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When she earns more than him

A t almost 28%, our national unemployment rate as a country is in its highest since 2003. South Africa’s unemployment rate has been rising steadily for the past nine years while the cost of living has gradually been climbing at almost twice as much. More than a third of income-generating women in South Africa out-earn their partners. While this is mainly credited to women economic empowerment and specifically Affirmative Action, it’s not surprising when you consider other factors. While a huge percentage of men languish in jail, liquor stores and dropping out of school, about an equal proportion of women find means of self-empowerment in order to live. There are more women in South Africa that pass matric and graduate with reputable University degrees every year than men.

As Mo and Phindi, we are fairly educated to similar University qualification levels. However earlier in our marriage and over a long period, Phindi earned more than Mo with double margins as she worked in a sales environment where she not only earned basic salary, but income on commission too. We never really had an agreement set out to consciously divide our financial responsibilities. It happened automatically that Mo pays for our bond, groceries and municipal service charges like water, rates and electricity. Each one was responsible for the car they drove, and we never bought household appliances on credit. We both so believed in buying stuff cash that we even tore the credit cards we individually had before we got married.

We developed our own culture. One that was more focused on the best for the family, thus getting things done without being worried about who’s supposed to do what. More importantly was Phindi’s commitment to keeping a potentially strained relationship intact by always ensuring that the matter is never raised as an issue even when we’re by ourselves, let alone in public.

Fact is, men in our South African culture and society broadly aren’t always ready to relinquish their traditional breadwinner status with grace. There’s an abundance of studies that show men in marriages where the woman earns more are more likely to cheat, become substance abusers, perpetuate sexual dysfunction at home, suffer from low self-esteem and more likely to get divorced. The more traditional a man’s idea of marriage and family, the more likely it is that he’ll be uncomfortable if his wife earns more than he does. But even guys who are more egalitarian in their approach to life may get uncomfortable when confronted with the reality of being out-earned by their partners.

When the woman earns more, we can’t assume in view of our universal culture that it’s a non-issue. We’re very far from a world where we should all assume that it wouldn’t affect the relationship.

F urthermore you’d think that men who don’t contribute as much financially to the household might make up the slack in other ways, perhaps by taking care of the kids or handling more of the household chores. But that’s generally not the case. Women in general do more household chores than men and that doesn’t seem to change even when she’s also the primary breadwinner. Generally women who out-earn their husbands take on an even greater proportion of household chores. A woman who’s already worried that her bigger income wounds her husband’s ego might not want to pressure him to take on stereotypically female tasks, like laundry, dishes and cooking. Many couples in which the woman is the higher-income earner are very much on their own, inventing a family life that is radically different from that which they knew growing up. This further presents major challenges in a society like ours where women are traditionally and culturally seen as secondary to men. And if your partner is highly affected by this misnomer, then you’re up for some serious turbulence ahead. Often, partners are surprised to find that each clings to their “traditional” role, even when such roles are no longer practical.

A woman who puts in an 8-hour day at work simply can’t be expected to come home and do the laundry, prepare the kids for school, prepare supper, clean the house, do the homework…all by herself and is still expected to be fresh and energetic in the bedroom too. Redistributing roles and responsibilities at home is not as simple as saying, “you take out the garbage bin, I’ll sweep the floor.” It often gets down to people’s core beliefs about who they are and what they need to be doing to be a real grown-up man or woman. The reactions people have to such things are often distressingly irrational, even to themselves.

The often depressing economic realities of our country challenge marriages to abandon traditional beliefs for new ones. The key is not who makes how much, but whether you share values, have a team mind-set and are in agreement on how money decisions will be made irrespective of who brings the bigger and juicier stake home. You’re not in a competition for who out-earns the other. You’re in a team, and therefore should function as a collective against any adversity that seeks to threaten the peace and stability of your marriage.

At the end of the day, it boils down to transparency, maturity and security. The wife, who earns more than her husband, has a responsibility to provide an emotional safety net for him. His God-given ego as a man, is intricately linked to his earning capacity. And a man whose wife often serves as his major ego booster makes for a good husband. Ask Mo, he knows a thing or two about this situation.

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