When Women are the Financial Breadwinners

A market stallholder handing change to customer buying bread.When might earning more feel like making less for women? When it comes with the emotional baggage of being the primary breadwinner in a culture where men are expected to bring home the bacon. Earning a good income should be something for women to feel proud of, right? It is an accomplishment, a deserved reward for hard work. Yet many women feel conflicted about their status and ashamed of the role reversal. And this devalues their achievement.

Many women breadwinners downplay their success. Traditional values still dictate that the male partner in a heterosexual relationship should bring home a bigger paycheck. Male self-esteem is often linked with their financial prowess, and society has yet to challenge this expectation. Women’s financial success is such a taboo topic that the high percentage of women in this country who are primary breadwinners may be a surprise to many people. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, women are the sole or main breadwinners in almost a third of U.S. households. As the economy continues to falter, this percentage is predicted to climb, since unemployment has hit male-dominated fields the hardest.

Some women become primary breadwinners when they pursue a higher paying job, while their husband/partner chooses a path that offers less remuneration. A woman who is successful in real estate, for example, might earn more than her spouse who is an artist. Even if monetary success is not considered important when choosing a mate, most couples still face cultural expectations associated with this role reversal. Men can feel emasculated, women may be viewed as controlling, and both may worry about what others will think of them. A woman may resent her partner for not being able to support her, or may lose respect for him if he fails to search for better paying work, and a man may resent his breadwinner wife who seems so much more accomplished.

Women also may become sole breadwinners by default when their partner is laid off. Since the start of the recession, three out of four of those recently unemployed are men. This can be particularly devastating for families since women still only earn 78 cents to the dollar when compared to men. Women in these situations face the stress of earning the family paycheck, offering emotional support to a spouse who is often angry and demoralized, and containing their own frustration and resentment.

While ambivalence about breadwinner status may be commonplace, some women relish the opportunity. In one study, Rebecca Meisenbach interviewed female breadwinners and found that although some experienced guilt and resentment over their multiple roles, many were ambitious, took pride in their accomplishments, and enjoyed their independence. These women also found that it was critical to value their spouse’s contributions to the family, regardless of his financial success.

So how can women adjust to the primary breadwinner role, regardless of whether it is obtained by default or free choice? On the job, women need to lobby for equal pay, and challenge long-held misconceptions that men are solely responsible for their families, thereby warranting higher wages. Men and women need to resist judging one another by the size of their paycheck, and support the pursuit of a career path based on what is meaningful and fulfilling. Most importantly, couples need to communicate openly about the impact a woman’s breadwinner status has on their relationship. Partners need to remember what brought them together in the first place. Paying attention to what you enjoy and respect about your partner, how the intimacy you have can enhance your life, and how you can support each other’s career goals can hopefully offset any challenges to the relationship.


  1. Meisenbach, Rebecca. (2009). The Female Breadwinner: Pheonomenological Experience and Gendered Identity in Work/Family Spaces. Sex Roles. Retrieved from http://www.springerlink.com/DOI: 10.1007/s11199-009-9714-5.
  2. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2009). Women in the Labor Force: A Data Book. Retrieved from http://www.bls.gov.

© Copyright 2010 by Gail Post, PhD. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Ashley

    March 29th, 2010 at 2:35 PM

    More often than not the reason for this happening is because the men tend to downplay the achievements and success of their wives and if the woman is better earning than the man then there will definitely be things said so as to potray like the woman’s achievements do not mean much and that the husband is still on top!

  • Gerald P.

    March 30th, 2010 at 1:47 AM

    In a household where the woman earns more than the man,both the partners have a role to play if they want to avoid an ugly turn sometime in the future…the man should understan that regardless of whether his wife earns more than him or not,she still loves him and the woman could do little things like making her husband feel good by telling him how special he is by highlighting his positive aspects…this will definitely go a long way in keeping the marriage intact.

  • Melinda

    March 30th, 2010 at 11:30 AM

    I am going through these same things right now as my husband has been out of work for a year and I have been the one bringing in the money, not that it has been a lot. Now I am torn between two new job offers, one which pays less but would give me more time to spend with my child; or one that pays more but I have to work more and take more time away from my family. I feel at a loss about what to do because there is no easy decision. I know that the one will provide more for us financially but I have never wanted to get to a point where that was what it was all baout but somehow that’s where I am and don’t know what the right decision is going to be. Praying hard right now.

  • Niki

    March 30th, 2010 at 12:08 PM

    There has been improvement in the behavior of men whose wives earn more than them…but the attitude of the society as a whole should change…I have a few female friends who earn more than their husbands and although their husbands never cry foul or anything,these women,due to prejudice about women bread winners,tend to be extra careful and cautious in their words and acts!Sad but true…

  • Tola

    April 15th, 2010 at 6:31 PM

    I’ve been the breadwinner for the last 10 years of our 14 years marriage and it has really stressed me out. I feel like I have to play the double role of breadwinner and ‘breadmaker’ because I still have the responsibility for preparing the meals for the family. I have been able (using a bit of duress) to make my husband take a more active role in cleaning at home but this has been a long struggle. He handles his lack of employment as a temporary situation and therefore sees no reason to take over the responsibilities for the home. Sometimes I really worry about the future since as a mother I keep feeling that my loyalty is to my children – I therefore can’t be ambitious – I’m always rushing home after work to make sure dinner is on the table. I’m stressed and have started having thoughts of straying away from my marriage, wanting a strong man to care for me and my children. I know it’s wrong but I just can’t help wanting out, I’m tired of being the breadwinner, I just want someone to pamper me for once.

  • Ashley

    November 24th, 2015 at 11:27 PM

    I totally understand what you are going through. I have often found myself resenting my husband, in his career failures I have had to take on all of the financial burden. I have 3 small children, I have to work all the time, because I make more than he does, I pay all the bills because I make the money, I have home responsibilities that I can’t forgo, and worse yet, I am always sad about the time I’m losing with my kids. I have no time to rest, recuperate or collect my thoughts, I go from one job to another 24/7. I find myself also wanting to stray and find a man who could relieve me of these burdens, one who will share the load and wants to take care of me for a change. I’m at my wits end, and I’m not sure what to do either. I’m sure this isn’t what you wanted to hear, but I wanted you to know your not alone.

  • Sandy

    October 12th, 2015 at 2:54 PM

    I am the breadwinner and have been for our 18 year marriage. However, we both had the same aspirations when we met, which we accepted then and we have both excelled beyond our imaginations in our careers. We have been blessed, I do take on my fair share of household chores and cooking because it is in my nature to cook and clean more than his, he compensates in other ways and takes on more of the role of outside work than me. It is a compromise but it works. We have an understanding. The key is open communication and respect for each other. We both take time to do special things for one another to show our appreciation. We both work hard and are devoted patents. I can’t help that I make more and I don’t feel it entitles me to give any less at home. I do get tired of it just like everyone else and just wish I was a stay at home Mom at times. However, I know that my Creator knows best and has placed me in this position for a reason. I will do my best to learn from it and be humble. I wish the best for everyone else as well.

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