Alpha Women, Beta Men

Photo: Lego

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 Nielsens—are 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.”

“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.”

Among the more tantalizing facts scientists at the Center for Research on Families at the University of Washington have uncovered is that the more money the wife makes, the more housework she does in proportion to her husband, and it’s not nearly as equitable as when both partners are working. “There’s an association with housework being woman’s work,” says the center’s associate director, Julie Brines. “They’re not going to compound the difficulty by the husband doing more housework.”

Or making them cook dinner. Betsy recalls the first and last time her husband did. “Tom made dinner one night,” she says. “I came to the table and there was spaghetti, in the pot, right on the table. No salad, no bread, no napkin folded at your place. Why didn’t he know about the rest of it? He does know about the rest of it. He’s been eating all his life!”

Once Anna sought a divorce—“You know what my lawyer called him? A parasite”—she, like many other women in her position, was in for a shock. Divorce lawyer Harriet Newman Cohen explains, “The law is supposed to be gender-blind. Therefore, when a marriage is breaking up at the insistence of either the breadwinning wife or the supported husband, the lawyer has to apprise the client that when a big-earner wife comes in, the court bends over backward to be gender-neutral, and it is possible the bum is going to be rewarded for sitting on his hands. You do a flip-flop and make believe she is a guy.”

More often than not, this doesn’t involve alimony. “A lot of men, I’ve noticed, feel embarrassed to ask for alimony,” says Ken Neumann, since they already know their partner’s reaction. “The wife’s idea is, ‘You’re not going to ask for alimony, are you? It’s bad enough I was making more than you.’ ”

The wife’s sense of being the victim of a scam can intensify when children are involved. Even though some freeloaders are excellent fathers, responsibilities for arranging playdates, setting the table for dinner, and soothing children with nightmares inevitably falls to the mother, whether she has a PowerPoint presentation to deliver at eight the next morning or not. “Once you add a child into the equation, the likelihood of resentment is much higher,” observes Barbara Corcoran.

“I wouldn’t mind as much if he’d really been ‘Mommy’ and I’d really been ‘Daddy,’ ” says Anna, referring to the fact that she was forced to cut her husband a check for $100,000 when they divorced—half the amount of the appreciation over the course of their marriage of a house she owned. “But he wasn’t really Mommy. We had full-time babysitting.”

What she remembers with special bitterness was having to return to work two weeks after the arrival of their second child because she was freelancing. As the family’s sole earner, she couldn’t afford to take maternity leave.

Yet even in the best of marriages, where the husbands stay home while the wives go off to work, the women seem unable to avoid doubt over their decision.

“Every day, I ask myself, ‘Will I regret it when I’m lying in my grave?’ ” Jami Floyd admits. The question is exacerbated in the Disneyland atmosphere of Manhattan, where legions of wealthy mothers seem to have carved out quasi-idyllic existences (at least it looks that way from the outside) centered on the rhythms of child-rearing, wraparound babysitting, and frequent lunches and dinners with friends.

“In our circle, there are so many mothers who either work part-time or don’t work,” says Jeff. “When Laura was on maternity leave, I could see her eyes opening.

“She can be a little envious of the relationship I have with our son,” he adds. “There were times he’d say, ‘I don’t want Mommy, I want Daddy to tuck me in.’ It was difficult for her. She felt she was not being a good mother.

“We’ve always made a rule: If we argue, we don’t do it in front of the kids. We had more arguments this year where we have not been able to stop raising our voices in front of them. There were times when I said, ‘I really hope we can make it through this year.’ ”

“It’s hard,” Laura acknowledges from her cab on the way to the airport for a Sunday-afternoon flight to Dallas. “I’d like to spend more time with the kids, but I’m in this crazy, nutso, high-paid job and I’d better go for it. There’s no job security anymore. It’s a struggle with two kids—you can’t take your foot off the gas.”

The combat resulted in an epiphany of sorts for Jeff. “It was a great eye-opener for me to think, Damn! Why doesn’t my wife come home and tell me she appreciates the way I’m unpacking the moving boxes? I probably don’t praise her in a way that she needs it—to say, ‘I really appreciate what you’re doing for the family.’ ”

After four years, the stay-at-home experience is starting to wear thin for Kurt Flehinger, too. “He’s a highly intellectual person, and at the park, people want to talk about poop consistency and the shape of the pacifier,” Jami explains. “I think he’s ready to move on from that.”

She also balks each time someone tells her how lucky she is to be married to “a saint.” “While I applaud Kurt’s forward-thinking and out-of-the-box approach to his life, no one ever comes up to a woman who has two children and says, ‘You’re a saint.’ She’s just a mom doing what’s expected of her.”

“It can be mind-numbing,” admits Kurt, who’s thinking of going back to work, much to his wife’s regret. “I love my children, but in terms of stimulating my intellect, it doesn’t do it for me.”

Ken Neumann recently conducted a divorce mediation in which one of the sticking points involved the stay-at-home husband’s wish to have his wealthy real-estate-professional wife continue to rent him an office even though he doesn’t work. “He left his house in the morning with his kid pretending to go to work,” Neumann recalls.“The wife said, ‘You don’t need the office,’ and he said, ‘I really want our daughter to see me as going to work.’ So she said, ‘Why don’t you just get a job like everybody else?’ Children do pick up when the father is a freeloader.”

Anna says that after she and her spouse split and sold their apartment, her 8-year-old asked her why her new apartment was larger and more luxurious than her dad’s. “I said, ‘Because I pay the rent here,’ ” she recalls. “And she said, ‘You do work harder than Daddy, don’t you?’ Kids are not stupid. I work way harder than Daddy.”

Betsy isn’t sure how being the child of a marriage where the mother is all-powerful will affect her college-age son. “I’m curious myself how it will play out,” she says. “He says to me, ‘I’m 70 percent my father, and the 30 percent that’s you is working real hard.’ ”

For her part, Anna has promised to be more tough-minded in her choice of mate if and when she slips back into the dating scene. “I didn’t ask the right questions,” she laments. “ ‘What have you done? Where have you come from, and how much have you made?’ It’s not the kind of thing one talks about. You believe what you want to believe. When you’re madly in love, you don’t really care about that kind of thing. But I will the next time.”

Alpha Women, Beta Men