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Guys Who Rely on Their Wives to Be the Breadwinners Die Younger

We spoke with the woman who discovered this phenomenon to find out why

Fact: Work and money are the primary sources of stress for American adults. A 2017 survey found that more than 80 percent of American workers feel stress on the job. And on a scale of 1 to 5 (5 being the highest), more than 42 percent of those surveyed rated their stress as a 3, and nearly 26 percent rated their stress as a 4.

Even worse, this stress is killing people — causing a litany of ailments that include a weakened immune system, ulcers, memory loss, abdominal obesity and an accelerated aging process.

Knowing this, you’d expect stay-at-home dads — as well as the men who are secondary earners in their household (i.e., the guys who spend less time worrying about work and money) — to avoid this crippling stress.

But a recent study, “Spousal Breadwinning Across 30 Years of Marriage and Husbands’ Health: A Gendered Life Course Stress Approach,” claims that’s not the case at all. Instead, the research found that men who earn less than their wives suffer significantly higher rates of stress-related illnesses—not to mention, heart problems and diabetes—than dudes who are the primary breadwinners in their households.

This wasn’t exactly news to the study’s author, Kristen Springer, who found similar results in 2010, while working on a study entitled “Do Wives’ Work Hours Hurt Husbands’ Health? Reassessing the Care Work Deficit Thesis.” To better understand why, we spoke to Springer earlier this week about how she ruled out smoking and drinking as the culprit; the role a tasty torte can play in redefining modern masculinity; and why women can handle their shit at home without its killing them.

What was the inspiration to look at the health of men who are in relationships where their wives are the primary breadwinner?
Women are increasingly entering the labor market, and about one-third of them currently earn more than their husbands. This “gender reversal” goes against the 1950s expectation of men as the primary breadwinner. Some studies have suggested that threatening the masculinity ideals (like being the male breadwinner) is stressful for men and can be associated with poorer health.

But most of these studies look at the wife’s breadwinning at one specific time — even though we know couples go back-and-forth between husband and wife breadwinning — and most studies only look at one health outcome. Our study improves on these limitations by looking at 30 years of spousal earnings and by looking at many outcomes. These advantages can help us be more confident about our finding that being a couple where the wife earns more for long periods of time is associated with poorer health and heart problems.

Who exactly were the couples you studied?
We used data from the Health and Retirement Study, a nationally representative sample of the U.S. population born between 1931 and 1941, and their spouses. Specifically, we analyzed data from 1,095 opposite-sex couples who were married for at least 30 years as of 1992. Most of our participants came of age during the 1950s, a period in which socialization emphasized distinctive career and family pathways for men and women.

Why do you think men who earn less than their wives suffer psychologically and physically? Are they just sitting around watching TV and drinking all day long?
Men who feel their masculinity is threatened often engage in health-harming behaviors to demonstrate their masculinity. We wanted to see if that was happening here, so we controlled for smoking, drinking and body weight; however, even when we controlled for these behaviors — as well as income, age, education, depressive symptoms and the husband’s’ childhood health — we found that men who are secondary earners for long periods of time still experience poorer physical health and are at increased risk of cardiometabolic diseases [e.g., diabetes, heart problems, high cholesterol, hypertension and stroke] and stress-related issues [e.g., back problems, chronic lung disease, psychiatric problems and stomach ulcers]. These results suggest that the stress of violating cultural expectations of masculinity is also a cause.

Do you think these results have anything to do with the fact that men are less pressured to look and stay fit than women?
Masculinity ideals certainly suggest there’s societal pressure for men to look fit and muscular, so I don’t think that’s the problem.

Then why are women who earn less than their husbands able to stay healthy? Why don’t they experience a similarly draining effect?
The idea of being the breadwinner is tightly tied with what people of think of as “manly,” not “womanly.” Therefore, not being the breadwinner is, generally speaking, not as stressful for women.

Since we know being the primary breadwinner (and oftentimes, spending more time at work) is also a major cause for stress-related diseases, how can men stay healthy? This seems like a lose-lose situation.
One important thing to consider about the stress associated with being a secondary earner is that it’s strictly about not living up to masculinity ideals. We can completely get rid of the problem by changing this idea that men should be breadwinners.

How can we, as individuals, do that?
The best thing to do is to continue challenging the idea that men need to be the breadwinner to be a good husband, partner or parent. There are a whole lot of ways to be a good man — for instance, being a good dad, making an amazing torte or volunteering for a great cause. Younger men are starting to embrace these different notions of “manly,” which as our research suggests, can help improve their health.