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Alpha Women, Beta Men

“I think women earning more than men can be devastating to relationships unless the guy is doing something the wife regards as having cachet, such as academia,” says Betsy, even though she still speaks fondly of her ex-husband and sends him the occasional check.

It’s not as if these women ever expected their husbands to support them completely—at least a lot of them didn’t. It’s just that it never occurred to them that they might be the ones doing all the heavy lifting. And as hip and open-minded as they like to think they are, they were, after all, raised on the same fairy tale as the rest of us—the one where Prince Charming comes to the rescue of Sleeping Beauty.

“I didn’t really give a damn where the money came from,” says Betsy, an attorney. “That’s not the gift I expected a husband to give me. I wanted a romantic figure.” That was until she found him taking money from her wallet and leaving an IOU. “I just didn’t want to be giving him spending money.”

At first, her spouse, a composer, satisfied that fantasy. “It was about his artistic vision,” she says. To this day, despite the fact that he’s refused to make any of the compromises necessary to get ahead—and blamed Betsy for contributing to his failure by being too controlling—she continues to believe in his talent. “I think Tom’s smarter than I am,” she says. “He really gets excited by ideas.”

‘It’s not a matter of how good you are,” says Anna, still trying to fathom why she’s successful and her former husband is not. “It’s a matter of how you get work in this town. It’s about connections and attitude and how you market yourself, and it’s about confidence.”

Among the reasons these women were originally attracted to their husbands—sex appeal, sense of humor, charisma—earning power may not have been high on the list. But that could be because it was a given. Unfortunately, the other qualities start to fade over time if the husband isn’t adding something tangible to the equation.

“It was the artist thing I thought I was getting,” says Anna, who met her husband when she hired him to design her company’s Website. “Sexy was part of it. There was a huge physical thing. I’m not the kind of person to be attracted to a lawyer—maybe next time I will be.

“If he’d really been a starving artist, I’d have been fine with that,” she adds. “But he wasn’t a starving artist in the end. He wasn’t driven to do his art.”

The problem with living in a meritocratic culture such as New York’s—and to the misfortune of those who consider moving the family car on alternate-side-of-the-street mornings a prolific day’s work—is that there are objective ways to measure success, even in fields as traditionally unprofitable as literature and the arts. There are bylines and advances and gallery shows and paid commissions.

“The first year Barbara Corcoran’s income exceeded her husband’s, she pretended it was an accounting error. ‘By the time the third year hit, I was earning five times more than him and it was obvious we had to adjust to the reality.’”

“The successful artist makes money,” Neumann observes. “You’re better off being an academic. People see through the artist shit.

“An academic person might get a ‘waiver,’ ” he adds. “Or a serious, published writer. A primary-school teacher wouldn’t get a waiver. We may think, What a great thing we have men teaching! However, we’re not giving waivers yet for men teaching primary school.”

When it works, it tends to be when the wife’s respect for her husband remains intact. “Women need to admire their partner,” says psychologist Harriette Podhoretz. “They need to find something that doesn’t interfere with their passionate glue, that keeps the marriage charged up and alive.”

One such relationship where the adhesive seems to be holding, against the considerable social stresses of Upper East Side living, involves Laura, an investment banker for a top Wall Street firm. Her husband, Jeff, is an actor, though one you haven’t heard of. He has yet to land a role in anything, even a toothpaste ad.

But the relationship works well, they report, because Laura’s admiration for Jeff, whom she met when they both worked in finance for a giant West Coast media conglomerate, seems complete. “Jeff was never laid off,” his wife explains. “There’s not that feeling that my husband is a loser. We made a conscious decision—he’s got the creative talent—to play to each other’s strengths.

“I know my husband could do my job with his eyes closed,” she says. “He’s really good at math. He’s twice as smart as I am.”

Sometimes it’s the Alpha woman who needs reassurance that she’s still feminine.

“When you’re a big money earner and your husband isn’t, it makes you question how feminine you are,” says Barbara Corcoran, the ubiquitous real-estate broker. “I felt I was less feminine than if I was a supporting wife, or a second fiddle, or ‘Mrs. Higgins.’ The struggle was as much mine as Bill’s.”

Corcoran harks back to her husband Bill Higgins’s glory days. Bill’s career included a stint as an FBI agent—“He had more arrests than anybody ever,” his wife boasts—and a top post in the Naval Reserve during the first Persian Gulf war. His last job was running his family’s New Jersey real-estate company, which he sold in 1997. A teaching fellowship in the Bronx followed, but now he answers to “spouse,” the title on his business card.

“My husband had a very strong identity and was successful in his life,” Corcoran explains. “Thank God for that. There’s no way I can control him. I wouldn’t stay married to him if I felt I could. I can readily take my business personality into the home. But he forces me to be a partner rather than the boss. It’s what keeps our marriage healthy. He won’t give me an inch of satisfaction. He won’t acknowledge my superiority.”

But it took them a long time and a lot of counseling to reach that place.

The first year her income exceeded her husband’s—he was still in the real-estate business at that point—Barbara pretended it was an accounting error. “I explained it away as one good year,” she remembers. “On some level, I was happy it was one good year. I explained away the second good year, too. By the time the third year hit and I was earning five times more than him, it was obvious we had to adjust to the reality.”

Making things worse was the fact that Bill sold his company during that period and found himself adrift. “My mistake was I didn’t have a plan,” he says. “I’d sleep in. Resentment starts to build.” “The real issue became social events,” Corcoran says. “How do you introduce your husband and answer the New York question, ‘What do you do?’ I remember the day he said, ‘I’m retired,’ and I realized we were okay with it.”

Corcoran also reports feeling less pressure among her fellow alpha earners after attending Fortune’s annual “Most Powerful Women in Business Summit,” where she said house husbands were the rule. “I don’t think any of them are married to really successful men,” she says of her peers. “All these men wrap themselves around their wives’ schedules much like a trophy wife would.”

Emily, a senior sales executive, admits she enjoys the control she has over Mark, a struggling photographer. But sex has become an issue.

“I can’t give up the position of empress,” she says. “Everything is in my name. When I’ve gotten really bratty, I’ve said, ‘Well fine, leave,’ knowing he can’t leave. I’ve never had such security in a relationship. There’s no risk of flight. But it’s only giving me a short-term gain. Ultimately, it’s emasculating for him.

“Mark,” she adds, “was the best sex I ever had.” But that was long ago. “We fight instead,” she says. “We’re embroiled in some weird combat. It’s like Lysistrata. I tell him, ‘Your business is going to have to get better faster.’ Until then, I’m withholding.”

When Emily comes home, she doesn’t always want to be the boss. But she says her husband no longer has the authority to take over. “I want somebody to take that power role away from me,” she explains. “Ultimately, it gets down to pretty basic stuff. It’s hard to be the power broker every day and then be the femme fatale. I’m not going to pay the bills—I feel like his mother—and then come home and suck his dick.”