New York Magazine has a feature article entitled, Alpha Women, Beta Men – When wives are the family breadwinners. The picture painted isn’t very encouraging. So far, at least, the old gender stereotypes seem to be holding:

Well into feminism’s second generation, there are finally a significant number of women reaching parity with the men in their fields–not to mention surpassing them–and winning the salary, bonuses, and perks that signify their arrival. (The Town Cars idling in front of their children’s schools these days at morning drop-off are almost as likely to be Mom’s as Dad’s.) In 2001, for example, wives earned more than their spouses in almost a third of married households where the wife worked. Yet this proud professional achievement often seems to have unhappy consequences at home.

***As the wives grow more powerful and confident, their husbands often seem to diminish in direct proportion to their success.

Indeed, there’s little evidence to show that as women acquire financial muscle, relations between the sexes have evolved successfully to accommodate the new balance of power. Neither the newly liberated alpha women nor their shell-shocked beta spouses seem comfortable with the role reversal.

For women, the shift in economic power gives them new choices, not least among them the ability to reappraise their partner. And husbands, for their part, may find to their chagrin that being financially dependent isn’t exactly a turn-on. According to psychologists (and divorce lawyers) who see couples struggling with such changes, many relationships follow the same pattern. First, the wife starts to lose respect for her husband, then he begins to feel emasculated, and then sex dwindles to a full stop.


“Sexuality is based on respect and admiration and desire,” says Anna. “If you’ve lost respect for somebody, it’s very hard to have it work. And our relationship initially had been very sexual, at the expense of other things.

“Sex was not a problem for him,” she goes on. “It was a problem for me. When someone seems like a child, it’s not that attractive. In the end, it felt like I had three children.”

“The minute it becomes parental, it becomes asexual,” agrees Betsy. “A friend of mine who works and makes money and whose husband doesn’t told me one day that he was taking $100-an-hour tennis lessons,” she recalls. “She said to him, ‘You are not in the $100-an-hour category.’ She had to spell it out for him. It was totally parental.”

Yikes. Strangely, men don’t seem to feel parental–or lose sexual interest–if their wives make less money than they do.

Of course, this is a magazine article, not a large social science study. But one wonders how widespread this attitude is.

(Hat tip: Matthew Yglesias)

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Anonymous says:

    “The minute it becomes parental, it becomes asexual,” agrees Betsy. “A friend of mine who works and makes money and whose husband doesn’t told me one day that he was taking $100-an-hour tennis lessons,” she recalls. “She said to him, ‘You are not in the $100-an- hour category.'”

    It isn’t the cost. It’s the fact that he wanted _tennis_ lessons. Now, had he told her he was buying a dodge diesel duallie in order to haul his bobcat….

  2. Kate says:

    (Didn’t intend to leave that post unsigned. For some reason the thingie didn’t remember my personal info.)

  3. Blogeline says:

    There is some truth to that. However, I don’t think that only the income increase of a wife will hurt the marriage.
    People get married for the wrong reasons and without knowing each other. Then, they grow apart when their life changes, as is the case when the wife’s salary rises. I have met many women that got married because they were pregnant or they were simply too young and wanted someone to take care of them. Then, they might be able to finish College and find a good-paying job and the whole reason why she once loved her husband doesn’t matter anymore because she doesn’t need him anymore.
    It’s sad.

  4. Hm. I don’t think my respect for my husband has to do with how much money we respectively make. I don’t see any danger there. The danger, if it exists, lies in all those little petty daily transactions wherein one is tempted to have contempt for one’s fellow creatures . . . When this happens to me, I just remind myself that I admire this man very very much, and have been besotted with him since I was 29 years old. Seems to work.