The Breadwinner Conflict

Written by
Michael Wells

The Breadwinner Conflict

For Couples with Financial-Provider Discrepancies

Written by
Michael Wells

The Breadwinner Conflict

For Couples with Financial-Provider Discrepancies

Written by
Michael Wells
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QUESTION
“My wife makes me feel terrible because I make less than her and can't support our family.
What should I do?”

This question can be interpreted in two different ways, so we'll look at both.

When you say “my wife makes me feel terrible,” do you mean…

  1. That your wife is actively trying to embarrass you, ridicule you, make you feel stupid and weak?
  2. Or do you mean that your wife is just making a good living, and has taken your breadwinner role - and as a result of that alone, you feel terrible?

It is important to distinguish which situation you're facing, because these are two different problems, with two different solutions.

You may need to address both.

Let’s start with the second problem first, as it’s simpler to deal with;

You feel “less than” because your wife is  currently more successful at her career than you

If you're struggling with this, consider yourself a lucky man.

You're lucky because the only problem you have to solve is to let go of the traditional cultural expectations you have built up in your own head.

What you're dealing with here is not a relationship issue, or a problem with your wife...

You're experiencing an identity crisis.

You're simply trying to figure out your role in your relationship, and how to feel that you are of equal "value" to your wife in your family.

Your feeling of being “less than” is not something that she is making you feel. You are feeling those feelings all by yourself, and they are in response to the situation.

The best response here is to look at the situation honestly. You will probably see these truths;

  • Hey this feels weird and uncomfortable. I really don't like it...
    But it's not hurting me one bit. As long as my family has what it needs, and my wife is happy in this situation, I can let go of my expectations and the traditional family-model.
  • My society, or my family, or my peers, think this is unusual.
    But so what? Let them be jealous that I have an intelligent, capable, career-oriented wife. They are probably just jealous.
  • My wife is doing nothing wrong, she is awesome and makes my life easier.
  • Still I feel I should be doing more.
    What can I do to improve myself, to improve my own career and my own contributions to my family? Then I will feel happier about myself. I need to work towards that.
  • Besides that, there is nothing I need to worry about,
    my wife is perfect, I wouldn’t change a thing.

Write those down, and reflect on those daily if you need to.

In most families, it's important that both partners are contributing essential value to the family. But what kind of value, and how they do that, is a very flexible thing. If you find yourself suddenly laid off, and stuck at home, there are a lot of ways you can contribute to your family.

If you feel an identity crisis in your relationship, your goal should be to talk to your partner, and to find those ways you can contribute more to your family.

You're also lucky because your wife is being a great partner, doing her best to give all she can to your family and your relationship.

Don't resent that.

Enjoy that. Appreciate it fully. Show her your appreciation.

Now let's look at the second situation...

Your wife is actively embarrassing you and ridiculing you

First, note that I said "wife" specifically here.

Your situation may be different, but I wanted to emphasize "wife" in this discussion for a specific reason.

In many societies, there is still an expectation that the husband's role emphasizes protect-and-provide responsibilities, while the wife's role emphasizes home-making and raising children.

All of these things are essential to make a family work well, but this traditional pattern is far less rigid than it used to be. Many husbands raise kids, many wives are breadwinners, and the family responsibilities are more flexibly shared. In a homosexual relationship, gender roles take on an entirely different shape.

No matter your family approach, if you are experiencing ( or delivering ) a lot of stress around the breadwinning role, recognize that this is an essential problem to solve.

If you don't, it can destroy your relationship.

For the husband-

Social pressure is hard, and your wife likely feels that pressure too. She may think, as a result of her culture, beliefs, and life experience;

  • "My husband should be the breadwinner in the family."
  • "I feel like he should be trying harder and doing more."
  • "I feel worried if I lose my job, or someday need to stop working for the family and the children - what will happen to our home and family without my income?"
  • "I don’t see my husband making changes and I don’t think he understands how much this concerns me."
  • "I'm starting to panic."
  • "Therefore, I must tell him, everyday, that I think he should be working harder, or change his job, or do something to make me feel more secure."

I want you to think deeply about her perspective on this situation, the cultural expectations she has, how she was raised, and how her parents ran their family when she was a child.

The better you understand these things, the better you'll understand what she's feeling.

For the wife-

I fully understand why you feel so stressed.

Your security and the security of your family and your children are essential. However this is equally important to understand-

Any form of resentment, disparagement or ridicule in your relationship is going to cause more lasting damage to your relationship than any financial hiccups ever will.

If you're facing this, and you want your relationship to survive- it's well worth investing in a few counseling sessions for both of you.

Whatever happens in life, whatever challenges you face, you need to learn to face them as a team with your family, and not as adversaries.

Solving your problems, together

How are you and your wife are communicating?

Communication is one of the biggest challenges for couples.

If either of you feels stressed, and perceives that your partner doesn't understand or doesn't care, you will begin to feel despair and resentment quickly.

The reality is, blame and accusation will never make you a better team, so watch out for those emotions. You want to redirect that fear, anger and frustration into useful discussions, which result in productive actions.

Learn to understand each other's thoughts and feelings, and to work together as a family.

If you're really struggling with this, get outside help. A good relationship counselor can help tremendously with your communication problems.

Without the ability to discuss problems, explore solutions, and make plans, what hope can you have to change things?

If your communication is good, I encourage you to dig into these items...

What is causing the worry for your wife?

Discussing, acknowledging, and understanding your wife's concerns are half the battle.

  • Is this a legitimate problem, or is it primarily social pressure?
  • What are her friends and family like?
  • How did she grow up, and what are her cultural expectations?

Understand her pain, as clearly as if it were your own.

Learn to work together

If your wife is complaining every day, then she's feeling very distressed.

Recognize and discuss her concerns- but it's equally important to take action.

If you're looking for a new job, or a career change, invite her to help you with those things. She can put her energy to much more effective use if you're working as a team.

Without that cooperation, she may be too distant from your efforts to resolve the problem and feel like you're not making progress. She may begin to suspect that you're not putting in the necessary effort.

Before long, she will begin to feel that the problem isn't the employers, or the job market, or your skills, or the economy... it's you.

Prove her wrong.

Life has challenges. For a couple, those experiences can strengthen your relationship, or weaken it.
Learn to work together rather than against each other.
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First published on 
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November 2, 2021

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