How to make your relationship better: pretend you live in the 1950’s!

As women have begun to be more present in high-earning careers such as business and law, among others, more and more articles are published about how (heterosexual) women can’t find men to form relationships with who aren’t intimidated, or made to feel inadequate by, the woman’s financial success compared to their own. In one such article, Katrin Bennhold of the New York Times wonders, “is female empowerment killing romance?”

Sexual attraction in the 21st century, it seems, still feeds on 20th-century stereotypes. Now, as more women match or overtake men in education and the labor market, they are also turning traditional gender roles on their head, with some profound consequences for relationship dynamics.

There is a growing army of successful women in their 30s who have trouble finding a mate and have been immortalized in S.A.T.C. and the Bridget Jones novels. There are the alpha-women who end up with alpha-men but then decide to put career second when the babies come. But there is also a third group: a small but growing number of women who out-earn their partners, giving rise to an assortment of behavioral contortions aimed at keeping the appearance of traditional gender roles intact.

So, does female empowerment kill romance? Sure, so long as we define “romance” as men financially supporting women. Which most of us don’t, and all of us shouldn’t.

Let’s explore the reasons why there might be a problem. The women cited in the article are making more money than their male partners, and those men feel insecure and inadequate as a result, because they’re used to high salaries being the marker of what a good human is, an honor that was once, not too long ago, bestowed primarily upon men. Now the possibility that a woman — a person who was once relegated to the home, subsisting on whatever money her husband was willing or able to provide to the family — may now overtake him in terms of her wages or salary. How do they remedy the situation? Well, they could, together, understand that the feelings of inadequacy are irrational, and that they need to be worked through and eventually eliminated, because women having access to the same means of earning a lot of money is a good thing, and not worthy of feelings of inadequacy and inferiority. They could also take a broader look at their relationship to see what they really want from it, and what they value and contribute. Earning money isn’t the only way that a person contributes to a relationship, be it a casual dating relationship, or a long-term marriage or partnership.

But no,

Ms. Domscheit-Berg, who is also active in the European Women’s Management Development International Network, has three bits of advice for well-paid women: Leave the snazzy company car at home on the first date; find your life partner in your 20s, rather than your 30s, before you’ve become too successful. And go after men who draw their confidence from sources other than money, like academics and artists.

“The more different their activity from your own, the better,” said Ms. Domscheit-Berg, “because that makes an immediate comparison harder.”

Instead, women should hide their financial success from men in order to trick them into a relationship — or get them into a relationship before letting on an intent to be financially successful — or they should hide their financial success in public in order to maintain the perception of sexist traditions whose slow elimination have made it possible for women to gain access to the financial success in the first place.

Couples can, will, and do compromise on a number of issues in order to maintain a harmonious relationship. For example,

Anne-Laure Kiechel is an investment banker in Paris who makes more than five times more than her boyfriend, a communications consultant. She keeps watch on their finances and pays for all big invisible expenses, like vacations.

But in public, it is he who insists on pulling out his credit card to avoid, he said, looking like a “gigolo.”

“It makes me laugh,” Ms. Kiechel said. “But if it pleases him, that’s fine.” (Not long ago, he asked her to book hotels in his name because he doesn’t like being referred to as “Mr. Kiechel” upon arrival; future bookings would be made in both names, she said.)

Timothy Eustis, once a teacher in New York City, is a proud stay-at-home dad and occasional wine consultant, who moved to France with his wife, Sarah, when she was offered a senior management post at the French lingerie brand Etam. Neither has a problem that she is the breadwinner and her salary aliments the joint account. But both cherish what he calls “those little traditions” to keep the romantic spark alive.

“I make an effort to hold the door, I almost always drive the car, and when it’s time to pay the bill, I pay the bill,” he said. “Sarah probably intentionally lets me do these things because she thinks it benefits the relationship.”

Working out arrangements where the man is the one to hand the debit or credit card from the the joint account that the woman largely finances to the server at a nice restaurant seems a small and harmless concession for many people. The larger issue, of course, fails to be addressed.

What also remains unaddressed is the implication that these small moves toward equality between women and men are largely women’s responsibility. We’ve “won” access to high-paying careers (leaving aside the misogyny still rampant in many high-paying fields, making climbing any kind of career ladder more difficult for women than it is for men), but we have to be the ones to make sure that our male partners are comfortable with this change?

I’m sympathetic to the men in these stories. I’m sure that such a change from cultural norms that have been instilled in us from birth is difficult, and the societal reactions to a woman being the sole earner, or the half of the couple who earns the most, can be brutal to men. Wanting to avoid the potential social punishment for not having enough money to financially support your wife or girlfriend is understandable. It’s not helpful, though, to instruct women to maintain the facade of an outdated, sexist tradition– especially when she is expected to do so by publicly denying a part of her identity. Where are the articles instructing men on how to feel less intimidated, how to accept that moves toward equality are good things, how they might go about making themselves feel more comfortable with their wives’ financial success? Why is the responsibility on women to do it for them? What is the man’s responsibility here? As of now, it doesn’t appear that he has any, unless remembering to act macho in the face of public scrutiny is one of them.

What also remains unaddressed is the continued acceptance that money is the only way of measuring “success.” This leaves out entire segments of people who contribute a great deal to society, like artists, musicians, teachers, local law enforcement, and scores of other people in low-paid, but eternally necessary, fields.

Now, I’m writing about this without having ever really been affected by the issue, myself. I’ve never placed any importance on money when it comes to relationships. This could be due to my own interests and extra-curricular activities of choice not requiring a lot of money, or my (usually) inexpensive taste. It could also be due to my amusing history of finding boyfriends at workplaces, where I can expect that me and my mate are probably making the same amount of money. Essentially, the only requirement I’ve ever really made in terms of partners and income is that I don’t have to be responsible for any of their financial obligations. I don’t want to be in a position where I’m paying someone’s rent or their car payment, or buying them groceries. I just require that my partner be self-sufficient, and how that self-sufficiency happens is largely irrelevant, as long as nothing that I consider immoral or unethical is happening. And if I want to do something fun that costs money, I’m always happy to foot the bill. It’s the other person’s obligations that I don’t want. Not too much to ask for.

Interestingly, I, too, would feel uncomfortable with a partner making a significantly higher amount of money than me. The reason, I’ve gathered, is due to the fear that the man in question would think that I was only interested in the relationship with him because of his income. Don’t get me wrong; if my husband’s music career were to take off, or if he were to become a high-paid college professor or author, I’d be more than happy with the increase in income. He would remember, though, that I didn’t seek out a relationship with him when he had that money; we started dating seriously when he was a couch-surfing, unemployed student, which was much more endearing than anything. The fear that he thinks I’m only in it for the money wouldn’t exist.

I’d like to see fewer articles telling women how to make their insecure male partners feel better, and more about how men can fix their problem with this increasing equality themselves, or how couples can work together to both be more comfortable with changing relationship dynamics.

Also check out Jill’s take on this article over at Feministe.

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9 Responses to How to make your relationship better: pretend you live in the 1950’s!

  1. A.Y. Siu says:

    I’m sympathetic to the men in these stories. I’m sure that such a change from cultural norms that have been instilled in us from birth is difficult, and the societal reactions to a woman being the sole earner, or the half of the couple who earns the most, can be brutal to men.

    I don’t mind you being sympathetic, but as a biological male, I know the societal reactions to my wife whipping out the cash or debit card for dinner… it’s not approving, certainly—also not brutal, though. These men just need to suck it up. The charade won’t end until people start pointing out that the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes.

  2. Clarence says:

    April:

    Very nice article, but really a single word sinks it:

    Hypergamy.
    That most women prefer that their men be at least a bit more powerful or successful than them at something (admittedly it doesn’t have to be money; that’s just the “traditional” hall mark in our culture) even if it’s just his strength and confidence is something very easily observed. Males who are poor (look outside your immediate social group and you’ll see this is true) but law abiding (thus not using any of the so-called “dark triad” traits to attract a mate) tend to be invisible to women, when they aren’t outright held in contempt by them. In short, I’m saying that being unconfident, poor, or both are pretty much the death of relationships to men.
    And in marriage, esp, women prefer to “marry up”, I’ve never seen a study dispute this. So if you are earning 90k a year, you are going to have a much more limited pool of men to choose from who earn more than you in contrast with Sally the Receptionist who is earning 30k.

    It’s not all women. Society as a whole , and the traditions of the past nearly always present the man as the primary breadwinner, or absent that, an equal partner. It’s still social death to many men to be known as having a “sugar mamma” in a way that is not present for women who acquire a “sugar daddy”. And..this is what you also missed – to many women if you “snag” a man who earns significantly less than you, that shows that you can’t attract the best men, or that you are stupid, or both. Thus a lower earning male boyfriend or husband is often a social stigma all in itself. You know, I’m sure, what stay at home dads often go through.

    This is the reality. Most women still use money as a signal for provision,protection, all of that. I don’t mind you complaining if something in that article said women were all to blame, but it’s certainly not a man’s fault either. Women are competition to us these days, competition that often seems to get special legal and societal privileges and yet whom we get no credit for “besting” unless the woman herself gives it to us.
    And as for your sex as a whole: women respect only the winners, griping at men because of that is like complaining that the weather isn’t always to your liking. Pointless.

    • April says:

      And in marriage, esp, women prefer to “marry up”, I’ve never seen a study dispute this. So if you are earning 90k a year, you are going to have a much more limited pool of men to choose from who earn more than you in contrast with Sally the Receptionist who is earning 30k.

      You’re right, I would have a more limited pool of men to choose from if I made $90k, if I were looking for a man who made more money than me, exclusively. Which I’ve never done. I figure it goes without saying that I neither encourage, nor participate in, such glaring displays of shallow behavior. Anyway, as you’re referring to the general population of women, I know gold-diggers exist, because I’ve met them. Their existence isn’t a secret, and is certainly not unaknowledged by mainstream society. Kanye even has a song about them.

      And what do “gold-diggers” or women who “marry up” have to do with the women in this article who are telling us about how the men in their lives, or men that they meet that they might like to date, are intimidated by the fact that she earns more than he does? This article was about the guys who are intimidated by their female partners earning more money than them, not about hypergamy. People who “marry up” are doing so on purpose, because they want to, and it’s their goal. Men who are uncomfortable with their wives and girlfriends making more money than they do clearly did not seek out a woman who makes more than he does, and many, as noted in the original piece, actively avoid them in the first place.

      “Gold-digging” is a practice that made a hell of a lot of sense before the 1960’s, when a woman’s husband’s income was the only income she could reasonably expect to live on after marriage. It’s leftover bullshit from the days when women were not able to work in the higher-paying fields and did not have the same access to the opportunity to earn a lot of money as men. Why is this belief still so widespread among men and women? Because men and women are still held to rigid gender norms. If you have such a problem with it, which you very clearly do, then maybe you should get to work fine-tuning your own ideas about how we as a society can move past this annoying little problem that so many feminists and the less hostile MRAs keep getting so upset about.

    • April says:

      Decent article, but the author seems to suggest that, rather than be annoyed with these old-fashioned, sexist men and the perpetuation of their sexist ideologies, high-earning women should just try to see the bright side. Which is a little irritating, and not much better than the original article.

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  4. Cessen says:

    For me, personally, this is more of an issue with finding a partner than it is with a relationship with an existing partner. Basically, I assume that women who are more successful/intelligent/older than me won’t want me. So I feel locked out. I feel intimidated in the sense that I assume they are judging me as not in their league.

    But in reality, these tend to be the women I want to date. Confident, self-assured, can-take-care-of-themselves, passionate-about-something, smart women.

    It’s frustrating. Heh.

  5. Paul says:

    Honestly I think the only problem I’d have with a woman making more than I do, is if *she* would have a problem with it. Or if she goes by the assumption that money I make is ours while money she makes is “hers”

    Also, to go along with this- there has been a great increase in women’s power outside the home, what hasn’t happend (for the most part) is a corresponding increase in male power in the domestic sphere. Yes, many women report that men don’t want to do housework, but what gets left unsaid is that many times women won’t let men do housework unless they do it the way women say it should be done.

    Mom is still “the real parent” and Dad is relegated to “Mom’s Helper”

    So yeah. Man has to learn to let go of some of his “outside” power (and the ego that goes with it) but the trade off is he should get more “inside the home” power to compensate for it. That doesn’t always happen.

  6. Jim says:

    “is female empowerment killing romance?”

    No. It is typical of articles like these, which are ostensibly about men, is that they never bother to talk to any men as if they have anything to say about this – and I don’t mena citing this ro that study where soem men filled out questionnaires, I mean actual interviews with people as indiciduals, as if they mattered. The objectification of men in these articles is blatant.

    If they were to ask, they might get answers like you see form MGTOW types on MRA boards. They don’t rant about female empowerment, because maybe, just maybe, it doesn’t bother them. What bothers them is male disempowerment. They are still feeling their way forward on this, and haven’t yet managed to see that a whole lot of this disempowerment is due to the systematic hollowing out of the US economy, but they have at elast already identified systemic chivalry as a problem. That is huge progresss, at least on the psycho-cultural front.

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