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  • Despite an increasing share of married women in the workforce, the husband-breadwinner norm is alive and well. Tweet This
  • Marriage has a transformative effect on men, improving their behavior, health, and work ethic. Tweet This

In a post that originally appeared on her personal blog and was reprinted last week by FoxNews.com, writer Suzanne Venker thanks her “breadwinner husband” for all he does for their family. “It is the steady breadwinner husband, men like you, who allow women like me to live such comfortable lives,” she writes.

As much as I appreciate Venker’s perspective, some of the wording in her post bothers me (i.e., “allow” and “comfortable”), especially when she points to the benefits of “depending” on her husband’s income over the years. To me, her piece downplays the gift she and so many other spouses give their partners by staying home and performing the often thankless tasks of maintaining a household and caring for children. It also bothers me because while I am essentially a “stay-at-home mom,” I also work part-time, and my workload has varied over the years based on my husband’s income and my kids’ ages. Despite the fact that he’s always made more money than me, I’ve never felt “dependent” on my husband: in my view, we both give equally to the family, just in different ways.

Not feeling dependent on my husband is a pretty big deal to someone who grew up with a single mom who was our family’s sole or primary breadwinner. In fact, until I got married and experienced it for myself, the concept of a "breadwinner" husband was foreign to me, although I did watch my father serve as the sole breadwinner in his new family after my parents divorced. Still, in the single mother world that I knew best, men were not exactly known as providers. Most of the husbands in my extended family ran away from their financial responsibilities, leaving women to pick up the slack. This experience not only encouraged me to want to work but also gave me a better appreciation for faithful men, like my husband, who consistently work hard to help provide for their families. That brings me to the part of Venker’s post that rings true: “The culture wants us to believe the breadwinner husband is obsolete,” she writes, “but you and I both know that isn’t true.”

Not only is the breadwinner husband not obsolete, the husband-breadwinner norm is also alive and well. Even though the share of working married moms who out-earn their husbands has increased substantially, a vast body of research shows that a husband’s employment still matters for marital stability.

In a recent study published this July in American Sociological Review, Harvard sociology professor Alexandra Killewald, Ph.D., analyzed data on 6,309 heterosexual married couples from the 1968 to 2013 waves of the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID). She looked specifically at the potential effects on marital stability of “spouses' division of labor, overall financial resources, and wives’ economic prospects following divorce,” comparing couples married before 1975 to those married in 1975 or later (through 2011).

A vast body of research shows that a husband’s employment still matters for marital stability.

In both the early and later cohorts, about 90 percent of husbands had a full-time job. It was different for women: 34 percent of wives were employed full-time in the earlier cohort, compared to 48 percent in the later cohort. And while the percentage of wives working full-time increased, the share of housework they perform declined—from 80 percent in the earlier cohort to 72 percent in the later cohort.

The study found that how couples divide housework is no longer associated with an increased risk of divorce. In the earlier cohort, women who performed less housework had a higher risk of divorce, but in the more recent cohort, that was no longer the case.

More notably, Killewald found that for couples married in 1975 or later, marriages in which the husband was not employed full-time were one-third more likely to divorce. Specifically, a husband who was not employed full-time experienced a “3.3 percent predicted probability of divorce the following year, compared to 2.5 percent if he is employed full-time.”

Commenting on her findings, Killewald noted: “[My] results suggest one way that expectations about gender and family roles and responsibilities affect men’s lives, too: men who aren’t able to sustain full-time work face [a] heightened risk of divorce.”

Killewald is certainly not the first to find an association between men’s employment and marital stability. A study conducted by three economists and published in 2015 found that “In couples where the wife earns more than the husband, the wife spends more time on household chores; moreover, those couples are less satisfied with their marriage and are more likely to divorce.”

And an earlier study by Liana C. Sayer, Paula England, Paul Allison and Nicole Kangas found that when a husband is “nonemployed” (defined as not working at all), both the husband and the wife are more likely to end a marriage. In an email interview with IFS, one of the study’s co-authors, New York University sociology professor Paula England, explained her findings.

“The innovation of our study was to look separately at what predicts a divorce wanted more by the woman versus a divorce wanted more by the man,” England wrote. “We found that a nonemployed man predicts either the woman leaving the man or the man leaving the woman.”

She continued, “Killewald’s data just show her if they got divorced, not who left. We found that women’s employment doesn’t make men leave more, and it only makes women leave more when they are unhappy in the marriage.”

Both studies drew similar conclusions regarding the association between men, marriage, and work. England’s study concluded, “Men’s breadwinning is still so culturally mandated that when it is absent, both men and women are more likely to find that the marital partnership doesn’t deserve to continue.”

And as Killewald’s study put it, “breadwinning remains a central component of the marital contract for husbands.”

As a married mom who has not worked full-time since my kids were born, I found myself wondering if maybe one reason for the persistence of the husband-breadwinner norm is that some married mothers, like me, prefer the option of being able to work less or not at all, especially while our kids are young. Naturally, in order for us to work less, our husbands must work more.

Some married mothers, like me, prefer the option of being able to work less or not at all, especially while our kids are young. Naturally, in order for us to work less, our husbands must work more.

According to a recent Pew survey, most married mothers in the U.S. prefer to either work part-time or not at all (in 2012, 47 percent of American mothers said they preferred part-time work, 32 percent preferred full-time work, and 20 percent preferred to not work at all). Additionally, Pew also found that about one-in-10 mothers with a Master's degree or higher are “opting-out” of the workforce to care for their families.

When I asked Professor England about this, she acknowledged that while some married mothers may prefer to work less, she does not believe that is what is behind the husband-breadwinner norm.

“I think that our culture still devalues women and traditional female roles and activities…People see it as a step down for men to do anything associated with women, whereas it is not seen as a step down for women to do activities traditional for men,” England told me. “As long as that is true, both women and men will look down on men who aren’t employed full-time. That stigma is what I suspect Killewald is finding leads to divorce.”

For her part, Killewald admitted in her study that there could be another explanation for her findings beyond “gendered interpretations” about marriage, writing:

It is possible that husbands’ less than full-time employment is associated with marital disruption more strongly than wives’, not because of gendered interpretations of lack of full-time employment, but because husbands’ part-time employment or nonemployment is more likely to be involuntary. Involuntary nonemployment may negatively affect marriages more strongly than voluntary nonemployment, by affecting outcomes like partners’ mental health. It is not possible to evaluate this perspective with the current data because voluntary specialization by men in unpaid labor is rare: in 2012, only about one-fifth of stay-at-home fathers were home primarily to care for the family.

So while a minority of married fathers are home with the kids, including some by choice as Anna Sutherland recently explained, the majority of at-home dads are home due to a job loss or lack of good employment prospects. In general, it seems, most married men want to work full-time or prefer to do so if they are not working.

Perhaps that’s another reason the husband-breadwinner norm has staying power: there’s something about marriage and fatherhood that inspires most men to want to work harder and earn more for their families. As IFS Senior Fellow W. Bradford Wilcox explained in a recent PragerU video, marriage has a “transformative” effect on men’s lives—positively impacting their “behavior, emotional health, and financial well-being” as well as their work-ethic. According to his research, married men enjoy a “marriage premium,” working an additional 400 plus hours and earning about 20 percent more annually than their single peers from similar backgrounds. He points out that married men “assume a new identity,” becoming more responsible and developing a new attitude towards work.

There’s something about marriage and fatherhood that inspires most men to want to work harder and earn more for their families.

With marriage and work so interconnected for men, it makes sense that not being able to work full-time would negatively impact marital stability, especially since unemployment (or underemployment) is more likely to be involuntary for husbands than wives. This could also explain why previous research has shown that men whose wives earn more than they do tend to be less happy in their marriages. For example, research by Wilcox and Jeffery Dew found that fathers who worked less than their wives were 61 percent less likely to report being very happy in their marriage than men whose wives stayed home. And a study published last year by University of Connecticut sociologist Christin Munsch found that men whose wives earn more are more likely to cheat, leading Munsch to conclude, that there “is something about not being the breadwinner than men especially don’t like.”

However, things could be changing among younger couples. In a new study that examined data on married couples between the ages of 18 to 32, Munsch found that husbands’ “psychological well-being and health were at their worst during years when they were their families' sole breadwinner,” compared to the years when their partners contributed equally.

Other changes may also have an impact. Women are now more likely to earn a college degree than men, and the most educated women are more likely to be married, so the percentage of wives who out-earn their husbands could continue to rise. Stay-at-home dads by choice are more likely in families where the wife is more educated, and with fathers increasingly recognized as unique and invaluable caregivers, it is possible more married dads will voluntarily stay home in the future.

Whether the husband-breadwinner norm will continue in the face of these cultural shifts depends, in part, on how married couples adjust and choose to divide labor inside and outside the home. Rather than questioning why breadwinning is still central to a husband’s role in marriage, perhaps we should appreciate it as a division of labor that simply works best for many families. We should also respect and support the different ways today’s men and women adjust their lives to make work and family life function best for them.