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When she earns more than he does

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  • Professor: Wives rated marital quality higher when husbands were primary earners
  • One top-earning wife would rather work part time, spend more time with son
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By Jocelyn Voo
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(LifeWire) -- When Barrie Worflar of Bloomfield, New Jersey, was unexpectedly laid off in April 2007 from his job as assistant branch manager of a bank, he found work as a representative in a benefits call center. He also took a $10,000 pay cut.

Breadwinning wives tend to actively uphold traditional familial roles, says a sociology professor.

End result? His wife, Helen Freire, makes almost twice the money he does.

Worflar isn't one of those men who thinks the husband should be the sole or even primary breadwinner. He doesn't mind at all that Freire, a health savings account administrator and team supervisor, out-earns him. What he does mind, however, is that he can't contribute to the family budget the way he'd like to.

"It's a big blow to ego," he says. "A lot of the time I feel like I am holding the family back from obtaining the things we want, such as a house, car, vacations, another child."

Freire doesn't mind being a working mom, either, although she does admit that she'd prefer to be able to work less.

"As a woman, (earning more) makes me feel empowered, like I don't need to rely financially on my husband," says Freire. However, she confesses, "I'd be happier working a part-time job to enjoy some quality time with our son."

Job or family first?

Women like Freire often struggle with balancing professional and parental obligations, says Steven Nock, professor of sociology at the University of Virginia.

"We haven't quite figured out how to arrange our lives so that both partners are working full-time and still have time to have a family life," he says.

Nock found that wives rated their marital quality as higher when husbands were the primary earners, according to a study published in 2006 that he co-authored. Notably, he says, their dissatisfaction was due to the lack of time they had to devote to their children.

"Since most parents still give the female most of the responsibility for family care and child rearing... (it's) difficult for the women working full-time to manage what they want to do as mothers," he says.

Who's the breadwinner?

Other couples instead struggle with who should (or shouldn't) be bringing home the bacon in the first place.

"They're struggling against the reality that she's earning more, but sometimes both of them -- the husband and the wife -- feel like the man should be the one who's earning more. It's hard to let go of that expectation." says Veronica Tichenor, professor of sociology at the State University of New York Institute of Technology and author of "Earning More and Getting Less: Why Successful Wives Can't Buy Equality."

Moreover, financial superiority may not afford women power, as it generally does for men.

When a man is financially responsible for a family's well being, it usually "buys" him out of household chores, according to Tichenor's research. He also tends to control the purse strings and be the decision maker. However, the same standards don't apply when women are the primary earners. In fact, breadwinning wives actively uphold traditional familial roles by still doing more housework and deferring financial control to their husbands, Tichenor says.

That's not the case for Worflar and Freire. Although they both work full time, they maintain an equitable division of household duties and caring for their 4-year-old son, Aidan.

"Although she makes more money then I, we still tend to discuss things that affect the family," Worflar says.

Talking it over

When it comes to addressing the fact that one member of a couple earns significantly more than the other, reigning in financial disputes through communication is key.

"Financials are one of the primary ways that a couple determines who has primary hierarchical status," says Suzanne Baldwin, a Norfolk, Virginia-based marriage and family therapist. Baldwin outlines these steps for keeping the peace:

• Be open to hearing the other side. If a husband is feeling emasculated, remind him that money should not be the basis of power in a relationship, and reassure him that other contributions he's made -- be it making dinner or fixing broken things around the house -- are valuable to the marriage.

• Maintain a fair division of labor. To avoid one party feeling like they have the brunt of house and family issues, try independently writing lists of what needs to be taken care of, and then compare lists, suggests Baldwin.

• Ask yourself what were your goals before finances shifted, and have your goals or values changed? "Maybe there's been a shift in contribution, but are they still working toward the same thing?" asks Baldwin.

• Set aside specific times to talk about financial issues, and don't discuss them at other times to avoid it coloring all conversations.

• Separate short-term priorities from long-term priorities. If the couple's aim is to have the husband be the primary breadwinner, remember that it won't happen overnight. In such a case, it may behoove the couple to have financial discussions every six months instead of every month.

LifeWire provides original and syndicated lifestyle content to Web publishers. Jocelyn Voo is a freelance journalist and relationships editor at the New York Post

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