THOUGHT PIECE BY IZZY CHAN
In Pew’s Research Report on Breadwinner Moms, they point out that many people believe that it’s harder for marriage to succeed when women are the main financial provider in the family.
That’s one of the central questions we want to understand in The Big Flip.
For some answers, I want to share the following two articles from New York Magazine and the Atlantic. To this day, they are still two of the most thought-provoking, well-researched, and masterfully-orchestrated pieces of writing I’ve read on the issue. Unlike many other reactionary opinion pundits, these writers dive in below the surface, and attempt to answer the messy question of why big flip relationships are harder.
As far back as 2003, the rise of breadwinner wives is already emerging in New York. In this provocative piece by Ralph Gardner Jr. in the New York Magazine, he got many New York couples to open up—and reveal some very raw and honest emotions on how the role reversal has affected the dynamics of respect and sexual attraction in their marriages.
“Sexuality is based on respect and admiration and desire,” says Anna, a public-relations executive who saw her relationship with her Web-designer husband collapse as she became more and more successful and he floundered. “If you’ve lost respect for somebody, it’s very hard to have it work. When someone seems like a child, it’s not that attractive. In the end, it felt like I had three children.”
“Women need to admire their partner,” says psychologist Harriette Podhoretz. “They need to find something that doesn’t interfere with their passionate glue, that keeps the marriage charged up and alive.”
Sometimes it’s the Alpha woman who needs reassurance that she’s still feminine.
“When you’re a big money earner and your husband isn’t, it makes you question how feminine you are,” says Barbara Corcoran, the ubiquitous real-estate broker. “I felt I was less feminine than if I was a supporting wife, or a second fiddle, or ‘Mrs. Higgins.’ The struggle was as much mine as Bill’s.”
Emily, a senior sales executive, admits she enjoys the control she has over Mark, a struggling photographer. But sex has become an issue.
“I can’t give up the position of empress,” she says. “Everything is in my name. When I’ve gotten really bratty, I’ve said, ‘Well fine, leave,’ knowing he can’t leave. I’ve never had such security in a relationship. There’s no risk of flight. But it’s only giving me a short-term gain. Ultimately, it’s emasculating for him.”
“Mark,” she adds, “was the best sex I ever had.” But that was long ago. “We fight instead,” she says. “We’re embroiled in some weird combat. It’s like Lysistrata. I tell him, ‘Your business is going to have to get better faster.’ Until then, I’m withholding.”When Emily comes home, she doesn’t always want to be the boss. But she says her husband no longer has the authority to take over. “I want somebody to take that power role away from me,” she explains. “Ultimately, it gets down to pretty basic stuff. It’s hard to be the power broker every day and then be the femme fatale. I’m not going to pay the bills—I feel like his mother—and then come home and [be sexually intimate—read article for verbatim!].”
Intrigued? Read the entire article here.
This piece from the Atlantic looks at the rise of high-earning women from a different lens—how it’s made it harder and harder for women to find a match. Why? Because it’s related to what many men and women subconsciously desire in a mate.
As Maureen Dowd memorably put it in her 2005 book, Are Men Necessary?, “Females are still programmed to look for older men with resources, while males are still programmed to look for younger women with adoring gazes.”
American women as a whole have never been confronted with such a radically shrinking pool of what are traditionally considered to be “marriageable” men—those who are better educated and earn more than they do. So women are now contending with what we might call the new scarcity. Even as women have seen their range of options broaden in recent years—for instance, expanding the kind of men it’s culturally acceptable to be with, and making it okay not to marry at all—the new scarcity disrupts what economists call the “marriage market” in a way that in fact narrows the available choices, making a good man harder to find than ever.
TOO MANY WOMEN?
IN THEIR 1983 book, Too Many Women? The Sex Ratio Question, two psychologists developed what has become known as the Guttentag-Secord theory.
In societies where men heavily outnumber women—in what’s known as a “high-sex-ratio society”—women are valued and treated with deference and respect and use their high dyadic power to create loving, committed bonds with their partners and raise families. Rates of illegitimacy and divorce are low. Women’s traditional roles as mothers and homemakers are held in high esteem. In such situations, however, men also use the power of their greater numbers to limit women’s economic and political strength, and female literacy and labor-force participation drop.
One might hope that in low-sex-ratio societies—where women outnumber men—women would have the social and sexual advantage. (After all, didn’t the mythical all-female nation of Amazons capture men and keep them as their sex slaves?) But that’s not what happens: instead, when confronted with a surplus of women, men become promiscuous and unwilling to commit to a monogamous relationship. (Which, I suppose, might explain the Amazons’ need to keep men in slave quarters.) In societies with too many women, the theory holds, fewer people marry, and those who do marry do so later in life. Because men take advantage of the variety of potential partners available to them, women’s traditional roles are not valued, and because these women can’t rely on their partners to stick around, more turn to extrafamilial ambitions like education and career.
If dating and mating is in fact a marketplace—and of course it is—today we’re contending with a new “dating gap,” where marriage-minded women are increasingly confronted with either deadbeats or players.
According to Robert H. Frank, an economist at Cornell who has written on supply and demand in the marriage market, this shouldn’t be surprising. When the available women significantly outnumber men, which is the case on many campuses today, “courtship behavior changes in the direction of what men want,” he told me recently. If women greatly outnumber men, he says, social norms against casual sex will weaken.
THE SEXUAL DOUBLE STANDARD ON CAMPUS
Whether the sexual double standard is cultural or biological, it’s finding traction in the increasingly lopsided sexual marketplace that is the American college campus, where women outnumber men, 57 percent to 43 percent. In 2010, The New York Times ran a much-discussed article chronicling this phenomenon.
“If a guy is not getting what he wants, he can quickly and abruptly go to the next one, because there are so many of us,” a University of Georgia co-ed told The Times, reporting that at college parties and bars, she will often see two guys being fawned over by six provocatively dressed women.
For big flip marriages to thrive, we’ll have to redefine what “marriageable” means, and shift what we find desirable and attractive in a way that breaks traditional expectations. But while that’s easy to say and do in our rational, thinking mind—it might not be as easy in the subconscious parts of our brain where passion, love and sexual attraction reside.
This recent article from USA Today isn’t exactly the most rigorous piece of writing, and the science behind it is rather dated. But it’s worth including here, as it illustrates one theory as to why big flip marriages can be more challenging—that the laws of sexual attraction may be hardwired in us, and they skew towards tradition.
The same [that they have more sex] is true for women who do the most traditional female housework, according to the study published in the February issue of American Sociological Review.
For better or worse, the authors say, heterosexual married couples may still be reading from traditional “sexual scripts” when it comes to both housework and sex.
In other words, the study concludes: “Men or women may, in essence, be turned on (however indirectly) when partners in a marriage do more gender-traditional work.”
The study comes with one major caveat: It is based on data collected two decades ago. While the researchers say little has likely changed since then, some other experts disagree.
“Some women may find a guy more sexy when he’s fixing something around the house than when he’s doing the ironing,” says Stephanie Coontz, director of research and public education for the Council on Contemporary Families. “I’m not surprised that there are many women and men who still find the old ways more sexy. But there also are couples who now find egalitarian relationships more sexy and a better prescription for long-term happiness in marriage.”
A survey conducted today likely would find more couples in the latter category, says Coontz, who teaches history and family studies at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash.
WHEN THE FLIP DOESN’T WORK
“The Accidental Breadwinner” is an honest, confessional piece where the writer unabashedly shares her feelings as to why her marriage fell apart. It’s hard to find families going through such difficulties to volunteer to share their stories in our documentary (not to say we won’t keep trying!), so this article adds a missing and very different perspective to the stories and families we’ve profiled here so far.
I DIDN’T set out to be the breadwinner. I assumed that one day a guy would come along and I would marry him and, well, he’d take care of it.This is one of the fundamental ways in which men differ from women. Growing up, boys assume they’re going to make the money, or at least half the money. Rare is the boy who imagines that marriage will spell a free economic ride and so nurtures his incredible hotness to that end.
… within our first year, the Cuddle Bum [author’s nickname for ex-husband] quit his job on a whim.
The Cuddle Bum hated his job — and who could blame him? He wanted to get into another field, perhaps one that required his going back to school.
In the meantime, we decided that the Cuddle Bum would be the househusband. My role as breadwinner was thus made official. The Cuddle Bum’s idea of his role involved pouring a bowl of cereal for each child before school, playing videogames for 10 hours, and then grudgingly making dinner at 6. For almost a year, I told him that wasn’t working for me, that if he wasn’t going to care for the entire household the way a wife would (vacuum on Mondays, dust on Tuesdays …) then he needed to go back to work. Much of the time, I expressed this wish to the back of his head as he tried to slay two-headed ogres on the TV.
When we divorced, he wanted alimony, child support and the house — the house that was purchased with my money, in my name. During one of our last conversations, I wept with incomprehension. He wanted my house?
…[Author’s new partner Jim] He’s a computer consultant who pays his own way and buys me the occasional unexpected present. Once I admired a fountain pen in the window of a shop that sold only fountain pens; while I was waiting at the corner for the light to change, he ducked in and bought it for me. I swooned.
Sometimes he buys the groceries, and sometimes I do. But he always pays for both of us when we go to the movies, and spends lavishly on buttered popcorn and Milk Duds. I am always touched by this.
Even as we celebrate Big Flip families and the possibilities it opens up for men and women who have less traditional desires and traits—it’s important to recognize that it’s not for everyone. There’s nothing wrong if one has more traditional preferences. What’s important is to be honest, to communicate, and to find a partner who shares your values.
For those who prefer a Cliff Notes version of the above, here’s a distillation in SlideShare:
A guy says:
From my personal views, I think a lot of guys don’t make the most of their “house husband” status. Just getting your kids to school (if you have any), skipping housework and then let yourself go for ten hours in front of a videogame doesn’t cut it.
What I say to some of them is get yourself together and challenge yourself so that she can continue to respect you.