The 'Breadwinner' Expectation Might Be Hurting Men's Mental Health

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There's a persistent idea throughout American culture that the man should be the breadwinner and that any money women bring in should just be supplemental, not comparable. But that expectation is being flipped on its head as women rise in the corporate ranks and more men stay at home. The Pew Research Center reports that in 1980 only 13% of married women earned more than their husbands, but in 2017, it was closer to one-third of women. While this is progress to celebrate, new research suggests there may be some growing pains for some men who may still have those traditional norms echoing in their heads.

A recent study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin surveyed 6,000 American heterosexual couples over 15 years and examined the husbands' stress levels as how much they made compared to their wives changed. Well, it turns out many men don't want a wife who makes nothing nor one who makes too much. The study found men were least stressed when their wife was making 40% of the household income, but if she made more or less than that, their stress levels increased. (Women, on the other hand, believed that their husband's stress level was lowest when the couple was each making the same amount of money.) The more a woman's income rose to encapsulate more than 40% of the household income, the more her husband's stress levels went up. Husbands experienced the most stress when they were totally economically dependent on their wives. 

The fact that men are most comfortable when women are making less than them shows how deeply ingrained traditional gender roles still are. "With masculinity closely associated with the conventional view of the male breadwinner, traditional social gender norms mean men may be more likely to experience psychological distress if they become the secondary earner in the household or become financially dependent on their wives, a finding that has implications for managing male mental health and society's understanding of masculinity itself," Joanna Syrda, Ph.D., an economist at the University of Bath's School of Management who led the study, explained in a news release

This study shows that everyone is suffering due to these ingrained ideals of who should make what in a marriage. While women are made to feel like they shouldn't make too much and take away the breadwinner position from their husband (as past research demonstrates), men are made to feel emasculated and unsuccessful just for having a wife who does well by herself.

"The results are strong enough to point to the persistence of gender identity norms, and to their part in male mental health issues," Syrda said. "Persistent distress can lead to many adverse health problems, including physical illness, and mental, emotional and social problems."

She added that these over-masculine stereotypes that men are taught to follow may also make it harder for them to admit that they need care, especially mental health care, because men are so often taught to bury their feelings. By implementing accessible care and unteaching these harmful gender stereotypes, men can access care as they need it, women can reach their full potential without society making them feeling guilty, and couples can enjoy all the benefits that come with a more egalitarian household.

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