The number of women who are the primary breadwinners in their families is on the rise. According to 2018 research from the U.S. Census Bureau, in one in four heterosexual married couples, women make more than their male partners.
But a new study from the University of Bath suggests that this trend is impacting male partners' mental health. The study examined 6,000 American heterosexual married couples over the course of 15 years to see how this shift has impacted people's physical and mental health, life satisfaction and relationships.
They found that men felt the most anxious when they were the sole breadwinner in the family, and the least stressed when their women partners were contributing 40% to the household income. But as women made more money past that point, men become "increasingly uncomfortable" and stressed, according to the findings.
The reason? Traditional social gender norms suggest that men should be the breadwinners in relationships.
Even though the tides are turning, many Americans adhere to the deep-rooted unconscious belief that men must be able to provide financially to be a "proper" provider for their family, explains Farnoosh Torabi, financial expert and author of "When She Makes More."
"If you are not fulfilling that expectation, it has the potential to damage your self-esteem and self-worth," she tells CNBC Make It.
Other research suggests that masculinity norms discourage men from being vulnerable, which can further get in the way of their ability to seek mental health support.
Money adds a layer of complexity, because it's a stressful topic that's riddled with emotion, especially within the context of a relationship, Torabi says.
When women are the breadwinners, couples have a hard time discussing any confusing emotions that may arise, Torabi says. "It's deeply unsettling for some couples, especially if they've been raised and conditioned to believe men 'should' dutifully make more than their wives," she says.
The only way to get through this pain point is to talk about it with your partner, Torabi says. "Allow yourselves to get vulnerable," she adds.
There are, however, practical strategies that can be helpful for couples grappling with this imbalance.
Finding ways to level the financial playing field so that each person can feel financially valuable in the relationship (regardless of what they earn) is key, Torabi says. The husband can contribute to things like college funds or vacations, for example, if the wife is covering most daily costs.
Or "if your male spouse is having a hard time defining his role as a 'provider,' then have a discussion around some major aspects of your life together that he can own and manage," she suggests, like caring for the kids or cooking. Because other research shows that when women make more money, they also take on more household responsibilities.
Above all, these findings are a good opportunity for couples to ask for what they need to help balance the load — at least for the next 100 years that it will take to close the pay gap.
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