Breadwinner Men May Have More Money, But Poorer Health

Young business man sitting in depression with hand on head /
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SEATTLE — Men who earn more money than their wives may be rolling in the bucks, but they tend to have poor health and heightened anxiety, new research shows.

Researchers analyzed surveys from 9,000 young married men and women in the United States taken annually over a 15-year period, and evaluated each participant's response on income, health and psychological wellness. They found that the more economic responsibility a man had in his marriage, the more his psychological well-being and health declined.

The findings suggest that men who are primary breadwinners — and who, in essence, fulfill the culturally held expectation that husbands should bring home more money than their wives — are actually worse off than men who earn salaries that are more equal to those of their wives. [6 Scientific Tips for a Successful Marriage]

"Our study contributes to a growing body of research that demonstrates the ways in which gendered expectations are harmful for men, too," study co-author Christin Munsch, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut, said in a statement. "Men are expected to be breadwinners, yet providing for one's family with little or no help has negative repercussions."

The surveys provided several more insights. For instance, men's health and psychological states suffered most when they were their families' sole breadwinners (married to non-working wives), the researchers found. In these cases, the men had psychological wellness scores that were 5 percent lower, and health scores that were 3.5 percent lower, on average, than the years in which they earned salaries that were relatively equal to their wives' paychecks.

In contrast, breadwinning had a positive effect on women: Wives who earned more money than their husbands showed more positive mental health than when they earned less, the researchers found.

Women's physical health was not related to relative income, the researchers added.

Manly pressures

Perhaps men's health and psychological wellness would improve if they weren't subjected to the "macho breadwinner" paradigm, the researchers said. While some male-gendered cultural mores have waned — for instance, fathers are increasingly expected to care for children and help with household chores — the cultural expectation that men should earn more than their wives persists, the researchers said.

Moreover, studies show that "breadwinning is a stressful and anxiety-ridden experience," and anxiety can negatively affect health, the researchers wrote in the unpublished study, which was presented on Friday (Aug. 19) here at the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting.

However, men who earn less than their wives also may be subject to social pressures to be macho. For example, these men "are more likely to engage in male-typed behaviors like domestic violence and infidelity, and less likely to engage in female-typed behaviors like housework," the researchers wrote in a working paper of the study.

"Our study finds that decoupling breadwinning from masculinity has concrete benefits for both men and women," Munsch said. "Whereas men's psychological well-being and health tend to increase as their wives take on more economic responsibility, women's psychological well-being also improves as they take on more economic responsibility."

Original article on Live Science.

Laura Geggel

Laura is the archaeology and Life's Little Mysteries editor at Live Science. She also reports on general science, including paleontology. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Scholastic, Popular Science and Spectrum, a site on autism research. She has won multiple awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association for her reporting at a weekly newspaper near Seattle. Laura holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and psychology from Washington University in St. Louis and a master's degree in science writing from NYU.