Social norms about male breadwinning and traditional conventions about men earning more than their wives wreak havoc on relationships and men's health, note researchers.

By Maressa Brown
November 19, 2019

We might be rapidly approaching 2020, but a new study makes it seem like we might as well be living in the 1950s. University of Bath researchers found that husbands are least stressed when their wives earn up to 40% of household income. However, when their female partner's wages rise beyond that point, they become increasingly uncomfortable.

Here are all the eyebrow-raising details.

What the Study Found

Researchers looked at surveys of over 6,000 American heterosexual couples taken over the course of 15 years. Their main finding: Husbands are at their most anxious when they are the sole breadwinner, shouldering all the burden of responsibility for the household’s finances. Stress levels decline as their wives’ earnings approach 40% of household income. But as women’s earnings go from that point, the study showed husbands’ stress levels gradually increasing. Becoming entirely economically dependent on a female partner leads to the highest levels of stress for heterosexual men.

However, when a wife was the higher earner and the existing and potential income gap was clear prior to marriage, the husband didn't suffer psychological distress.

In addition to pinpointing the link between a wife's income and her male partner's stress levels, the study highlighted a disparity in the way husbands and wives assessed their own psychological distress and that of their partner. Survey respondents were asked to measure distress in terms of feeling sad, nervous, restless, hopeless, worthless, or that everything was an effort. Men reported better mental health than their wives reported on their behalf.

For instance, wives reported their husbands' lowest distress level was when they were contributing 50% of the household income, while husbands reported lowest distress when their wives contributed 40%.

Lead author Joanna Syrda, an economist at the University of Bath’s School of Management, said in a news release from the school, that this might occur as the result of gender norms, as well.

"If masculine social roles preclude the admission of vulnerability, and men are inclined to hide symptoms of stress and depression, it follows that wives' responses [about their spouses] will be less accurate," Syrda said. "The fact that a wife observes to a lesser degree her husband’s elevated psychological distress when he is financially dependent on her may be simply because he does not communicate it—this may be yet another manifestation of gender norms."

What This Means for the Future of Gender Norms

Syrda says that this is a specific group that was surveyed, and "other conventions apply in other groups and societies, and the results may change as times move on." But she believes the results are strong enough to point to the persistence of gender identity norms and to their part in male mental health issues.

"Persistent distress can lead to many adverse health problems, including physical illness, and mental, emotional and social problems,” Syrda noted. "These findings suggest that social norms about male breadwinning—and traditional conventions about men earning more than their wives—can be dangerous for men’s health. They also show how strong and persistent are gender identity norms."

Syrda chalks the overarching issue to the conventional view of the male breadwinner being closely associated with masculinity. In turn, she believes the study's findings have "implications for managing male mental health and society's understanding of masculinity itself."

As we continue to have conversations about gender-based disparities in our society, from women shouldering the mental load to couples grappling with a lack of paid family leave for both partners, this study serves to underline the message that we need to overhaul antiquated ideas about gender. It's time for a more egalitarian approach, doing away with social norms and traditional conventions that are only hurting us mentally and physically.

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