After dropping off their children at their East Side private school one morning, Betsy and another mother shared a secret. “It was one of those things where you circle around each other,” Betsy remembers. “I assumed they had a pretty conventional marriage.”
By that she means, as with most of the other families at the school, the other woman’s husband was a chest-beating breadwinner who set off for Wall Street each morning in his Town Car to bring home the six- or seven-figure bacon. Or, alternatively, both husband and wife slaved away at medium-to-high-powered jobs, neglecting their children, to pay for the August rental in the Hamptons and their $25,000-per-kid tuition bills.
The embarrassing truth the other mother confided to Betsy was that she was her family’s sole support. She worked in advertising while her spouse, an “artist”—predominantly in his own imagination, since he had not a single gallery show nor even a commission to show for his talent—puttered around the house. “She kind of indicated they were living on her money, and I was surprised,” Betsy says.
And perhaps a little relieved. Betsy thought she was the only mother in their grade supporting a stay-at-home husband—especially one who refused to polish the surfaces. “It’s like one of those things,” she says, “where you realize you’re married to people who drink.”
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.
From Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Alias to Kill Bill, the culture has for some time been awash in fantasies of powerful women. Fetching as these female superheroes may be—and however potent at the box office and in the Nielsensare these really the same chicks the average, or even above-average, guy wants to curl up next to in bed in real life? Perhaps not. 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.
Anna, a public-relations executive, saw her relationship with her Web-designer husband collapse as she became more and more successful and he floundered. In the last year of their marriage, she earned $270,000 while he brought in $16,000.
“He never spent money that wasn’t his in an extravagant way,” she says while taking therapeutic sips of a Sea Breeze at Tribeca Grill on a recent evening. “But by not helping, he was freeloading.”
She felt unable to confront him. “We were really dysfunctional,” she admits. “We acted as if we were a two-income family. He was in denial, and I was sort of protecting him. He’d pay for groceries. He was running up credit-card debt to make it appear he had more money.”
While they may have been able to avoid the truth while she was off at work during the day, it came back to haunt them at night. “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.”
There are, of course, happy exceptions: couples evolved enough to feel perfectly comfortable acknowledging that the wife is more driven to be the breadwinner, so it makes sense for everyone if he’s giving junior his first feeding while she’s off covering the presidential campaign.
“Kurt has never been someone who defines himself by his job,” says Jami Floyd, a correspondent with ABC’s 20/20, of her stay-at-home husband, Kurt Flehinger. “Nor does he care much what people think about him. He’s not a Master of the Universe type. I am much more testosteronic. I’m much more driven, much more traditionally male.”
But in many cases the role reversal is the work of market forces as much as force of personality; the husband’s career is expected to take precedence, and initially it does, but it’s overtaken by his wife’s. Neither of them saw it coming—nor do they welcome it.
“Maybe the guy’s industry changed and he lost his job,” says Ken Neumann, a psychologist and divorce mediator who has seen his share of depressed dads lately. “Or the wife steps into the right place—something she couldn’t fully have anticipated. The question is, how secure does the guy feel? When the woman earns more, we can’t assume in our culture it’s a nonevent. We’re a long way off from a world where it doesn’t affect the relationship.”