I Make More Money Than My Boyfriend: Why Women Lie About Their Income

Cole Mayer
A woman holds hundred-dollar bills in front of her face, against a red background.
Reading Time: 4 minutes

My wife makes more than me. We’ve been together more than a decade, since just after graduating high school, and she has made more money since we started dating and then on into marriage. It’s never bothered me, but we seem to be the exception. Millennial women are worried that earning more will emasculate their male partners. In some cases, they are right; as we’ll see, men can have negative reactions while women do their best to obfuscate their actual income.

Lying and Denying: Women Are Becoming Breadwinners

In 2014, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 28 percent of working wives made more than their husbands. In 1987, that number was just 18 percent. In 2015, 42 percent of mothers were the sole or primary breadwinners in a family. The same year, about 38 percent of wives made more money than their husbands. Yet, when asked to report their income for the Census, something interesting happens: both partners lie about the wage gap. The Census found that:

“On average, the gap between a husband’s survey and administrative earnings is 2.9 percentage points higher if his wife earns more than he does, and the gap between a wife’s survey and administrative earnings is 1.5 percentage points lower if she earns more than her husband does. These findings suggest that gendered social norms can influence survey reports of seemingly objective outcomes and that their impact may be heterogeneous not just between genders but also within gender.”

The Census also found that the women who earned more than their husbands, on average made double what women who did not outearn their husbands made. These women were also more likely to have college degrees and to be African American.

Gender Norms Affect Reporting

From their analytical sample, the Census blog noted that 22.9 percent of the couples lived in nontraditional marriages, which they defined as the wife earning more than the husband. As nontraditional marriages become more common, self-reported data could become more unreliable, as self-reporters are influenced by social norms and thus change their numbers. Compare this to the numbers from just a few years earlier, from 2014 and 2015, and it appears that the numbers are going down, with fewer women earning more than their husbands.

Even who reports the data has an affect on the actual numbers. “When a wife earns more, both husbands and wives exaggerate the husband’s earnings and diminish the wife’s. But, husbands overstate their own earnings less than wives do, and wives devalue their own earnings less than husbands do,” the Census’ blog notes. “In other words, survey reports of earnings are more heavily influenced by gender norms when earnings are reported by a person’s spouse.”

Why bother lying to an objective observer? As the Census concluded, gendered social norms are still very much affecting relationships, despite the push by millennials to change existing dynamics. The numbers, the Census noted, were not the same as the couples reported to the IRS. When it comes to taxes, they will correctly report; but when all that is really at stake for them is ego, they buckle to what they believe society accepts more.

Infidelity and Divorce

In 2013 the Chicago Booth School of Business studied 4,000 couples. The marriages where the wife earned more ranked their happiness a full 6 percentage points lower than marriages where the man earned more. They were found to be more likely to discuss separation within the past year.

Adults between the ages of 25 and 39 saw marriage rates at only 51 percent, down from 81 percent in 1970, and the authors calculated that up to 29 percent of that decline could be from the wife earning more than the husband. A woman earning more increases the risk of divorce by 50 percent. It’s even more likely to cause the man to cheat on his wife.

Chores and the “Second Shift”

Something interesting happens to the gender dynamic in households where the woman earns more. While it would be easy to assume that, because the woman earns more, the man would compensate by doing more chores around the house, according to the Chicago study, the opposite is true.

The woman ends up doing an average of 33.5 hours of chores to the man’s 20.8. The researchers posit this is to make themselves appear less threatening to the man. In turn, this can lead to burnout, resentment, and ultimately, the reporters concluded, a higher divorce rate. This so-called “second shift,” having to do chores, take care of children, etc. after work can be equated to having another job. Men don’t want to do it because they feel emasculated, so much so that men who do traditionally “woman-centric” housework are more likely to experience lower intimacy rates.

Millennials Aren’t As Progressive As They Think

Ashley C. Ford, writing for Refinery29, interviewed women earning more than their partners and found that women generally want men who earn more, but that men generally don’t want women who earn more.

“The general consensus of this group seems to be that the theory of being the partner who earns more is appealing to millennial women,” she wrote. “They want their partners to feel happy and free and like they shouldn’t be expected to support the entire family unit simply based on their gender, but reality throws everyone for a loop. Being the breadwinner, or sole earner, raises the stakes for these respondents internally, in the same way it does for men externally. For many men, having a wife who doesn’t work isn’t just a financial burden, but a social status symbol.”

Indeed, the New York Times found that a subset of millennial men, aged 18 to 25, were actually more likely than the previous generation to want their wives to be housewives than working wives. Despite this, a University of Chicago study found that dual-income households had a greater sense of satisfaction between partners, and that their savings accounts were financially healthier. Dual income, no kids, commonly referred to as DINKs, gives a couple a chance to get ahead of finances before committing to having children and all the expenses a child entails.

Talk With Your Partner

Men are still judged by society at large based on their income. Society has been ingrained with the idea that men are breadwinners, women raise children, and the more men make, the better they are. It’s best to simply confront the issue, and talk about disparity with your partner. It’s a team effort, and the tide is shifting as women breadwinners become more common. After all, marriage means successfully blending finances and learning how to deal with each others’ spending habits. By talking, resentment won’t boil over, chores can be managed equally by both partners, and there will be no need to lie about who makes more.

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