Having recently found myself in the position of earning significantly more than my boyfriend, I’ve been wondering about the role of the female breadwinner in 2017. A survey released this year by relationship charities Relate and Marriage Care found that money is the biggest stress on relationships and the main reason couples argue. Having read mostly negative accounts of female breadwinners and their apparently 'doomed' marriages, I was wary that my new earning potential could affect my relationship. While I welcomed my new role as breadwinner and was more than happy to pay for a larger share of the joint costs and treat my boyfriend to dinners out and the weekly food shop, I was aware that with this shift in our finances came a shift in our relationship that had to be navigated with some care.
We are a generation of women brought up to be independent and equal and, without many of the barriers that our mothers and grandmothers faced in the workplace, lots of women now find they outstrip their partner’s earnings. While this is something to be celebrated, it can also take its toll on the relationship and throw up a whole new set of challenges. The idea of the female breadwinner certainly isn't a new concept, yet while the number of women earning more than their partner is rising, there remains, it seems, some reluctance to talk openly about what this means for the couples involved. Even among good friends, the subject of who earns more within the relationship and how couples manage their finances seems to be a private matter that is rarely discussed – even less so if it’s the woman who earns more.
“I opted to pay more of the rent and bills,” says Ellie, 31, from Brighton, who has been with her boyfriend for 15 years and with whom she has a 2-year-old son. “It seemed fair because I was bringing in more and we are a team. As I remember, I led on this – I didn't want him to feel like he had to ask.” Ellie's boyfriend worked in bars and as a tradesman while she was studying at university but, once she qualified and started earning, she was bringing in more money than him. A short period when her partner was out of work meant that Ellie was the sole earner and this presented some challenges in their relationship. “I think the shift in power (although I didn't see it like that) can really affect people, and maybe it's worse for the guy,” she explains. “My partner is pretty traditional in lots of ways and he hates feeling indebted to people, so I know it was really hard for him. I made a decision not to get involved in his finances unless he asked, and left him to his own devices on the job-hunting front. I sensed he already felt emasculated and that I was bailing him out financially so I didn't want to take on the role of employment coach, too. I think it would have been too much.”
Anna, 30 and living in London, earns significantly more than her boyfriend and has done since before they got together five years ago, yet they each pay an even share of joint costs. “We split the day-to-day expenses equally,” she tells me. “We have a joint account into which we both put the same amount each month, and that covers the mortgage and bills.” Despite this even split, Anna chooses to spend more money on things for the two of them which she feels goes some way to 'redress the balance'. She also puts more money away into savings than her partner, meaning that their disposable income at the end of the month is about equal. “I get a bonus each year at work and usually put the money towards a holiday for us both and buying something for him – last year it was a smartwatch.”
My parents feel he is living off me and forcing me to work when they think I would rather be at home (this is not the case). It has created a great deal of friction.
Sian, 47, lives in Aberdeen and supports her partner, a stay-at-home husband, and their 6-year-old daughter entirely on her salary. “We created a joint account when we came to the UK,” she tells me. “We still have separate bank accounts also but with only a small amount in each for birthday presents and things. All income goes into the joint account.” For them, there is no splitting of bills or payments or a question of who owes what. “All money is considered joint and there is no issue on who spends what.”
I'm interested to hear what issues do arise when the woman is the sole earner and the man assumes the role of 'house husband' or 'stay-at-home dad'. Even for the most liberal men, there can still be some inbuilt idea of 'the breadwinner' and feelings of emasculation or even shame that they are the ones being supported. For Sian and her partner, however, this does not seem to be the case. “I think it is a bit frustrating for my partner to not be working but not because of the money – more to do with boredom and lack of challenges and stimulation,” she explains. “Any issues of frustration are due to work stress (me), boredom (him) or general personality clashes – the issue of having one bread earner and that person being female doesn't appear to be causing any problems for us personally, although it still appears to upset a minority of others.”
Even if the role reversal poses no problem for the couple themselves, there can still be external pressures and societal attitudes to overcome when the situation doesn't fit the expected status quo, as Sian and her partner discovered. “My partner has found it difficult to be the only father at the local Mother and Toddler Group (and no, they didn't change the name, even when he was secretary!). Many mums didn't visit him for playdates in case of 'gossip' about visiting a man,” Sian explains. There can also be, it seems, an assumption that the role of 'house husband' is temporary, something that is not usually assumed when the stay-at-home parent is female. “He is often asked if he is going to get a job soon, making him feel that the role of house parent isn't work. My parents often ask 'What does he do?' and make it clear that they feel he is living off me and forcing me to work when they think I would rather be at home (this is not the case). This has created a great deal of friction.”
Given that society still finds it difficult to fully accept families with a female earner and a male partner who doesn't work, I can only imagine what it was like for female breadwinners in previous generations. Nina, 60, is now retired and has three grown-up children. While her husband has been the main breadwinner of the family for most of their married life, there was a period in the 1980s when the couple lived on Nina's income alone. “In 1983, when I was in my mid-20s and newly married, we had the opportunity to leave the UK to live in Spain for two years as I had been offered a job there,” she explains. At that time, Spain was not a member of the EU (then known as the Common Market) and there was less freedom of movement, making it difficult to get a work permit. Nina was granted one because of the nature of her job but her husband did not meet the criteria. “Luckily my generous salary was enough for us both to live well on,” she tells me. “Before we left the UK I had to fill in paperwork at the Spanish consulate and sign an agreement to support my husband financially. The official that dealt with us was incredulous and openly scornful. 'So. You intend to live off your wife?' he asked, mockingly. This was fairly typical of the attitude at the time. We were both happy with the arrangement but met with some judgmental reactions from others.” Having been both the breadwinner and the supported half of a couple, Nina noticed a significant difference in people's attitudes when it was her husband's turn to support her. “People have not been so openly judgmental when it is the other way around! I'd like to think that society is more open-minded in 2017 but I suspect that, if you scratch the surface, the same disdainful attitude exists towards men who are financially supported by their wives.”
Whether they have relinquished their breadwinner position to have a family or remain the higher earner in their relationship, there is a general consensus of contentment from all of the women I speak to. A feeling that, regardless of who might be financially contributing more at any one moment, it all evens out in the long run and an understanding that there may be fluidity in the role of breadwinner. “I didn't mind [paying for more] because in a long-term relationship there's a lot of give and take, isn't there?” says Ellie. “I'd been studying so was earning less beforehand, so it all comes back around.”
Despite having always earned more than her partner, Anna has a similar attitude: “We both understand that it is what it is and it may not be forever. I would like to think that he will be the breadwinner in the future, although I think he has plans to be a house husband!” Even for Sian and her partner, there is the sense the finances are somewhat square. “He put all his savings and inheritance money into the mortgage so it almost evens out,” she explains.
Alex, 29 from Bristol, hasn't found the role of breadwinner quite as comfortable. “We argue about money loads,” she tells me. “When I first started earning lots more than my boyfriend, I was happy to treat him and I enjoyed it. But now it's like he expects me to always pick up the bill in restaurants or pay for the weekly shop and to be honest it makes me feel resentful and unappreciated. I always feel like I 'should' pay for joint things because he hardly has any money but it would be nice if once in a while he offered to take me for dinner and pick up the bill.”
Incredibly though, for the majority of women I speak to, the simple fact that the woman is earning more than the man doesn't seem to have led to any feelings of resentment on either side. Regardless of how they split their bills or share money, it's evident that the key to making whatever arrangement they have work is having an open and honest communication between the two people involved. “My partner keeps tabs on the spending – he tells me if I owe him anything and will pay anything back he owes me.” Anna explains “Sometimes I think his approach can be quite rigid, but in the long run I think it works as we both know exactly where we stand and there can be no resentment from either side.”
When Nina returned to the UK in 1985, her husband's earnings overtook her own and the couple adapted to their new financial situation. She reasons: “My argument then was, 'You don’t earn more than me, you get paid more than me'. If you both agree with that, then splitting bills equally doesn't make sense.” Regardless of whether the breadwinner is male or female, this seems to me to be a sensible starting point for any couple about to enter into a discussion about how best to manage their shared finances. It's certainly something I will bear in mind when my next paycheque arrives.
*Names have been changed