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Homemaker or Breadwinner?

Study questions whether marriages are stronger when women have careers or stay home.


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Are homemakers happier in their marriages than working women?

Are wives happier when their husbands are the major breadwinners?

Is too much equality between men and women bad for marital happiness?

A recent study that suggests the answers are yes, yes and yes has won inordinate attention.

New York Times columnist John Tierney looked at the study and concluded that women "want their husbands to be providers who give them financial security and freedom."

Around the same time, in an op-ed column in the Los Angeles Times, Charlotte Allen, co-editor of the InkWell blog for the Independent Women's Forum, cited the study as proof that "the more traditional a marriage is ... the higher the percentage of happy wives."

Published in March in the sociology journal Social Forces (University of North Carolina), the study by W. Bradford Wilcox and Steven Nock of the University of Virginia is based on data from studies in the early 1990s. The findings are so atypical that the study is what's called an "outlier." As columnist Ellen Goodman reports, when sociologist Scott Coltrane of the University of California-Riverside used the same data set, he found no difference in marital happiness between homemakers and working women.

Over the past 15 years, some 20 studies have looked at the association between women's employment and earnings and their marital happiness. These studies have involved different samples of people and different methods of arriving at results. But they all tell the same story: Employed women are as happy (and perhaps happier) in their marriages as non-employed women, and having an income generally improves a woman's marital happiness.

The divorce rate is another important indicator.

Do working women's marriages fail at a higher rate than those of homemakers? No. In fact, as University of Michigan sociologist Hiromi Ono found in 1998, a woman is more likely to divorce if she has no earnings than if she does in fact earn money. Other researchers find that the higher the household income -- whatever the source -- the higher the quality of family life and marriage.

Studies researching the same subject have drawn different conclusions. But reader beware: black-and-white conclusions can't be fairly drawn.

The Virginia study found wives were happier if their husbands were the breadwinners. Other research disagrees. Some 42 percent of today's married women outearn their husbands. According to divorce data, these marriages are as stable as those in which husbands earn more.

In the 1990s, the gap between husbands' and wives' earnings began to narrow. At the same time the divorce rate -- which had been on the increase -- leveled off. If Wilcox and Nock were correct, and women naturally yearn for male breadwinners, we should be seeing an increase in divorce as women earn more than their husbands. But no such trend exists.

In a 2001 analysis of data from our own study of 300 dual-earner couples, funded by the National Institutes of Mental Health, wives' earnings -- whether higher, lower or the same as their husbands' -- had no effect on their marital happiness. The notion that women yearn for a traditional breadwinner is highly questionable and stands in stark contrast to the large body of literature in this area.

Sociologists Elaine Wethington (Cornell University) and Ronald Kessler (Harvard Medical School) found that women who were homemakers at the beginning of their three-year study and then went to work full time reported a decrease in psychological distress. In contrast, women who were employed full time and then dropped out to stay home reported an increase in distress. Women who had a child but stayed in the work force showed no increase in distress, but women who had a child and dropped out of the work force experienced a major increase in stress.

Wilcox and Nock's study did not collect data from the husbands to determine their degree of happiness or their attentiveness.

"This study is troubling because it ... relies on just wives' reports of marital satisfaction, yet marriage is a two-way street where husbands and wives often don't see eye to eye," Robert T. Brennan, a research associate at Harvard Medical School said in an email.

Overall, the picture of who is -- and who isn't -- happily married is very complex and the simple scenario sketched out by the Virginia study just doesn't tell us much.

Caryl Rivers and Rosalind C. Barnett are authors of Same Difference: How Gender Myths Are Hurting Our Relationships, Our Children and Our Jobs

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