Tough health choices for men: Bread-winning men may have more money, but poorer health
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 analysed 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, writes The Independent Team & Agencies.
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.
“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.
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 Aug. 19 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.”
Expectations that women take primary responsibility for housework and childcare—while men make most of the money—are relics of the breadwinner-homemaker model that, to Christin Munsch, a sociologist at the University of Connecticut, “isn’t really relevant to today’s couples.” In most marriages now, both people have jobs. And in this new paradigm, these leftover expectations aren’t really serving couples well.
Munsch’s research deals with how modern families are dealing with the consequences of those gender roles.
Her team tracked the relationship between married men’s and women’s income contributions and their health over the course of 15 years. All were between 18 and 32 years old, non-transgender, and in heterosexual couples.
Social identity theory suggests that, in men, breadwinning would come with better health—a sort of harmony with their understandings of themselves and the world’s.
Previous research has tended to sort of support the idea that men’s identities and confidence suffer when they are not the breadwinners in heterosexual marriages; that they feel worse about themselves and are more likely to cheat on their wives.
That is the point made by journalist Farnoosh Torabi in her book `When She Makes More’. She cautioned career-oriented wives that “making a relationship work when there’s an unusual income disparity takes a lot more effort than relationships with no or a traditional income disparity.”
But the Connecticut researchers actually found that as their income increased relative to their wives’, men’s psychological well-being and health declined. The men’s mental and physical health (measured by self-assessment)were at their worst during years when they were their family’s sole breadwinner.
But the men’s psychological well-being and health increased when their wives took on more economic responsibility. In step, women’s psychological well-being also improved as they took on a greater share of the family’s financial contributions (though the women’s physical health didn’t change).
But why would the effect be essentially opposite in men and women?
Munsch believes that anxiety is driving this effect. Depression scores don’t really change, but “their anxiety increases tremendously.”
She attributes that to gender performances that cloud our judgment. Men are taught to see breadwinning as an obligation; women to see it more as an opportunity. Women are less likely to dwell on what other people will think of them if they aren’t the primary source of income, while men feel the need to take on higher-paying positions, even when the role might just be an anxiety-inducing, taxing, stressful experience.
Instead of taking a job to fulfill an expectation to make as much money as possible for their families, women are more likely to do so because they want to. When you enjoy a job, it’s not perceived as stressful. When it’s not perceived as stressful, it’s not detrimental to a person’s health.