Income Inequality in Marriages

Money issues are often cited as one of the leading causes of divorce. Some experts say that income inequality among spouses, whether it’s the husband or wife who earns more, can cause tension within relationships and make these problems even worse. In my 20 years of practice, I concur with those findings – money issues are often the leading cause of divorce, especially in cases of income inequality among spouses. This imbalance can cause tension within relationships, making problems even worse.

Issues stemming from income inequality are as varied as relationships among couples. For men who earn less than their wives, there can still be a perception that they aren’t fulfilling their traditional responsibilities in the household if they aren’t the primary breadwinner. This can lead to feelings of resentment. A stay-at-home spouse may feel guilty for spending money they don’t perceive as “earning” or may deny their own needs because they feel they don’t have the right to spend the family money. In my practice, I see that money can sometimes equate to power in a relationship, leading to a power struggle between the spouse who earns more and the one who earns less.

When it comes to women, the tide is definitely turning when it comes to earning power within a relationship. This is especially true in states such as Maryland, with a high concentration of female professionals. The number of women out-earning their husbands is rising due, in part, to an increase in education level. According to a 2014 White House report, 24% of married working women make more than their husbands, a stark contrast to 7% in 1970. On the one hand, dual incomes can place less pressure on a marriage since worries about money don’t play as big a role. But it can also provide women with a greater sense of independence and feeling that they can leave a bad relationship, divorce their spouse, and still be financially stable.

Perhaps the most sobering report of the effect income inequality can have on a marriage was published in the June 2015 issue of the American Sociological Review. A study of 2,800 married couples over a ten-year period (2001-2011) found that husbands and wives cheat more in a marriage where one spouse makes substantially more money than the other. This was found to be particularly true of men, with those earning significantly more than their wives more likely to cheat. And it’s thought the small number of men in the study who earned less than their wives may not be comfortable with income inequality in the relationship and assert their independence through infidelity.

However, I will caution that not every marriage works best when there is equal earning among spouses. Obviously, every relationship is different. The primary breadwinner in the household, whether husband or wife, doesn’t matter as much as how couples work together to handle any issues income inequality may pose to their relationship. Marriage is a team effort, so working and planning together is an essential part of overcoming obstacles.

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