What Happens To Couples When Women Earn More Than Men?

'We we can survive arguments in a relationship, but we can't survive threats.'

When women earn more than their husbands, neither party likes to admit it and both tend to stretch the truth.

A recent US study compared the self-reported earnings of young couples in the latest Census to the legally reported earnings from the Tax Office.

The theory was that the data should match --once accounted for things like cash-in-hand jobs. What researchers found was that in couples where the wife earns more than the husband, survey respondents of both genders tended to overinflate the earnings of the husband, and underinflate the earnings of the wife.

It shows that while gender equality in the workplace is slowly marching forward, gender equality in the home is largely still stuck in the 1950s.

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Essentially, what researchers found was that societal pressure for husbands to ‘be the breadwinner’ forced people in less financially traditionally relationships to stretch the truth.

“What is more, the possibility of being on the wrong side of the equal-earnings threshold appears to deter couples from marrying and wives from working and earning up to their potential, while being on the wrong side of the threshold increases the likelihood that couples divorce,” the researchers at the United States Census Bureau said.

Couples counsellor Psychologist Melissa Ferrari told ten daily that this ‘correction’ is almost subconscious.

“It's that real, patriarchal kind of thing, that men should earn more than women,” said couples counsellor Melissa Ferrari.

“I think it's a real primitive thing that goes back centuries, around how the man goes out and earns the money, or earns the food for the eating as the hunter. It's that real idea that that's the way it's supposed to be.”

So what happens to the couple that’s recently experienced a change in earning status -- for example, where the wife earns a big promotion?

Men can seek to reverse this ‘imbalance’ by acting out in other ways, said Ferrari, sometimes without even realising they’re doing it.

“If a male does feel quite threatened, at a very unconscious level it can start to play out in little ways,” she said.

“He might start to become a little more dominant in the relationship, he may even interrupt the process, like not make it so easy for the wife to go out and earn the money.”

Women, on the other hand, may experience guilt that their professional success has led to a less ‘traditional’ relationship.

“They may think, ‘Our relationship has tipped this way and it’s not like I expected it to’, or, ‘It’s not like I’m trying to perceive myself as better or more powerful,” said Ferrari.

If these issues crop up and aren’t addressed, it can lead to a decline in the relationship, or even separation.

It’s vitally important that we address and acknowledge these issues, Ferrari said.

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The solution isn’t to readdress the couple’s literal pay cheques, but rather to examine the man’s vulnerability.

“It could be about not feeling worthy, feeling like he’s not contributing, or feeling like he’s not doing his role,” said Ferrari.

“Being able to work on that vulnerability and bring the relationship back to a more safe and secure place, to start that conversation, is important.”

Same-sex couples can experience similar feelings of guilt and inadequacy over money, although it’s less tied up to traditional gender roles and more in how someone was raised.

“If there’s a real focus on performance -- both work and academic -- and how much you achieve when you’re growing up, then a similar issue in the relationship can be played out,” said Ferrari.

Of course, not all different-gender couples where the woman earns more will experience these issues. Plenty of men -- are just fine with their wife’s high salary, and can enjoy what greater financial freedom does for their family.

But in other cases, Ferrari said the issues need to be addressed.

“If you can't sort through these issues and you do find its leading to arguments, quite often, couples are leaving relationships prematurely,” she said.

“The reason is because there's a belief that we can't survive our arguments.

“The truth is, we can survive arguments in a relationship, but we can't survive threats.”