“Buy yourself a wife.”
When my mother was growing up, her parents worked hard to make sure that she and my aunt could go to college.
My parents gave my mom and my aunt one piece of advice about that college education.
Get a job in education so that they would never need to rely on a man to provide for them.
Both took jobs as teachers out of college, and my mom was a teacher for 30 years until she retired. She married my father, who was a policeman, so while they both had steady paychecks, neither of them would ever say they made a lot of money.
Thus, I grew up in a home where both of my parents worked and they both pitched in pretty equally in ensuring that I had food, shelter, and clothing (though, from a young age, I developed a penchant for free t-shirts).
Yet, growing up in the Deep South, I was surrounded by the notions and conceptions of what traditional male roles were like.
Open doors for women. Be chivalrous. Pay for dates. Friends whose mothers stayed at home while the fathers worked.
Then, I went to West Point. The student body was, if I recall correctly, 86% male. While the Army tried to be progressive about gender equality, let’s face it, the terms Army and progressive thinking usually do not go together. I was a tanker, a branch which didn’t allow women. Spouses were called “Army wives.” Heck, there’s a reality show about Army wives. The wives (remember, I was in an all-male unit) were expected to subordinate their career ambitions to follow their husbands all around the world and keep up the homefront while their husbands got deployed to far-flung places like Somalia, Haiti, Kuwait, and Bosnia.
This was in the mid-90s. The Internet was primarily a thing of universities. AOL dialup was still the main way most people not in college accessed it. Remote working, freelancing careers, and the like were unheard up. College educated wives who were quite capable of having their own independent careers put them on hold to follow their husbands. It was an implicit, and sometimes explicit expectation.
Thus, with that background, I met my wife. Well, she wasn’t my wife at the time…little did she know what was in store for her! I had already been accepted to law school and was off to pursue professional schooling with the expectation that after graduate school, I’d be the primary bread winner.
14 years later, I have earned more money than her in exactly four of those fourteen years: the two years after I got my MBA, and the two years when we received payments for the sale of my company.
For 10 of those years, she’s been the primary bread winner, allowing me to pursue entrepreneurial ventures or graduate school.
And, a lot of the time, I felt quite a bit of angst about the situation. I was a guy. I was supposed to be a manly man, and being a manly man involved putting food on the table. Even though we would talk about it and my wife made it quite clear that she was OK with our situation because I was the one swinging for the fences, and our arrangement made it possible, since her steady income kept us afloat, there was always a little voice in the back of my head that would whisper at most inopportune times
You’re not pulling your weight, champ.
So, when Farnoosh Torabi published her book When She Makes More: 10 Rules for Breadwinning Women, I was intrigued. I was in this situation. My wife, for a large part of our married life, has made more than me. Even when money came in chunks during the sale of my company, it didn’t feel like a steady paycheck, and mental accounting treated it differently. I wanted to know what my wife was thinking and see if I was missing any big warning flags.
Why Men Should Read When She Makes More
Women who are bread winners face different pressures in society than their male counterparts. Torabi does an exceptional job in the first chapter documenting the surveys, findings, and interviews with experts (including Dr. Brad Klontz, whom I respect quite deeply), outlining the case for why a woman who brings home more bacon than the man tackles challenges that bread winning men simply do not face.
We Are Wired Differently
Those of you who have read much of my writing know that I like to talk about Monkey Brain, our limbic systems. Not only do we face a ton of psychological biases based on our limbic systems, men’s limbic systems and women’s limbic systems developed differently over time. Back in the day when we lived in caves and chowed down on woolly mammoth, men and women served specialized roles. Because of physical differences, men brought home the mammoth, and women raised the children.
Our limbic systems are still hard-wired to that notion, even if 21st century life does not require such strict role definitions. Yet, when we stray from those templates, we suffer from a different set of cognitive biases than the day-to-day biases that we fight when we have lives that conform to that “historical” template:
- Cognitive dissonance. Most men are raised to believe that we should be the providers for the family. Even if we did not grow up with those beliefs espoused to us by our parents, society at large sends that message loud and clear. Even now, what is one of the most popular shows on television (one which Torabi refers to a couple of times)? Mad Men, a show about 1960s male (predominantly) advertising executives. So, in our minds, we have the history of being bread winners, and we have society telling us, implicitly or explicitly, that we should be bread winners. When our wives make more than us, the reality differs from the picture in our heads that we’ve drawn of ourselves. This occupies our subconscious and makes us feel bad that our actions do not match the mental picture.
- In-group bias. We like to associate ourselves with others who are just like us. We like being part of the “cool kids,” and, statistically speaking, as males, we’re more likely to have friends who make more than their wives, than the other way around. When we are not the bread winners, we find ourselves in the “out group” – we do not have that “provider” role in common with those whose respect and acceptance we want. This causes internal conflict and strife.
- Transference. One of the definitions of transference is “Conveyance of an object from one place to another”. In this case, we transfer value into money. We define the contribution of value in a relationship as the number of Benjamins that each side brings to the table. As men, because of these “traditional” roles, we do not place as much value on us doing them as we do in bringing in the bucks. We discount the value of taking the kids to the doctor, cooking, cleaning, and all of the other tasks that are required to run a household. Instead, we use one currency: cold, hard dollars. If we would avoid using money as the currency of what each person brings to the relationship, we could find ways to balance the equation.
If You Only Read Two Chapters, Read…
Read chapters 6 and 7. Most of the fights and problems in these income-unequal relationships do not have to do directly with money, but, rather with what each person contributes to the relationship, and how each individual values those contributions. In chapter 6, Torabi gives some ideas for how to get to the end goal – a smoothly running household – in a way that reduces resentment, particularly from the wife about the husband’s contributions.
Chapter 7 covers the workplace and the challenges that bread winning women face. While I could argue that any breadwinner faces these challenges, they’re notable for women because of the other challenges that a typically male-dominated workforce forces women to deal with. We can be as idealistic as we want about the workplace, but the reality is that there are pressures that women face to not be saddled with the tag of putting family before work. This chapter gives women strategies for how to deal with those challenges, and gives guys some insight into the pressures that their wives are facing on the job.
If you have kids or are planning on them, then read chapter 8 instead of chapter 7 (though you should read the whole book). Kids bring new facets to the relationship, and, statistically speaking, chances are that you did not grow up in a household where Mom earned more than Dad. Torabi gives great guidance on how to approach the roles and responsibilities that come with children and the joint pressure of careers and motherhood.
Male entrepreneurs represent approximately 58% of all entrepreneurs. Since 49% of small business owners don’t pay themselves a salary, and 14% of them have to take a second job to make ends meet, chances are pretty good that a male entrepreneur is not going to be the breadwinner in the family.
To compound the problem, half of small businesses close within the first five years, and 2/3 close within the first ten years. That means having to go back into job interviews, no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, and a doubly compounded sense of failure – failure to make the small business work and a failure to bring home the bacon.
If you’re a male entrepreneur whose startup hasn’t generated enough profits for you to pay yourself, you, in all of your spare time, should at least skim this book so that you know what your wife may be thinking.
What’s the One Underlying Theme of Successful Couples Where She Earns More?
Hah! You thought I was going to give you the answer! Go read the book!
Where I Disagree with Torabi
There are a couple of disagreements I have with Torabi in her book, though do not interpret these disagreements as a recommendation against the book.
- She does not come out strongly in favor of joint accounts. While she does advocate having separate accounts for guilt-free spending, she does spend a lot of time talking about mine versus his, as opposed to our money. The sooner it becomes our money, the more quickly you can move into discussions about how to value the other contributions in the marriage. Keeping it as “my” and “his” money provides a constant reminder that she is making more money, which Torabi stresses throughout the book to avoid, particularly when linking it to power in the relationship. When you look at it as his and her money, then you are not going to look at common family goals as easily, because, no matter how much you talk about the joint goals, you have a name for the money: his and hers. Names matter, particularly since the limbic system is paying attention to those names, and it was the limbic system that got us in trouble with her making more money in the first place!
- She advocates paying 1-2% in money management fees. Hogwash! A financial planner should not cost that much, and if you do decide that you want someone else to manage your money, you should use a flat fee asset manager. The old well-trodden argument that the financial planning industry trots out about why you should pay a percentage of your money for their work is simply an attempt to protect fat profit margins.
- You don’t come away with a sense of how your family’s priorities play into the solution. If you don’t know what those are, then you can’t justify, particularly as a male, why it’s acceptable for your wife to earn more and throw off those roles that your limbic system is screaming at you to play. When our actions are in alignment with our values, we are much happier and much more satisfied with our lives; yet, if we don’t put in the work to identify what our family’s priorities and values are, how can we know if we are living our lives in alignment with them?
Guys, It’s AWESOME If Your Wife Earns More!
If you don’t like that your wife is earning more, you have three choices:
- Work harder and more and earn more.
- Gripe about it, and make yourself miserable.
- Fist pump because she’s crushing it.
Remember, you are a team working together towards a common goal. (Don’t know what that goal is? cough, ahem, Lesson 1!) If your wife is contributing more towards that goal, then great! It just means that you’ll reach the end goal faster, whatever that end goal is.
Have you been defining your manhood and masculinity based on your ability to bring in a paycheck? Feel your dangly man bits threatened by her larger income?
Reframe your feelings!
You are man enough to attract a woman who can earn that much money! Not every guy is handsome, attractive, and manly enough to have a woman who crushes it at work. Yet, you do. Isn’t that the ultimate “trophy wife?” And by trophy, I mean having no debt, reaching PIRE, raising good kids, and supporting the charities and causes that are important to you.
A secondary piece of the equation, which Torabi doesn’t really cover but is kind of between the lines in her book is the absence of consumer debt. She does cover how to deal with it when the man brings consumer debt into the relationship, but most of her stories are of families who have a comfortable income and are dealing with the First World problems of his insecurity about her income or her issues with her perception of his contribution to the marriage.
I was talking to my wife about what I’d been reading on the dog walk, seeing if any of the issues that Torabi raised resonated with her.
She told me that she didn’t feel that way, but she felt like a big contributor to her feelings was that we didn’t have consumer debt. We were comfortable on her salary alone and felt like my business was making progress, so that made her feel like her status as a primary bread winner was temporary. Since we were comfortable on her salary, she didn’t feel pressure to ask me to drop the entrepreneurial efforts and get a traditional job.
“Had we had debt,” she told me, “it would have been a different story.”
Yet another reason why consumer debt causes marital issues!
Torabi discusses who should do the finances in the family. Here’s an article explaining why the person who is stronger in math should do the family finances.
She also talks about taking care of the in-laws financially. Here’s how to have “the talk” with your parents about their finances and warning signs to look out for that they are losing the ability to deal with financial issues.
Finally, my own marriage counseling advice, comparing 55% of married men to Peter Griffin from The Family Guy.
You can also read Doug Nordman’s excellent review of the book, the point of view of another military man who earned less than his wife.
All in all, Farnoosh Torabi’s When She Makes More is a quick, insightful read. For men whose wives earn more, it’s useful to see the world from her perspective and to understand where she may have problems with the situation. You’ll also learn the best ways to help her cope with what she faces and you’ll probably get a better understanding of the deep-seated issues you might have about the situation as well.