New research suggests women see it as a choice, while breadwinning men view their role as an obligation.

By Amanda MacMillan
Updated August 19, 2016
Credit: Getty Images

Men often take on, and even embrace, the role of primary breadwinner for their families—but a new study suggests that too much pressure to bring home the bacon is bad for their physical and mental health. For women, the study found the opposite: The more economic contributions they made to their families, the better their psychological well-being.

The results, to be presented at the American Sociological Association's annual meeting, suggest that some men see breadwinning as a stressful obligation, while many women may approach it as an opportunity or a choice.

To examine the effects of household income dynamics on health and well-being, researchers looked at data from heterosexual married people across the U.S. who were between the ages of 18 and 32. Their most significant finding was somewhat surprising, says lead author Christin Munsch, PhD, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut: As men took on more financial responsibility in their marriage, their psychological well-being and physical health both tended to decline.

Men were worse off during years when they were their family’s sole breadwinners—with psychological well-being scores 5% lower, and health scores 3.5% lower, on average, than in years when their partners contributed equally.

Female breadwinners fared better: As women made more money, their psychological well-being improved. (Their physical health outcomes didn’t change.) Unlike men, who may feel forced into jobs they don’t love just to satisfy social norms, Munsch says, “breadwinning women may feel a sense of pride, without worrying what others will say if they can't or don't maintain it.”

This is an important finding, she adds, since much of the research in this field focuses on how women can be at a disadvantage from societal expectations. “Our study contributes to a growing body of research that demonstrates the ways in which gendered expectations are harmful for men too,” she says. “Men are expected to be breadwinners, yet providing for one's family with little or no help has negative repercussions."

Munsch has studied income and gender roles in the past—and these aren’t the results she expected for her latest research.

“I went in thinking that the more economically dependent men were, the more they’d feel threatened and their well-being would decrease,” she says. (Her previous research has found that men are more likely to cheat when their female partners make more than them.) “But since doing this study, I’ve had a lot of conversations with men who are breadwinners who have helped put this finding in context.”

“Men may be more likely to climb the corporate ladder and make more money because they feel like that’s their role,” she continues. “Women don’t feel that social expectation, so I think they’re more likely to only go after jobs they really want.”

That doesn’t mean that everyone would be happier if women made all the money for their households; other research has shown that when men are under- or unemployed, relationships are more likely to end in divorce. Munsch’s study also found that men who contributed zero income to their families had lower psychological well-being, as well.

Rather, she says, this study is good news for families in which both partners work—and where there’s not pressure on the husband to do it all himself. "Decoupling breadwinning from masculinity has concrete benefits for both men and women," says Munsch. “When couples talk about what kind of work dynamic they want in their relationship, they should try to separate those expectations from gender—which can be hard in our society.”

She also recommends that everyone, men and women, really consider why they’re going for a certain job or promotion—and if their family really needs the extra money they’d get from it. (It’s a lot easier to turn down an initial offer than to decide later that it’s not worth it, she points out, once your lifestyle’s already adjusted to your new salary.)

“If your family is doing just fine on the income you have right now, ask yourself if you really need that added pressure and stress,” she says. “If it’s a job you truly want, then great, but you shouldn’t feel obligated to make more money just because it’s what you’re supposed to do.”