in 1970.
While the changing economic roles of husbands and wives may take some getting used to, the shift has had a surprising effect on marital stability. Overall, the evidence shows that the shifts within marriages — men taking on more housework and women earning more outside the home — have had a positive effect, contributing to lower divorce rates and happier unions.
“Women no longer need to marry up educationally or economically, so they are more likely to pick men who support a more egalitarian relationship,” said Stephanie Coontz, director of research and education for the Council on Contemporary Families and author of ‘Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage’.
She pointed to herself as an example. “In my marriage, I have more education and, because he’s retired, more income,” she said. “I picked him not because I needed a meal ticket, but because I liked the fact that he respected me and had no problem sharing the responsibilities of daily life with me. More and more women now are able to make those choices.”
The changing roles in marriage often aren’t what many couples plan, but instead are a reaction to unexpected financial pressures. That’s what happened to Cynthia and Brian Walder of West Springfield, who had four children in five years. Although her first and second pregnancies were carefully planned, a surprise set of twin boys meant that their day care costs would be prohibitive if both parents kept their jobs. “Someone had to leave their job and stay home,” said Cynthia Walder, who is 34.
Her marketing job with an insurance firm provided the family’s health benefits, so about a year ago, Brian Walder, a 36-year-old real estate broker and consultant, opted to stay home. “It was stressful,” he said. “If you’d asked me five years ago, would I be in this spot, I’d say, ‘No way’.”
While it’s widely believed that a woman’s financial independence increases her risk for divorce, divorce rates in the United States tell a different story: they have fallen as women have made economic gains. The rate peaked at 23 divorces per 1,000 couples in the late 1970s, but has since dropped to fewer than 17 divorces per 1,000 couples. Today, the statistics show that typically, the more economic independence and education a woman gains, the more likely she is to stay married. And in states where fewer wives have paid jobs, divorce rates tend to be higher, according to a 2009 report from the Centre for American Progress.
Sociologists and economists say that financially independent women can be more selective in whom they marry, and they also have more negotiating power within the marriage. But it’s not just women who win. The net result tends to be a marriage that is more fair and equitable to both husbands and wives.
The changes are not without their challenges. “With women taking on more earning and men taking on more caring, there’s a lot of shifting and juggling,” said Andrea Doucet, a professor of sociology at Carleton University in Ottawa.
Men, for instance, sometimes have a hard time adjusting to a woman’s equal or greater earning power. Women, meanwhile, struggle with giving up their power at home and controlling tasks like how to dress the children or load the dishwasher.
Linda Duxbury, a professor at the Sprott School of Business at Carleton University, recalls moments in her marriage when she was hesitant to give up control.
“My husband would dress our daughter for school, and I’d say, ‘Oh my god, she looks like a clown’,” Duxbury recalled. “He would say, ‘That’s your hang-up. She’s happy in it. If you don’t like my choice, then you do it’.”
She added, “In many ways women are their own worst enemies — we want men to do it, but we want to tell them how they should do it.”
Men, meanwhile, can struggle with the social expectation that husbands should always be the breadwinner. The recession, among other things, has made that expectation less realistic.
Bridging the gap
And despite the sweeping economic changes in marriage over the last 40 years, all is not equal. Even among dual-earning couples, women still do about two-thirds of the housework, on average, according to the University of Wisconsin’s National Survey of Families and Households. But men do contribute far more than they used to. Studies show that since the 1960s, men’s contributions to housework have doubled, while the amount of time spent caring for children has tripled.
And the blurring of traditional gender roles appears to have a positive effect. Lynn Prince Cooke, a professor of sociology at the University of Kent in England, has found that American couples who share employment and housework responsibilities are less likely to divorce compared with couples where the man is the sole breadwinner.
Brian Walder, who stayed home with his four young children, said it was challenging to set up a new daily routine. “In most instances the wife is the one who makes the decisions when it comes to the kids, and the husband follows the lead,” he said. “It’s weird to swap that role.”
His wife said she found it difficult to cede her role as the parent in charge. “It took me a while to get to that point where I didn’t feel like I had to be at every doctor’s appointment or supervising and laying out a specific lists of chores,” she said.
But today, the Walders say the experiment has been a blessing. Most days, Brian Walder takes the children to the library, playgroups or the museum. He handles light cleaning and laundry on weekdays and usually makes dinner. On weekends, Cynthia Walder takes a bigger role with the children and does heavy cleaning, shopping and meal planning.
“I think she has the harder job,” Brian Walder said. “If you asked me a year ago, I had the harder job. But now that I’ve got it, I love it. I wouldn’t want to give it up.”
Mothers tend to shower him with praise. “I get the same reaction from all the moms,” he said. “They say, ‘That’s great, my husband wouldn’t be able to do it.’ I think they’re selling their husbands short. All guys could do it, just like all women can be the breadwinners.”