Being the Family Breadwinner is Unhealthy for Men

Gendered expectations in marriage are not just bad for women, they are also bad for men, according to a new study by University of Connecticut sociologists.

Using national survey data, researchers examined the relationship between men’s and women’s relative income contributions in marriage, and found that as men took on more financial responsibility, their psychological well-being and health declined.

“A lot of what we know about how gender plays out in marriage focuses on the ways in which women are disadvantaged,” says Christin Munsch, assistant professor of sociology at UConn, and lead author. “Our study contributes to a growing body of research that demonstrates the ways in which gendered expectations are harmful for men too. Men are expected to be breadwinners, yet providing for one’s family with little or no help has negative repercussions.”

Men with the worst psychological well-being and the worst health were those who made significantly more than their partners. In the years when men were their family’s only earner, for example, they had lower psychological well-being and health scores, on average, than in those years their partners contributed equally.

Men are expected to be breadwinners, yet providing for one’s family with little or no help has negative repercussions — Christin Munsch

Breadwinning has the opposite effect for women, whose psychological well-being improved as they made greater economic contributions. Conversely, as they contributed less relative to their spouses, psychological well-being declined. Relative income was unrelated to women’s health.

The study, “Relative Income, Psychological Well-Being, and Health: Is Breadwinning Hazardous or Protective?” by Munsch and graduate students Matthew Rogers and Jessica Yorks, will be presented on Aug. 21 at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association.

Researchers used data from the 1997 through 2011 waves of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth to examine the effects of household income dynamics on psychological well-being and health in a nationally representative sample of married people between the ages of 18 and 32.

Munsch attributes the findings to cultural expectations for men and women.

“Men who make a lot more money than their partners may approach breadwinning with a sense of obligation, and worry about maintaining breadwinner status,” says Munsch. “Women, on the other hand, may approach breadwinning as an opportunity or choice. Breadwinning women may feel a sense of pride, without worrying what others will say if they can’t or don’t maintain it.”

These findings are good news given that both husbands and wives usually work, Munsch says, adding: “Our study finds that decoupling breadwinning from masculinity has concrete benefits for both men and women.”

The researchers considered a number of alternative explanations for their findings, including age, education, absolute income, and number of hours worked per week. However, these variables did not account for their findings.