Although it’s at a standstill for the moment, the gender pay gap seems to be narrowing. Don’t get too excited yet. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research estimates that the American wage gap won’t close until 2059 for white women, 2130 for Black women, and not until 2224 for Hispanic women. Even though we aren’t expected to see it for some time, pay equity is already stressing men out.
Men who are married to women who make more than they do are experiencing negative mental health consequences as a result of the disparity, suggests research released on Monday. The study tracked 6,000 heterosexual American couples over the course of 15 years. It’s worth noting that the study only included cis-het folks; there’s precious little research being done on queer relationships.
Researchers found that men’s stress levels are high when they are the sole earner in the family and that their stress decreases until their wife begins to earn 40% of the household income. Once a wife’s wages hit that 40% tipping point, men’s stress levels rise in response.
Stay with me: This is only true for men who married women whose incomes rose during the marriage, said Joanna Syrda, an economist with the University of Bath, School of Management, who conducted the research. In other words, men who married women who earned more than they did before the marriage did not experience this type of stress when their wife’s wages increased during the marriage.
So then, men were okay if they knew in advance that they were marrying a woman who would make more money than they did, but it really seemed to mess them up when an unexpected income gap was created.
It seems counter intuitive. Wouldn’t it be kind of liberating to discover that your female partner could take care of the financial needs of your family? Apparently not. The study suggests that the stress of the gender role reversal was too high for men to enjoy the financial boon. “The consequences of traditional gender role reversals in marriages associated with wives' higher earnings span multiple dimensions, including physical and mental health, life satisfaction, marital fidelity, and divorce,” Syrda said in a report on the study.
So, then, when women earn more than men, the men experience what Syrda describes as “persistent distress,” but that distress doesn’t just impact the male individual. Syrda suggests that men’s unhappiness about money can even lead to cheating and divorce. And while men may be so stressed out that they are sick and depressed, the women they are partnered with may not even know about it.
According to the data, there was a difference between how men felt and how women thought men felt. Women reported that their partners were happiest when they earned 50% of household income, while men reported that they were actually happiest when women earned 40%. “This too may be down to gender norms,” Syrda said. “Men are inclined to hide symptoms of stress and depression and it follows that wives' responses [about their spouses] will be less accurate.”
This is what feminists mean when we say that the patriarchy hurts everyone. No only are men unable to chill when they partner with a high earning woman, but they are so stuck in the role of stoic that they aren’t able to express themselves in ways that their partners understand.
The pressure of traditional heteropatriarchial gender norms is making men sick and it is hurting their relationships. What’s more, those norms are out of step with the economic leveling of the financial playing field and the general queering of gender roles. It makes sense that people who are stuck in an old social script are having difficulty adapting.
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