Women are often at the center of the discussion around balancing life between work and family, but men struggle with this issue as well. “Society tends to treat work-family conflict as a problem that is…
Women are often at the center of the discussion around balancing life between work and family, but men struggle with this issue as well. “Society tends to treat work-family conflict as a problem that is experienced only by women,” wrote Erin Reid, an associate professor at McMaster University’s DeGroote School of Business in Ontario, Canada, in an email. “But many men too want to spend meaningful time with their family, and wear out if they devote themselves wholly to their work over long periods of time.”
Indeed, 52 percent of working fathers in the U.S. report that balancing work and family is somewhat or very difficult, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center survey. (Among working mothers, 60 percent would say the same.) Also, since 1970, the share of couples with young children (under age 18) in which both parents earn income has risen from 49 percent to 66 percent.
That’s what motivated Reid to study how men identify their roles within their families. She did so by interviewing 42 heterosexual married men ranging in age from their mid-20s to early 60s and working at various levels within the same global strategy firm. The unnamed employer is reported as being well-known for expecting great devotion to work, requiring both travel and long hours.
Despite that expectation, 60 percent of the men interviewed identified as “breadsharers,” whom Reid defines as husbands who approach their marriages as egalitarians, valuing their spouses’ work as equally as important as their own. The rest identified as “breadwinners,” which is the traditional role assigned to men and prioritizes his career over both her career and his time with the family.
Reid found that whether men were breadsharers or breadwinners did not depend on how much their wives earned. Breadsharers value their wives’ careers regardless of what she earns. For example, one breadsharer explained to Reid that he earns more than his wife does, but only because she doesn’t currently work full time — he estimated that their daily pay rate is equal. Another man whose wife also worked part time noted that his pay covers 75 percent of their household income, but still recognized her contribution as “crucial” to achieving their lifestyle: “If it wasn’t for her 25 percent, we wouldn’t be making it,” he told Reid.
On the other hand, even in situations where the wives earned more than their husbands, breadwinners would still prioritize their own careers and diminish the value of their wives’ work. One man in this situation explained to Reid, “Work-life balance is less of an option for the guy if he feels the need to be successful and provide for the family.”
Clearly, then, work means more than just a paycheck. “We also assign salaries a social meaning, which shapes how we regard and interpret the value of those earnings,” Reid says.
In other words, whether you are a breadsharer or a breadwinner depends on what money means to you. And that is often defined by what financial advisor Richard Kahler, co-author of the book “Wired for Wealth ,” calls “money scripts,” which he defines as “subconscious beliefs about money or an aspect of money that touches every decision we make.”
For example, he asserts that a breadwinner would likely be ruled by a “money status” script — one of the four major money scripts. (The other three are “money avoidance,” “money vigilance” and “money worship.”) That means he has a tendency to correlate his self-worth with his net worth, Kahler says.
Plenty of people do this to some degree, but problems tend to arise when a person follows his script strictly regardless of the situation. “That’s when we run into a lot of pain and suffering — when we don’t have flexibility around our money scripts,” Kahler says.
So if a breadwinner is a strict “money status” guy, he’d be driven to reach the highest tiers of wealth — regardless of how it may affect his relationships with his wife and family. And certainly, he would not allow himself to take second place or share the first-place position in terms of earnings within his own marriage.
This mindset often lends itself to marital discord. “Some men who identified as breadwinners mentioned that they had conflict with their wives about how unreliable their commitment to work made them: the many hours they put in, the unpredictable travel, the time away from family and the challenges their wives faced in organizing their own working lives,” Reid says.
Breadsharers, on the other hand, seem to be more flexible with their money scripts, Kahler says. Even if he has a money status script, he can adapt it to fit his situation and recognize that his wife’s earning power is not a threat to his own net worth or self-worth.
In fact, it can enhance both. One of Reid’s subjects (the same one who noted that he and his wife earn the same daily pay rate) noted that having two incomes feeding the household budget gave him more confidence to work on his own terms. When his company asked him to relocate overseas, he didn’t want to but feared he might lose his job if he refused. Still, he felt confident that he could walk away because he knew his wife could pick up the financial slack in the worst-case scenario.
Financial planner Natalie Colley sees this as a great benefit of breadsharing. “Being in a breadsharer relationship gives the family more options to be flexible in their careers, possibly allowing one partner to take a step out of the workforce for a career change or a sabbatical,” she says. “Breadsharing households further diversify their risks when they have different careers.”
Of course, breadsharers are not without their problems. “Some men who identified as breadsharers worried about how they could move up in their careers without putting their own careers ahead of their wives’ careers,” Reid says. “They wanted to accommodate their wives’ careers, but were also conscious of the expectations they faced in their workplace.”
Employers can help solve this problem, along with work fatigue that may trouble breadwinners and men and women alike. “These expectations of total commitment to work as necessary for career advancement are simply not reasonable for many people and can be in fact quite damaging,” Reid says. “Employers need to find a way to manage work hours and travel in ways that allow people to spend time with family, rest and rejuvenate themselves.”
As for navigating your financial relationship with your spouse, whether you’re a breadsharer or breadwinner, you first need to discover your money scripts and how they affect your career and life choices. “We don’t change as a couple,” Kahler says. “We change as individuals.”
Once you understand your own money mindset, you can then work on meshing it with your partner’s. And the best way to tackle that challenge is to be open and honest about your financial goals and what roles you each want to play in achieving them.
“Marriage is an economic partnership,” Colley says. “And it is critical to the health and happiness of both partners that finances be openly discussed on a regular basis and in a nonjudgmental way.”