As a psychotherapist with over 16 years of experience working with couples I notice that men are starting to accept different “roles” when it comes to who is the breadwinner. Generally men are becoming more flexible about their wife/partner earning more money than them and many even welcome it.
To make this work experts say a couple needs to have the elements of a relationship based on closeness, care, compatibility and communication. This kind of relationship is the foundation of what is known as a “secure attachment relationship”. The fundamental basis of these healthy relationships are consistent messages of “I support, love and will never leave you even if things upset or makes me anxious at times”.
Let’s take a couple I know called Josh and Melinda*. In the early stages of their courtship Josh and Melinda always joked about how Josh would stay home and look after the kids while Melinda made a huge salary as an advertising and marketing strategist. They both knew that their capacity to earn would be greater if Josh stayed home and took care of the kids as a “stay at home dad” and they dreamed big about what they could do with the kind of money she could generate by pursuing her blossoming career.
Josh always knew at some level that while he would enjoy being that involved with the care of his children, he also knew it would trigger negative feelings inside which related to not fulfilling the role of the main bread winner. Despite these inner feelings Josh knew that times had changed, he also knew other men who were acting as the primary carer and he knew that a present dad was good for the emotional health of children.
Josh and Melinda decided to see a couple therapists to work out how they could do this without Josh’s self-esteem or role as “the man” of the home being threatened. Through therapy Josh learnt that the source of these negative feelings about not being ‘good enough’ caused him to cope by bringing up negatives about why the situation wouldn't work and this led to him withdrawing when they started discussing the plan. As a result Melinda felt distant from Josh and they noticed a “wedge” between them. While she felt this distance at times, Melinda knew that this relationship had all the positive aspects of closeness, care, compatibility and communication that I mentioned earlier.
Therapy helped enormously. Josh learnt that his father had given him a strong message that “you are not a man unless you are earning the big bucks” which proved to be the source of Josh’s negative feelings about himself when the possibility of Melinda earning more than him was mentioned. Josh learnt to block this triggered belief when it came up. He learnt to tell himself that in today’s world stepping up to be the stay at home dad was probably one of the most “manly” things he could do because it is a tough gig sometimes.
Sometimes in my observation as a therapist this kind of issue can’t be sorted out particularly if the male partner bases his worth on how much money he earns. Also, the balance needs to be both ways. Women are expecting more nurturing qualities from their husband/partner who is the breadwinner; in fact many women are demanding it. The woman needs to come home and change “hats” to becoming the giver back to the environment and the family. Problems arise when women lose the balance of also being the nurturer and homemaker.
When roles are changed it really takes a particular kind of couple to be able to orchestrate a situation like this. What is helpful is a clear “contract” about how things are going to work and this needs to take account of the practical and emotional aspects of the situation. Contracts that meet the needs of both people in the relationship and offer clarity about how the situation will work can be enormously helpful. Below are some points to consider when negotiating a verbal contract of communication on how a relationship/marriage is going to thrive under these conditions:
1. We will discuss any issues that arise about how we are feeling about this arrangement.
2. We will listen to each other’s thoughts and feelings and not devalue each other’s need to voice what we need to say.
3. We will get help from a couple therapists if we can’t come to an agreement that keeps us both safe and secure in our relationship.
4. We will both try to normalize the possible negative impacts and understand that any couple can have such disagreements when an arrangement is not the perceived “norm”.
5. We will not allow the opinions of others to shade our understanding of why our unique arrangement suits us and why we want to make it work.
6. We will be clear from the beginning on why we are doing this and make a list of our reasons so we can refer to it together when there are doubts or questions.
7. If the main breadwinner is not feeling they are having enough contact with the children due to work demands we will make arrangements to change this.
The list can go on and on. It’s important that couples come up with your own lists and commit to sticking with it. Negotiating in a relationship around values, family, money, how to live requires particular sensitivity and care. A couple that can manage this well enough between them has a great chance of creating an environment that works. Increasingly, I am seeing couples that come to therapy at the point of making decision and setting up the ground rules before diving into arrangements that can bring up complex internal feelings. By exploring these feelings as part of the initial negotiations a more sustainable situation often results.
* These are fictional but based on real scenarios.
By Melissa Ferrari
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