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Men get stressed out if their wives make too much money

CBS News logo CBS News 11/20/2019 Aimee Picchi

Men have higher levels of stress if their wives earn more than 40% of their household's income, a sign that gender stereotypes can have a harmful impact on some husband's mental well-being, a new study finds. 

Husbands also suffer from higher stress when they are the sole breadwinner, a signal that bearing the entire financial responsibility for a family's well-being also causes anxiety, the study noted. The survey, conducted by the U.K.'s University of Bath, examined responses from about 6,000 heterosexual American couples over a 15-year period, from 2001 to 2015. 

The findings come at a time when about a third of U.S. women earn as much as or more than their husbands, compared with about 12% in 1980, according to the Pew Research Center. Women have also narrowed the gender pay gap — although it remains at about 80 cents for every $1 earned by men — and now represent a majority of college grads. 

Even so, gender norms about men and money remain entrenched, which can lead to problems for men's mental health, the study suggests.

"There's a kind of a sweet spot when men are most comfortable when women make 40% of the total income," said Joanna Syrda, an economist at the University of Bath's School of Management, in a YouTube interview about her research. "Once her income rises past that point, their distress rises."

The research indicates that traditional views of gender roles "can be dangerous for men's health," she added in a statement.

Earnings split

What does it mean to earn 40% of household income? Take a husband who earns $100,000 and a wife who earns $65,000, for combined household income of $165,000. In that case, the wife earns about 40% of the total income and the husband brings in about 60%.

To be sure, not all husbands are bothered that their wives make as much or more than they do. Men who married women whose income was already higher before the marriage don't seem to be affected, the study noted. That suggests those men are entering their marriages aware of the income gap, and presumably are OK with that. 

Traditional gender views

American men tend to adhere to traditional gender views — especially when it comes to women, Pew found in a 2017 survey of income and marriage views. For instance, while 7 of 10 men and women agreed that men need to provide for their families to be a good husband, the genders differed in the importance of women's earnings. 

About 25% of men said it's important for women to support a family financially, compared with almost 40% of women who said their economic contributions were very important. 

The impact on husbands' mental health might have "significant labor market implications," the new study noted. Gender norms could impact how spouses participate in the job market and their workplace decisions, it added.

"Women have been making relatively more and more money," Syrda said. "The trends are going one way. And it's interesting that the male breadwinner norm is so durable."

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