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Men more stressed when partner earns over 40% of household income

Study suggests social norms can be dangerous for men’s health

Men are least stressed when their wives earn up to 40% of household income but they become increasingly uncomfortable as their spouse’s wages rise beyond that point, research shows.

The study from the University of Bath found men are most stressed when they are entirely economically dependent on their partner.

The research of over 6,000 American heterosexual couples over 15 years showed husbands are anxious when they are the sole breadwinner, shouldering all the burden of responsibility for the household’s finances.

Stress levels decline as their wives’ earnings approach 40% of household income, but as women’s earnings go above that point the study showed husbands’ stress levels gradually increasing.

Dr Joanna Syrda, an economist at the University of Bath’s School of Management, said the findings suggest that social norms about male breadwinning can be dangerous for men’s health.

She claimed the results are strong enough to point to the persistence of gender identity norms and to their part in male mental health issues.

“Persistent distress can lead to many adverse health problems, including physical illness, and mental, emotional and social problems,” she added.

Syrda noted the study also showed that husbands did not suffer psychological distress about their wives’ income if their wife was the higher earner before marriage and the existing and potential income gap was clear to them.

“The consequences of traditional gender role reversals in marriages associated with wives’ higher earnings span multiple dimensions, including physical and mental health, life satisfaction, marital fidelity, divorce, and marital bargaining power,” Syrda said.

The study showed a disparity in the way husbands and wives assessed their own psychological distress and that of their partner. Survey respondents were asked to measure distress in terms of feeling sad, nervous, restless, hopeless, worthless, or that everything was an effort. Men reported better mental health than their wives reported on their behalf.

“This too may be down to gender norms. If masculine social roles preclude the admission of vulnerability, and men are inclined to hide symptoms of stress and depression, it follows that wives’ responses about their spouses will be less accurate,” Syrda said. Wives reported their husbands’ lowest distress level was when they were contributing 50% of the household income, while husbands reported lowest distress at 40%.