What Happens When a Woman “Marries Down”

We'll make it, I swear

by Rachel Gabrys

woman sitting in a pile of balloons

When I tell someone I don’t know well that I’m engaged, the first question they ask is, “What’s his name?” and then inevitably, “What does he do?” When I answer that he works in the warehouse of a big-box electronics store, they usually ask, “Oh, is he in school?” My doctor, my professors, that chick who sat next to me in the class I can’t remember—none of them seem satisfied to hear that he works in a job that is neither meaningful nor pays well.

My Mother, The Accidental Breadwinner

I grew up in a household where my mother was the breadwinner. My father is a self-employed contractor who often found himself sitting around at home when business was slow (and in the nineties, business was slow a lot). My mother never aimed to be the breadwinner of the family. She was raised in poverty in a very traditional household, but she is wickedly smart and made it through a very competitive university program, and has always out-earned my father. They married at a time when construction was profitable and my father was considered highly skilled labor.

As the economy changed, my father’s high school degree (which he admits he would not have without gym and shop credits) meant less and less. And my mother has often expressed her regret and dismay that she married my father and became the de facto breadwinner. My mother was a member of a generation of women trapped between traditional gender roles and a changing economy, and while she continued to take on most household and child-rearing responsibilities, she also took on the role of breadwinner.

As I grew older my mother counseled me to find a partner with a good education and a strong work ethic. She warned me of the pain she experienced when leaving an infant at daycare for the long hours needed to earn enough to support a family. She encouraged me to pursue my own education, but also not to settle for a partner who didn’t earn enough so I could stay home while my children were young.

Me, The Intentional Breadwinner

When I first met my partner, he was taking a college program in technology, which pleased my mother enough for her to approve of my dating him. We met at the electronics store we both worked at part-time while we were in school. Five years later, he still works there, now full-time. He never finished his college program and has no interest in the field. He works hard and puts in overtime hours every week to support our family while I work my way through graduate school. I love him immensely and I am deeply grateful for the mind-numbing work he does to earn enough for us to pay vet bills and buy groceries.

My fiancé could be resentful that I have only ever worked part-time, but he is not. Instead he supports me as I work through my very demanding program, and we split the chores fifty-fifty so I can concentrate on my schoolwork. During exam periods, he pretty much takes on a hundred percent of the domestic drudgery. He is unfailingly kind and generous to me, my family, and those around him. He loves and cares for our dog. One day, he will make an amazing father.

I am marrying him because of all these things. And I am marrying him knowing that after I graduate, I will significantly out-earn him. He and I have both recognized that I will likely always be the breadwinner, and we’re okay with that. My work is meaningful, it pays well, and I would do it whether or not I needed the money. Other people, however, are not okay with this setup. You can see it in the questions they ask about my fiancé.

Women Are supposed to Marry Up

Women are “supposed to” marry up. A woman with multiple degrees marries someone with the same or more education, not less. She marries someone whose work is as or more important than hers, not less. Even if she earns more, it’s because he works in a low-paid but meaningful job. People are deeply unsettled to see a woman with so much potential “marrying down.”

Here is the problem: While we are part of a generation that has seen the economic prospects of women rise significantly, while we are part of a generation in which women are considered more equal to men than ever before, where womanhood is defined in more ways than ever before, my fiancé is still only defined by one thing: his job. No one assigns any value to his other contributions—his relationships, his marriage, his family—because effort in those areas by men is not validated. Stay-at-home dads are asked if they are “in transition.” No one asks a man at a dinner party how his kids are doing in school. They ask, “So what do you do?” People are not okay with a man not having career ambitions, with a man not climbing the ladder. They ask if he’s planning on going back to school. They offer to set him up with an internship. They give him the card of someone they know.

After years of my mother’s voice warning me not to marry someone with stagnant economic opportunities, I too have asked my fiancé what he really wants to do with his life, what career would satisfy him. Because in my mind, no one really wants to work in a warehouse. He told me that he works to earn money. There isn’t really any job that would fulfill him, because the things that fulfill him are at home, not at work. He works so he can be with me, so he can contribute to our family, so he can pay the vet bills. And really, that should be okay. The man I love doesn’t define himself by his career; he defines himself by his relationships with those around them. That’s downright admirable.

Who is anyone to say that he must define himself in a certain way?

The Future Is Female Us Together

I am not making a mistake by marrying a man who earns less than me. I am not making a mistake by marrying a man who isn’t as educated as I am. We are the product of a changed economy and a shift in gender roles. I am not trapped between the two as my mother was. My fiancé and I have never subscribed to traditional definitions of gender. The economy we entered had already changed. I am not the breadwinner by default, but by choice. We are choosing our own roles within our family and crafting our own identities.

Take my hand, baby. We’ll make it, I swear.

This post originally ran on APW in January 2014.

Rachel Gabrys

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  • Abby

    I’m in LOVE with this piece. In prep for our wedding, we spend a lot of time talking about contribution in marriage both fiscally and otherwise. We are both the product of households where one parent unfairly burdened the other by not working for long periods of time.

    The amazing thing is, despite being shaped by those experience, our views on contributing to a marriage aren’t very money-centric. We both are in good jobs, although he will {probably} eventually out-earn me. I asked him if that would bother him and he was quick to point out that in order to achieve that, i will have to support us through 2 intensive years of his MBA program.

    We’re also strong believers that everything is in flux. We know from our families that jobs are gained and lost, household work is often times shared well and other times not. Knowing all that makes us grateful for what we have now, and ready to adapt when things change in the future.

    • Sara P

      +1 to your last paragraph. My husband and I were both working when we got married, and he is more educated (masters to my bachelors). He got laid off in May, and hasn’t found a full-time job yet, and isn’t even sure he wants to. There’s a decent chance he’ll be a stay-at-home dad while I’m the breadwinner. Life is long – you have to be able to roll with this stuff.

  • Mrrpaderp

    Love this article and this topic. I’m the breadwinner and I know a lot of female breadwinners. I was also single for most of my career, and so people felt “safe” making judgey comments to me about other women’s spouses.

    So here are my observations. Women are expected to marry up, yes, but what exactly “up” means isn’t necessarily measured by a paycheck. It is, to a large extent, measured by education and prestige. No one side eyes women who are married to professors, non-big 4 accountants, or engineers, even though they might make significantly less. But a woman who marries someone in retail, the mail room, or a warehouse, as the article suggests, is definitely looked down upon by some. People snidely say things like, I heard she had to buy her own ring, He didn’t even contribute to their down payment, She must have bought that suit for him. If a woman marries someone who’s very successful in, say, construction, his paycheck is seen as a redeeming factor. “Well he’s a roofer, but he owns his own company now and he makes MILLIONS.”

    I think some of it is values and, of course, sexism. Education and prestige are what get you into biglaw, so people assume that you value them so highly that you would never dream of marrying someone who didn’t feel the same way. The reason men don’t suffer this is because it’s assumed they’ll want a SAHM – and so his spouse is reduced to a different set of stereotypes. Is she educated enough to educate children? Dresses well? “Takes care of herself” (which means she’s skinny and fit)? A male lawyer’s wife is a commodity. A woman lawyer’s husband is supposed to be an asset. Either way, these attitudes reduce marriage to a business interaction, not a family unit.

    • Sarah E

      Really good thoughts on the intersection of sexism and classism.

    • Arie

      Excellent comment, thank you. I run into the “what exactly up means isn’t necessarily measured by a paycheck” a lot in my relationship. My partner does not have a bachelor’s degree, but makes considerably more money than I do because he made shrewd decisions about what skills would be marketable, and learned those skills better than most people in his field. He does not have an interest in formal education, but he is about as smart as they come. Still, I find myself defending his ambition and intelligence with his salary, which never feels quite right. No matter how much money he makes or how many books he reads, people are still going to turn up their noses at him because he didn’t attend a fancy four-year school.

      • tr

        Mine DID attend a decent four year school (plus grad school), and yet I still find myself in this boat! Sometimes a person gets a decent degree and then realizes it’s not for them. That’s what my husband did–he got his MBA, only to realize after a few years in “respectable” finance jobs that sitting in an office all day is not good for his mental health. So now he works construction. He makes more money than he did when he was a loan officer, yet I always find myself justifying it to other people as “He finds it really rewarding and meaningful to work with his hands.”
        Bullshit. He does not find his work particularly rewarding and meaningful. Nor is it prestigious. It does, however, pay our bills without putting him in a perpetually horrible mood the way that white collar work did.

        • LJ

          I had a similar career path myself. I loathe the idea of a “meaningful” career. Someone’s gotta be the garbage [wo]man, ya know? We can’t all work at nonprofits that happen to pay a living wage.

          IMO, “meaningful” or “passionate” careers are a construct given to millenials by babyboomers and all it got me was a BSc that gets me minimum wage jobs…. I am now a legal support staff (no degree necessary) and I love it. I get to be anal retentive about typos and grammar and exercise critical thinking and problem solving – it uses lots of my skills so I have pride in my work, but I would be kidding myself if I thought it was truly meaningful.

          It’s field-specific office administration. Someone’s got to do it, why does it have to be meaningful?

          I know that’s a bit of a tangent from the gender end, but I hate that you have to defend your husband on that and I hate that anyone has to defend that. My fiancé is on his third attempted career (had to end his 2 previous due situations beyond his control) and it is the career he wanted as a highschooler – it is his passion – turns out that his maturity and personality are a great fit and he’s earning good money now after “paying his dues” for a few years of low pay. Now that he has a “passionate and meaningful” career in a fine-arts field that he’s been a hobbyist in for decades he gets all these kudos from friends…. like I am super proud of him and he busted ass, but THAT is the standard? Bleah.

          • laddibugg

            “I am now a legal support staff (no degree necessary) and I love it.”
            Hm. I feel there are a lot of jobs where a degree shouldn’t be necessary, but companies use degree status as a way to weed out applicants.

          • LJ

            You raise a good point.

            Yes, there is a 2-semester (8 month ish) Legal Administration certificate that is recommended (or equivalent work experience), and has been recommended for the last 10 years but mostly people 15+ years older than me at work did this right out of high school. Either way, I and everyone I know who has been hired in this field has this 8 month certificate but very few have a bachelors. It is not a BSc, but it is a required education.

            That said, in my case, yes I was picked for my SPECIFIC department because of my BSc. Not because of anything I studied, but because it showed a maturity/life experience level that they felt my department required. Having been here for awhile now, I agree and I love my department.

            It basically comes down to how competitive the industry is at the time/how the unemployment rate is when they’re hiring.

            How does this relate to work being meaningful to you? Curious as to why you latched onto that part :)

          • Eenie

            Yup. I’ve seen people encouraged to get a Bachelors Degree in basketweaving (paid for by the company!) so they could get that next promotion they deserve but can’t get now because it strictly requires a four year degree. So stupid.

          • sofar

            THANK YOU! I know a few people who work service jobs to save up money and travel the world/support their families/pay the bills while writing their novels/a variety of reasons. And they get judged for it all.the.time by well meaning folks who think it’s *so* helpful to suggest they “go back to school” or “aim higher.”

            I agree that “meaningful” and “passionate” careers are a load of crap fed to us by our parents’ generation, ESPECIALLY because they were pretty quick to throw it back in our faces during the recession: “You gotta hustle! Stop whining! Just get a job flipping burgers and ride this out!” Uh… didn’t you tell us our whole childhood that flipping burgers wasn’t “good enough”?

            Honestly, I think the most meaningful job out there is the house cleaner. You’re actually saving people time they can spend on other things and giving them the best thing of all — a clean home! But our society judges “the cleaning lady” and treats her like dirt and doesn’t consider it a “meaningful” job.

          • LJ

            I know servers who make almost as much as I do, minus the benefits and so forth – more if you consider that most don’t declare 100% of their tips. $10/hour plus tips can easily hit $30/hour at a bar….. why are we putting those positions down again? :(

            You hit the nail on the head – babyboomers got a pretty easy economic slide through life in that the majority can own property and didn’t have the post-secondary debt that we have. Ugh I could go on. Lots of anger at my high school career counsellor for telling me to follow my dreams. You know what my dreams are? Financial stability, health benefits and adequate vacation time. “teaching people about nature” is not gonna get me any of that.

          • Beth

            It’s all generational trends. Baby boomer’s parents wanted them to do soul-sucking jobs and they rebelled against that.

            The pendulum is swinging the other way now.

        • Paul

          love it. thanks for sharing.

    • Amy March

      Yes agreed. It’s not just the money, its the job and the lack of education and the lack of interest in doing something else or changing. For me, those all together wouldn’t work, just too great a value difference, but any of them individually sure I could wrap my head around that.

    • guest

      Interesting. My husband works in big law and I have definitely heard these comments about wives also. Comments along the lines of – well young pretty girls are okay to date, but he’s going to marry someone with a real career right? It is of course judgmental, but a sign of gender equality maybe? And if you marry a woman who isn’t seen as your intellectual equal, it will certainly be talked about. I wonder if we live in different parts of the country. . .

      • heyqueen

        I don’t know if it’s gender equality or more people perceiving a woman to be a gold digger if she’s marrying up and isn’t intelligent or well spoken.

    • AmandaBee

      Good point – I’d also add social class as playing a lot into it. Paycheck is one form of social prestige, but education and high-prestige professions are another. “Marrying up” to me seems to come from the oldschool belief that women’s ticket out of their social class was to marry out of it. Now that we’ve got other options (sort of, but that’s another story), the mentality is still a bit slow to shift.

    • LaikaCatMeow

      My husband and I got courthouse married so he could move overseas with me for my new job. I have an MA, he is a welder and college dropout. He won’t be working during our time abroad because of visa allowances, meaning I’m the breadwinner.

      The mean, hurtful and judgmental comments are just that — mean and hurtful. Aside from the snide remarks about our educational and financial disparity…We don’t have rings, because we couldn’t afford them and my husband was upset that his feminist wife suddenly wanted wedding rings. We wanted to have a ceremony at the 1 yr mark, but couldn’t because anywhere affordable in our hometown was already booked (April is popular, I guess). We don’t even have pictures. If I had $1 for all the people who have told us we didn’t have a “real wedding” or we aren’t “showing we are committed to each other” or looked down upon us for not having wedding rings or told me they thought “I would do better”, I’d have enough money to put on the damn “real wedding” everyone is expecting.

      I’m already bummed and insecure we had to rush and we couldn’t even get photographs of us taken (We have a Polaroid from the actual day, that’s it) or celebrate with friends. All my friends are having big lavish weddings, and all we have is a 3 x 5 picture. People don’t know how hurtful their supposedly “helpful” comments can really be.

      • LucyPirates

        A colleague’s partner died of a shock heart attack this week (mid 30s) and in one fell swoop she has lost her love, and also her future (they were imminently planning children and wedding)
        I took a very sharp lesson from this that you just have to live your life now and think a lot less of what others may be rude enough to say. Not meaning to be preachy at all but I am hugging my fiance a lot more and genuinely not caring if our 2 month hence wedding is not good enough.
        Frame your polaroid and remind yourself that he is your husband and you got to marry him before setting off on a great adventure. All the best

        • Paul

          You, I like. How’s she holding up?

  • Sarah E


  • Rebecca

    Yes! And also – having both spouses have “meaningful careers” presents sooo many logistical problems.

    If either my fiancé or I were not pursuing very specific, and rewarding, career goals, we could actually be living in the same city right now instead of one year into two years of distance. It really sucks. I would not trade my fiancé for anyone else, so this is our life, but I can absolutely see the grass is greener.

    And, in the future, one or both of us will have to make concessions about our careers because we refuse to do any more distance once we are married. I think we will be pretty egalitarian about those choices, but, when the woman is expected to marry up, it kind of implies that his career will mean more, and the woman should make the sacrifices. So, boo.

    • tr

      This is so true. We always talk about the wage gap, but honestly, one of the huge contributing factors is that when well educated women do “marry up” the way they’re expected to, it means that they’re then expected to put their own careers on the back burner.
      Honestly, for women who REALLY care about climbing the ranks, an equally driven spouse is unlikely to be a great pairing (at least if you both prize having a “conventional” marriage where both people live in the same place and see one another for more than two waking hours a week). There’s a reason that highly driven men often have either a housewife or at least a wife who’s job is of the “family friendly” variety, and it’s not always sexism. Often, it’s because constant moves and 70 hour work weeks more or less require that the other person be in a position to keep the domestic sphere running smoothly.

      • Mrrpaderp

        Good point about the wage gap. I know some power couples, but they’re all at a salary level that they can afford to outsource everything. With your middle income level jobs – the jobs where you make enough to support a family, but not so much that you can afford to hire 24/7 help – the burden generally falls to the woman to pick up the slack, with the resulting damage to her career prospects. And “middle income” is a category that increases drastically when you include student loans. You can have 2 biglaw associates making $200k/yr each, but if they also have $200k student loans each, then they probably can’t afford round the clock childcare and all the other things they have to outsource to make their lives work.

        • Amy March

          Sorry, totes my pet peeve, but middle income on no planet includes two people making $200k a year- absolutely, how much you can afford on that income varies depending on things like student loans and housing costs, but it isn’t any sort of middle income.

          • stephanie

            Echoing this! I understand that they might have big dollar student loan payments, but a combined $400k is definitely not middle anything.

          • Combined $200k isn’t middle anything except in maybe NYC/SF/LA – for most folks in the US, they are in the top 10% or higher for earners in their area.

          • stephanie

            I don’t even think that’s true. Average household incomes in LA and SF are below $100k, and this person said $200k each.

          • Mrrpaderp

            That’s kind of my point. Even with an income that by any account SHOULD mean that the couple is fabulously wealthy, it’s still not enough to be able to outsource like they need to in order for one person’s career to not suffer.

        • tr

          Plus, location/COL make things even more complicated: Perhaps in Manhattan, both parties can find $200k a year jobs in biglaw, but combine the cost of living in Manhattan with the student loans, and you definitely can’t afford to outsource everything. On the other hand, living in places with a lower cost of living often means that it’s harder for both parties to find comparable work, so while Partner A might find a biglaw job in St. Louis that pays $200k a year, Partner B may be stuck taking a non-partner track position that pays $50k a year. That may still financially put them ahead of where they would have been in Manhattan, but it’s going to be a big blow to Partner B’s career trajectory.

          • laddibugg

            A lot of people who work in Manhattan an earn high incomes don’t actually live in Manhattan. A LOT. They live in NJ or outside of the city (like Westchester), in places with direct train service to the city

          • rg223

            But the cost of living is only slightly better in Westchester and high-SES New Jersey. Most people move to those places because they can buy a house with around the same amount of money that buys a two bedroom apartment, not because it is actually saving them money. There are pretty limited areas surrounding Manhattan that are reasonably priced enough to make the math I think you’re suggesting work out – even including low-SES NJ towns where hypothetical lawyer couples would be gentrifiers.

      • JezzicaJane

        Exactly this. My boyfriend and I both have terminal degrees and are working in law and medicine respectively. Something will have to give after marriage and children and I already know it will be my career.

        • Amy March

          Why though? This is something I don’t get. Why decide now, before getting engaged, before getting married, before getting pregnant, before having kids, that your career will have to “give”? Now is the time when you can actually fight back against that if you want to- plans, savings, discussing feelings about nannies, figuring out how the two of you negotiate trading off in your careers.

          If what you mean is you’re totally fine with stepping back from your career when you have kids, I have no problem with that. But it doesn’t need to be an inevitability.

          • LJ

            You’re pretty much restating the overarching idea of Lean In….. don’t leave until you’re leaving. Don’t make plans when you’re 20 about kids you’ll have when you’re 30. Lean into your career if you want to lean into it – make the choices to do mat leave/etc when they show up, not 10 year beforehand.

          • Amy March

            Yup. And it’s the part of Lean In I find most compelling.

        • LJ

          Will it?

          If you’re both employed at market-rate salaries in those fields you can afford full-time child care (and if you can’t, then the rest of is are effed haha). If chores are split equitably then no career needs to be completely decimated if neither party wants them to.

          Of course, your choice is the only one that matters here… I just hope that everyone else in your position knows that it is a choice.

          • JezzicaJane

            In no way am I pulling back from my career right now. However, we are facing some pressing decisions in that we are 32/37, both well established in our careers, and one will need to move states to be with the other which presents its own set of headaches.

            I’m anticipating making these choices in the near future because while some in our situation would utilize nannies and hire other staff that is just not something that he and I feel comfortable with. I agree with tr above, when one partner is working 70-100 hours per week sometimes it just isn’t feasible to have an equally driven spouse, nor is it something I personally want.

          • LJ

            Totally – being in your 30s absolutely changes your timeline when you want to have kids and a career. From the initial snapshot of your comment, it just seemed like someone a lot younger thinking of choices 15 years down the road. Those details add a lot of context.

          • Amy March

            It is feasible! That’s the problem I have with this. You’re just choosing not to do it. Totally fine. But you can’t remove all of the perfectly normal reasonable ways people make it work and then declare it just isn’t feasible.

          • G.

            This. Which is also why, no matter how you spin it, it is sexist for men to decide they need to marry someone who is willing to be a housewife rather than put their career on hold to enable her to push forward. It may help make the marriage work to have someone running the domestic front, but there’s no reason it has to be the woman.

          • etta boombox

            “It is feasible”… Telling another woman what is possible in her life, in her field, in her job is pretty laughable (and offensive).

            Depending on your role in a medicine, you may be working many nights and many weekends as a non-negotiable part of your job. Another high-earning spouse in law may be working very late nights (100 hr workweeks are not uncommon in my city). Add in a commute and there may be entire WEEKS when neither adult is available for more than one or two hours in the home during “normal people” hours.

            Children need adults to nurture them. Relationships need time to be nurtured, too. I know plenty lawyer-lawyer, entrepreneur-entrepreneur, lawyer-consultant and lawyer-doctor couples where one spouse had to quit. In their jobs, in their cities, they simply couldn’t make it home before 9pm most days of the week. When one of them could make it home, the other couldn’t.

            I don’t know about you, but while taking a nap after work and waking for a midnight dinner can be cute while dating… that simply doesn’t work for a family with children (or adult dependents).

            Being high earning might mean you “can” outsource care. At some point though, having a high earning spouse means you have the option as a man or woman to say “eff this, i want MY life and my family more than YOUR billable hour”.

          • etta boombox

            (also, in my city, full time child care can cost 4k+/mo + expenses. That’s after-tax dollars. part-time “adult care” can cost a pretty penny, too… not to mention that there is no substitute for actually seeing your loved ones. One couple I know well realized they were spending 60%+ of her after tax income on care alone. It just wasn’t worth it to them, and I’d argue that if you’re spending 60% of your income so that someone else can care for your loved ones, it’s only feasible in the most dystopian of ways).

    • the cupboard under the stairs

      I identify with this SO hard. My husband and I did the long-distance thing early in our relationship because I’d found myself a nice little niche and I didn’t want to let go of it to follow him to grad school. After school, he relented and joined me. A year later it wasn’t working out, so I relented and moved for him and his newly-carved niche. Now we’re *both* in niche jobs and I’ll probably have to relent once again for his Ph.D. in a couple of years. Relationships! They’re all about sacrifices!

    • ja_lee

      So sad I am late to this discussion, but I just want to say I identify with those so hard. Like, down to the time period: we are in year one of two years of distance, for career reasons, and I hate it. He is completing a two year training and we had no say in its location. I did not move with him because I like my job and don’t want to retake the bar exam for only two years.

      I say only two years because once this training is done, we will likely need to relocate to wherever he can find a job (for both immigration reasons and reasons specific to his field). Regardless of whether there is also a job for me there. I am proud of my career but I will likely be sacrificing my own career prospects in order to be with him, and I don’t see a way around it, and it bums me out.

  • Rhie

    High five for lady breadwinners! My husband is a writer, so yeah… I get mild shit about that on the regular from my parents. But I say if I can support us then who cares where the paycheck is coming from–one of us, both of us, whichever of us?

  • YES. This. My husband is one of those “work is a thing you do because it gives you money to support your family,” but he doesn’t have a “calling” and doesn’t feel passionate about what he does, and he’s told me, frankly, that if I made enough money, he’d be much happier staying home and raising children and dogs and being a homemaker. We both come from highly educated, highly professional families (my parents: both lawyers, his parents: both PhDs, all of our siblings: either in or graduated from professional graduate degree programs, me: professional graduate degree), he is definitely the odd one out and we will definitely probably be the lowest-earners in our family tree. It’s taken me a long time to get to be okay with that, and I think I’m always going to have my parents sitting on my shoulder judging my choice in partner, but at the end of the day: we have a really good life. We have a good home. We support each other. We’re financially stable. Even if I do have a graduate degree, he’s still out-earning me (because let’s be real, social workers don’t actually rake in the big bucks). We have a cute fuzzy dog who loves us. Life is good. Callings be darned.

    • Beth

      Social workers who work for the VA do pretty well. I’ve seen those jobs start at $90,000 with an actual pension down the road.

      • True, but child and adolescent clinicians in community mental health clinics…not so much. (Full disclosure, for my own mental health I moved out of traditional social work and am now doing mindfulness-based education work, but I’m still not making bank–I love my career path, but the nonprofit world does not lend itself to the moolah.)

  • Jana

    I really love this. While I only out-pace my husband financially by a small margin in our modestly paid fields, I have a history of pursuing and dating “down.” Recently I was mocked by a blue blood for the fact that I spent a goodly amount of time in my youth chasing after a guy who worked as a custodian. Blue blood already was doing a fine job of making himself look like a small-minded asshole, but I tossed out there that I’m not judgemental, and I like people for who they are, not what they do.

    • the cupboard under the stairs

      High five for the use of “goodly” in a 21st-century comment.

  • heyqueen

    The concept of women not “marrying down” was one that was culturally drilled into me. Unpopular opinion: personally, I don’t entirely disagree with it.
    Now that doesn’t mean the amount of money your husband makes should be your only concern. I don’t just view marrying down in a financial context. I view it in regards to personal ambition and goals. I don’t feel like the man has to be a breadwinner, but he needs to be motivated and doing as much as he can to contribute as much as he can financially to our household. And typically, at least in my experience, men with that mindset tend to be high earners. As a motivated and highly educated woman myself , I would feel resentful if I had the type of husband who was complacent and felt fine languishing at a mediocre job making a mediocre salary.

    Each individual needs to be honest about the type of life they see for themself in their marriage. If a woman sees herself taking a substantial amount of time off from the work force to raise children, it would be prudent for her to marry someone who could provide enough for them to live comfortably on one income.

    • Jess

      Regarding your last statement, ” If a woman sees herself taking a substantial amount of time off from the work force to raise children, it would be prudent for her to marry someone who could provide enough for them to live comfortably on one income.”

      What if a man wants to take substantial time off to raise children? Wouldn’t it make sense for him to marry up and take a mediocre paying job to support his spouse’s ambitions until that happens?

      I mean, I’m 100% for people having to contribute in some way, but if we’re letting “womens” contributions (like raising children) as acceptable lack-of-pay activities when women do them, why can’t we do the same when men want to the vacuuming their wives can go out and bring in the big bucks?

      • heyqueen

        I also definitely push back on the idea that raising a family is solely women’s work. However, in regards to a man staying home with the kids, it doesn’t fit with what I envision for my family which would be both parents pursuing their careers to the fullest.

        And yes, I def agree with having someone who works day to day to make sure our needs are met.

      • Eh

        I really think attitudes towards men staying at home/taking care of kids needs to change. I’m the breadwinner. We live in Canada so we have 12 months of paid (reduced rate) parental leave. I am more career driven but he finds purpose in his job. I took the first 6 months off after our daughter was born and my husband took the second 6 months off. We got tons of comments about how it was better for me to take the whole year off so it didn’t hurt both of our careers. Or how I should take a full year off because previous generations of women couldn’t. Or how they would never “let” their husband take part of “their” year off. And when my husband returned to work he was asked how his vacation was. Even if our financial situation was different (e.g., he made the same or more) I would still “let” him take parental leave if he wanted.

        Now our daughter is in daycare fulltime, which means on my husbands days off (he works weekends so has two days off during the week) he can keep her home or he can send her to daycare. He usually sends her to daycare so he can get housework done (housework and toddlers are a difficult combination) and some extra sleep (he works afternoons so he gets home sometimes at 2am). This takes the pressure off of me on the weekends and after work. Our daughter loves daycare so it’s not a hard choice.

        • LJ

          Your entire first paragraph makes me seethe. People (not you!) are dumb. So dumb. The “logic” they employ, if you can even call it that, is riddled with holes…. and the comment about being asked about “vacation” makes me twitch because that’s up there with using the word “babysit” to refer to your own child. You must have thick skin my friend.

          • Eh

            He gets the “babysitting” comment too. We have a line for that though (“it’s called PARENTING”). In response to his “vacation” he said it wasn’t much of a vacation since our daughter is very busy.

          • LJ

            So much sexism in society and so little time to amend it…. great lines.

    • Amy March

      So on the one hand you propose that it’s perfectly acceptable for a woman to want to marry someone who can provide enough for them to live comfortably on one income. But on the other hand, unacceptable for a man to do the same. Why isn’t a woman looking for a man who can provide not showing a failing in personal ambition and goals?

      ETA- I’m also not particularly interested in being with someone I think is lazy, but I see that as a judgment that isn’t really about money. I know plenty of lazy complacent bankers.

      • heyqueen

        In every situation that I’ve seen a man “marry up” to a higher earning and career oriented woman, the guy was massively lazy and just looking for a come up.

        • Amy March

          Interesting. I’ve observed more diversity in experience than that. I know part time dads working at legal aid married to fancy lawyers, teachers married to doctors, social workers married to finance ladies.

          • heyqueen

            I think context is important too. I come from a place of only seeing couples who are on similarly matched career wise. So I totally admit that it colors my perception as well. All the highly educated and high earning women I know expect to attract men on that same level or higher. The few that have dated down have found men’s masculinity to be too fragile to handle it.

            It always boggles my mind when men are intimidated by higher earning /educated women. Why isn’t their thought process “let me better myself so I can be on a comparable level.”

        • Carolyn S

          I know some pretty massively lazy ladies just looking for a come up married up.

        • emilyg25

          My dad is a teacher married to a nurse practitioner who outearns him, and their friends are a make teacher married to a female healthcare exec who earns probably quadruple his salary, and they don’t fit that stereotype at all. Maybe the difference is that they were all students when they met?

          • heyqueen

            That’s a possibility.

          • LJ

            Or maybe the difference is that some men are advanced enough in the field of gender equality that they don’t give a heck. Why assume that it matters and they have learned to overlook it – why not assume that, for some men, it just doesn’t matter anymore?

            I live in Vancouver, BC which is known for being notoriously liberal in a lot of ways. I was in one of the top ranked universities in Canada in a competitive major when I met my fiancé, and expected (until oil price plummeted shortly after my graduation) to make 6 figures fairly swiftly. He was between careers (his previous one had abruptly ended due to a medical issue that he wouldn’t be able to work around) and accepting handouts from his parents, trying desperately to get a foothold in a new industry.

            Income disparity was never an issue… even now, I still expect to outearn him (after 15 years of employment, my field tops out just shy of six figures, and his is probably $20k below that unless he breaks through as the next Ann Leibowitz)….,.. and it’s just Not A Big Deal. We split things equally (we each pay 30% of our takehome to rent, which means right now we pay around the same but in the future the absolute value will probably fluctuate between us) and it’s fine.

            It may be only slightly less rare than unicorns in some cities, but there are a decent chunk of men who think it’s genuinely fine and good and really, so long as the partnership is mutually beneficial who cares who makes more?

            I also find that his different upbringing and education allows us to challenge each other. I am a straight A, university-educated prep kid and he did a few different trades programs over the years. We have such great discussions because we have such different world views as a result of our educations. We’re such a good match in that way. Marrying up financing doesn’t mean marrying up absolutely.

      • Laurel

        Wait. If a woman plans to be a stay-at-home parent, then she’s doing plenty of work. She is not showing a “failing in personal ambition and goals.”

        I think it’s fine for either a man or women to stay home with kids. If a man knows he wants to do this, then he should look for a female breadwinner. If a women knows she wants to do this, then she should look for a male breadwinner.

        No one should be called a “failure” is they want this for themselves. It’s work and it doesn’t end at a specific hour.

        • Amy March

          I agree with you! I just think if you are going to argue that men who want to stay home are failing in personal ambition, which is how I read the post, then you have to argue that women must be too.

          • Laurel

            Well, okay then! Ha ha.

    • Laura C

      You say you don’t just view marrying down in a financial context but then all the personal ambition and goals you mention are financial. I’m curious if you can envision scenarios with someone who had ambition and goals that were not financial but you saw as legitimate.

      • heyqueen

        It really would depend on what the goal was.

        • Laura C

          Ok. A man working for low pay at a non-profit that was making a big difference in the world, something he believed in passionately. A man who’s a critically acclaimed artist or musician but not in a big-stardom-and-piles-of-cash way. A public defender. A social worker. An early childhood educator.

          • heyqueen

            Possibly the public defender or childhood educator. And to quote myself, I said I didn’t *just* view marrying down in a financial context. I mean, Donald Trump has buckets of money….but he’s still Donald Trump. That’s totally marrying down. Yes, some of goals I mentioned were financially focused. I don’t apologize for that because being with a partner that is driven and financially successful is a non negotiable for me.

            But I also see marrying down as men who don’t want to have an egalitarian relationship. In addition to lacking financial stability, I view men who are not kind, family focused, empathetic, and supportive or my educational/career goals as marrying down. And I’m only speaking for myself here.

    • tr

      The key here is recognizing the difference between what works for you and what works for someone else.
      Personally, I expect my husband to be the primary breadwinner. I’m highly educated, but I find the type of work I do to be stressful, dull, and soul killing. Right now, the only reason I’m working is to build our savings and investment portfolio up enough that we’ll feel comfortable with me leaving the workforce to start a family.
      My husband and I began talking about our respective career goals (or lack thereof) on our second or third date. Our compatibility in that regard was one of the very things that drew us together.
      HOWEVER, our path is not for everyone. I have classmates who would be appalled at the idea of leaving the careers they worked so hard for so that they can spend their days running after toddlers and worrying about whether the name brand salad dressing at the store is worth the extra dollar. As such, they’ve selected their spouses with other priorities in mind, and that’s wonderful, too! There’s no one right way to do marriage. Just because you want your husband to be ambitious and career oriented doesn’t mean every woman wants that.

      • heyqueen

        And I 100% agree with you. I thought that first sentence of my last paragraph was a good enough qualifier to show that it was how I felt for my lifestyle.

    • heyqueen

      I can’t edit my original post, but I guess my original qualifier wasn’t clear enough. Each family should do what works for their unique situation. However, I’m someone who is super ambitious and career oriented. I require the same type of mindset in a spouse.

    • emilyg25

      I married a guy who makes more than me (for now!) but is wayyyy less ambitious. It’s awesome because it means we can prioritize my career, and because he’s not trying to advance, he can take on a bunch of child-rearing duties that he might be penalized for at work. He still works hard and does a good job, but he’s not particularly interested in moving up or making more.

      • heyqueen

        That’s great that it works for you :)

  • KK

    Thanks for calling attention to this double standard – one that I hope begins to disappear as women’s presence in high-earning jobs hopefully continues to increase.
    I think that the idea that people who do not have career ambitions or a “meaningful career” are somehow ‘less than’ is a super judge-y part of American society that we really don’t need. Some people, like your fiance, find fulfillment in other parts of life. Some people aren’t privileged to have the *option* of a meaningful career. Some have had bad timing with the economy. Judging their choice or their situation doesn’t really accomplish much or help anything.

    Good luck with your career!

  • Jessica

    I love this. I’ve always been the breadwinner in our relationship, and my husband does not have a bachelor’s degree. Lately, it seems like I’m on the receiving end of a lot MORE judgement regarding his job than I have at any prior point in our 7 years together. He’s been a census auditor, he worked overnights at a hotel, he’s been a bill collector, he delivered pizzas… but when someone finds out he’s a pool cleaner now, I can see their faces change and they start judging me (and him!). I’m always rushing to explain that he loves his job, it’s been very good for him, and that there’s nothing wrong with it, but everyone follows up with a “well, is he trying to be something else?” Why isn’t it enough? He’s happy and likes going to work in the morning- which is better than most people. That should be enough for judgy strangers who don’t know his/our history.

    • Beth

      Don’t even open up the conversation by explaining anything! It opens the door to questions and judgement.

    • Abby

      I have been conditioned to ask what peoples jobs are. (I’m a recruiter so i’m genuinely interest but have also been programmed “Hi I’m Abby – Also what do you do?”)

      BUT I’m starting to view that question a lot like the “When are you getting engaged?” or “When are you having children?” There are SO many answers that someone might not want to give and I think it’s unfair (and unnecessary).

  • Jess

    This is really the opposite side of the whole Toxic Masculinity thing, isn’t it. Society is so concerned about people being in their place that a family in which a woman is not fulfilled being at home and a man who is are both equally unsettling (hetero relationships being the assumed default).

    The thing that sticks out to me is not so much the unequal pay (which most comments discuss), but the fact that all this dude really wants to do is focus on family and home life, and has a job that enables him to do that.

    We assume all women want to do that, but we cannot accept that men may too. Which is just so absurd to me.

    • tr

      I swear, in some ways, things are only getting worse. Instead of focusing on how men and women should be free to do what suits them, we’re putting more and more pressure on women to also have super important, meaningful jobs. We’re cool with women becoming SAHMs if the husband is making $450k a year and everyone is living in a house the size Yankee Stadium, but if a woman leaves a “good” (i.e. middle class) job and it means the family has to make a few sacrifices, we think she’s lost her mind.
      My husband and I both make decent money (but not like, billionaire money). We could live off of just his income, and in fact, we’ve made our long term financial planning decisions based on my intention to leave the workforce when we have children. This means living in a comfortable but modest home in a working class suburb, skipping the fancy vacations, and saving aggressively. From the reactions of the people around us, you’d think we’re announcing our plans to join Heaven’s Gate! I never knew it was so unthinkable for people to prioritize family time over a prestigious address and an impeccable resume.

      • Amy March

        Or some of us have watched as women who made exactly that choice were left to restart careers from nothing when their husbands left them later in life, or become unmoored by an empty nest, or gave up pieces of themselves to please their husbands since they had no economic power, or leaned into being helicopter parents because they had time to.

        You describe this as prioritizing family time over a prestigious address and an impeccable resume, but lots of women who feel strongly about working care nothing at all about a prestigious address, still can’t afford fancy vacations, and don’t work for a luxury lifestyle at all. You’re also judging here.

        • tr

          I’m not implying that one path is better than the other, just that I feel frustrated by the idea that there is only one right path.
          Of my friends, there seems to be roughly a 70/30 split, with the majority choosing to prioritize their careers. That’s great, but it feels like there’s a lot of judgment heaped on the other 30% of us. Yes, there are risks, and yes, I realize that I’m quite privileged to be in position where I CAN leave my job without starving, but it just feels frustrating that there’s so little acceptance (at least in some circles) of that life path.

          • Beth

            I agree with you. In some circles women are judged harshly for planning to be SAHMs. I’ve seen them judged a lot more than women who don’t plan to.

          • Carolyn S

            I just think that people on both sides need to be very careful about the language they use to describe their choice. For example “I never knew it was so unthinkable for people to prioritize family time over a prestigious address and an impeccable resume” can be translated to: “I care more about my family than you do.” whereas it’s possible there are women who are choosing to work because that’s how they care for their family – by pursuing interests outside of the home and by helping with financial stability (which is now way always leads to luxury). I see this same phenomenon with SAHM’s saying “I’m so glad I was able to stay at home. It’s what’s best for my kids.” Again, perhaps not intentionally judgmental, but pretty easy to hear that way…

            It would be great if no one felt the need to rationalize their choice, which is where I realize is where this language can come from, but wouldn’t it be great if everyone just felt comfortable enough to say “It’s what I wanted, and it’s working for our family.”

          • Beth

            I don’t know. A lot of people do think it’s best for their kids.

            Generally, if a parent has a choice and still decides to work, they genuinely don’t think their presence is necessary during the day. You could look at that as a judgement that they believe the parent’s staying at home are doing something unnecessary.

            We need to get over this idea that we’re all going to agree about what children need. Otherwise, we are censoring people. If I said I stayed home because I thought it was better for my kids, I shouldn’t have to give anyone my reasons for coming to that conclusion just because someone else has to agree.

            We have to get over this policing of language. People are not going to agree.

          • Beth

            Correction: ” I shouldn’t have to give anyone my reasons for coming to that conclusion just because someone else doesn’t agree.”

          • Carolyn S

            I don’t think people are going to agree but we each as individuals can choose to be kind in how we phrase our choices, and confident enough in our choices that we don’t have to use language that judges those who make different choices. I’m not trying to police other’s language, just mine, and I guess the people who talk to me.

          • heyqueen

            Although I do get tired of having to qualify everything, you make a valid point. That approach is probably the most diplomatic way to deal with different opinions and viewpoints on such touchy issues.

          • TeaforTwo

            I think the big problem with these conversations is that they only purport to talk about what is best for kids, with the assumption that the kids should trump everything and everyone else.

            In a rush to look selfless and unimpeachable some parents claim that kids need a parent at home, while others are just as convinced that kids need daycare and the socialization that it provides.

            When we have this conversation in my house, it is an awful lot about our own priorities: do we want to tack daycare drop offs and pickup onto already long days? Do we want to be able to buy a house and keep taking nice vacations? Can I handle being apart from my kid for most of his weekday waking hours? Can I handle being WITH him for most of his weekday waking hours, without taking adult coffee breaks and shopping all by myself on my lunch break? Am I secure enough in my marriage to take the financial risk of leaving the workforce? Can our marriage handle the strain of long hours at two jobs plus small kids and household responsibilities?

            Of course I care about what is best for my kid, but he is one of three people in our family, and we have to pick what is best overall, not just for him. I think if we all just owned our choices more (“I need him in daycare because I would be bored at home” “I was too exhausted after work/daycare pickup/dinner/bedtime to do anything for myself” etc.) it might get less heated.

          • tr

            You are 100% right about that! Sorry that I wasn’t more thoughtful about my language–I think on both sides, we sometimes fall into the trap of sounding judgmental by trying to rationalize our choices, and I totally did that without meaning to! In reality, I’m definitely not judgmental either way! Every family and relationship is different, and the key is doing what works for you and your family.

      • Jess

        This may be slightly regional – in my area there are loads of middle class/middle income families with SAHMs. The majority of people have assumed in finding out that I’m getting married that I will quit my job to have kids, despite having the same job as R, despite having more ambition than R, despite having little desire to raise children at all. Women still judge other women for wanting to work at all – how selfish are they?! Do they think a man can actually take care of a home!?

        I am really happy that you have a plan for what you want to do within your own life, and it sucks that other people aren’t cool with that. Trust me, I get what that is like because I live it daily for the reverse desire.

        What I’m saying is more that the social assumption that it’s 100% a woman’s responsibility to raise and nurture and care for the home and family is… not great. Especially for people like me, who have no interest in being a SAHM and will have to fight to be promoted because what if I have kids and drop out of the work force? How will I put in extra hours if I have to do all the cooking? How will I be able to travel to that big meeting leaving behind an incompetent father?

        The flip side to that assumption of a woman’s place is that no father would ever what to be in your shoes – wanting to focus on his family more than his career, caring more about cleaning the toilet than the next merger. And THAT is not ok either, because there are men who do and they shouldn’t have to face judgement any more than you do. That’s what this essay portrays to me – a guy who wants to focus on his family but meets so much pressure and judgement that he and his wife feel weird about doing that.

        If a dude wants to be a househusband, I’m all for it. I don’t think a housewife is the only way to go, and we all need freedom to do what is best for us and our lives without dealing with somebody’s preconceived notion of what a man and a woman should be.

  • Erica Klein

    Thank you for this. I am the current breadwinner in my marriage; husband is stay-at-home after he lost his job due to injury about 3 years ago and we decided it worked better for us to just have him be a house-husband and make cleaning, cooking and laundry his “job” so that we could just enjoy spending time together when I’m not working. I love not having to do those mindless chores and I love all the really, truly FREE time we get to spend together, and my salary is enough to keep us well-housed and well-fed. It won’t be permanent – he wants to work again, and I want us to be making more money so we can save and buy a house – but for now it’s working for us. My parents do not get it though and are not thrilled that I’m carrying us both financially, and he is frequently the source of confusion and humor among other people we meet (especially other men). The thing is, though, when he WAS working, he helped me pay down some of my debts and got me out of a big financial hole, and for a long time he contributed WAY more than I did to our living expenses because he was the one making more. And even though he’s not earning right now, you’d better believe he still contributes to our shared life in just as important non-financial ways. It all balances out in the end, and I actually take a lot of pride in being to support us on my own.

    • BSM

      That is so awesome for you two. Congrats on finding balance for this stage of your lives!

  • Carolyn S

    I didn’t really seek out a partner that was super ambitious or had super high earning potential, but in general I was only ever interested in pretty academic people. I know higher degrees don’t = being smart, but I have always been most attracted to people who were smart and had a hunger for learning. That might not have translated into a higher education, but it definitely would have always translated into someone who was interested in the world, followed the news and could have challenging discourse with me on a variety of topics.

    I think I married pretty equal, we are both professionals with career goals, but those goals don’t equate to running the world. After watching a few too many single-earning families have the primary breadwinner laid off over the past year, it will be important to me that we both hold onto earning potential over our careers. For us at least, I believe the burden of paying the bills shouldn’t be exclusively on one set of shoulders.

    • LJ

      Diversified stock portfolios, diversified economies….. diversified household incomes. Diversity helps to weather the lows in many areas. I really hope that both my partner and I are able to hold on to our earning potentials over our lives for this reason.

    • emilyg25

      “it will be important to me that we both hold onto earning potential over our careers.”

      This! I can’t handle the pressure of being the breadwinner, so it was important to me to find someone who makes about as much as I do. But my mom makes double what my dad does. I don’t understand why people care so much about what other people choose.

      • Abby

        Agreed! In general I just have anxiety about only one person working in a relationship/marriage because we don’t live in a world where the hardest worker gets to keep their job at the same company for 40 years anymore.

    • BD

      Agree with your last paragraph. My husband has said more than once that he is willing to support me if I ever choose to be a SAHM, but I’ve also told him more than once that I have no interest staying home, one; but two, I would never want to put that amount of pressure on him. Cuz’ it sucks that women are expected to sacrifice their careers for their families, but it also sucks that men are expected to carry the burden of being sole breadwinners, especially in these uncertain economic times!

      • Annag

        I’m so glad I’m not the only person who strongly feels this way! I never want to put that financial burden completely on my spouses’s shoulder, even if my current SO will make 3 times my salary. Financial equality is just as important as equality of splitting household chores and tasks, including the mental/emotional work women usually get stuck with, like keeping dr appts, making reservations, sending out holiday cards, etc!

  • JC

    I was trying to find a great interview that I read a while back with the husband of a very high powered woman. (I think she might be a politician?) Anyway, I can’t find it, and basically every link that comes up in search results is about the woman breadwinner “dilemma,” what to do if your wife makes more money than you, or “Are female breadwinners a recipe for disaster?!” Excuse me while I go throw up now.

  • Gina

    Yup yup yup. I am an attorney, and my husband is a stay-at-home dad with a high school education who bartends on the weekends. The amount of confusion and push-back we get on this set up from family and friends (and strangers!) is mind-boggling at times. We have finally developed a friend group that isn’t exclusively made up of power couples who individually make six figures and have huge career aspirations, and I’m grateful for that. But I still think a lot about why people, consciously or not, believe I’ve married down.

    Here’s what I’ve come to believe. Underneath the obvious gender role stereotyping going on, there’s an assumption that because my husband didn’t go to college or isn’t pursuing a laudable career, he’s lazy or unmotivated and is just taking advantage of my aspirations and paycheck. But he’s not. He’s overachieved at every job he ever worked, often putting in extra hours just because, quickly working his way up the ladder and making friends. He was the product of a broken public school system and parents that did justfinethankyou without college degrees, so he never really pursued one. And, like your partner, he is an incredibly dedicated partner and an insufferably patient, fun, amazing dad.

    You know what marrying down is? Marrying down is marrying someone who puts YOU down. Marrying down is marrying someone so insecure that they can’t handle your successes. Marrying down is marrying someone who puts their goals and aspirations before yours and expects you to do the same. Marrying down is marrying someone who thinks their sole contribution as a parent or partner is their paycheck and it’s your “job” to handle everything else.

    • honeycomehome

      “You know what marrying down is? Marrying down is marrying someone who puts YOU down. Marrying down is marrying someone so insecure that they can’t handle your successes. Marrying down is marrying someone who puts their goals and aspirations before yours and expects you to do the same. Marrying down is marrying someone who thinks their sole contribution as a parent or partner is their paycheck and it’s your “job” to handle everything else.”

      Put that paragraph in cursive and paint it on the wall because it is some inspiring truth.

    • sofar

      “You know what marrying down is? Marrying down is marrying someone who puts YOU down. Marrying down is marrying someone so insecure that they can’t handle your successes. Marrying down is marrying someone who puts their goals and aspirations before yours and expects you to do the same. Marrying down is marrying someone who thinks their sole contribution as a parent or partner is their paycheck and it’s your “job” to handle everything else.”


    • Poeticplatypus

      For me I don’t expect my future boyfriend to earn more than me. It would be nice if he earned the same or more, but my issue is can he support himself? Is he lazy? The idea or standard of support himself is at least pay his own part of the lease with a roommate and pay bills without having to regularly ask for help. Otherwise I view that as a problem. Also is he able to keep a job or does he just bounce around? Those are my qualifiers for marrying down.

    • AmandaBee

      YES, all of the yes. Won’t admit how many asshats I had to date to realize the truth of that last paragraph, but I’d easily take my husband over any of them regardless of paycheck.

  • BossLady

    This is something I have been struggling with hard lately. I’m in a long term relationship with a guy who is pursuing an acting career and waits tables to pay the majority of the bills. He has a masters in acting. He is a responsible adult, takes care of his financial obligations, his only debt is related to school and he usually has enough left over to buy me flowers on his way home. He cooks, he cleans, and he’s just generally adorable and fantastic.

    I work in business and make 3+ times what he does annually and if I’m honest about it, it kills me. In the rational part of my mind I recognize that this is insane but there is a large part of me that is embarrassed by the fact that he is a waiter, that I outearn him by so much and I am really working on dealing with it (even though a small person in my brain is jumping up and down, shouting dealing with WHAT?!)

    I guess I don’t have an answer to contribute to this – just to say I am living through the aftermath of a lifetime of conditioning I didn’t realize I was getting. Advice welcome.

    • heyqueen

      I think it’s important to accept your feelings and understand that they’re valid. It’s also important to understand that we’re all working from a place of deprogramming/coming to terms with years of societal conditioning on gender roles ect. Being honest with yourself in paramount. You also need to let your boyfriend know how you feel. Would you be ok with being the breadwinner and supporting his acting career regardless of how it turns out? Do his good qualities outweigh the cons that bother you? What kind of life do you envision for yourself and your future spouse? It’s a multilayered decision.

      • Abby


        • heyqueen

          This isn’t completely direct at you Abby, but my earlier comment got me thinking.

          I want to add that even with us actively challenging and deprogramming what we’ve been taught, we DO sometimes make the choice that falls in line with traditional gender roles or what society has pounded into our heads as “right.” It’s extremely important to understand what we do, why we do it, and the overall implications of our actions. However, I think sometimes we progressive women get caught up in this guilt and indulgent navel gazing about fighting how we feel or what we genuinely desire because it might possibly fall in line with “tradition.”

          While I identify strongly as a womanist, I get the conflict in some of the choices that I make. I understand the greater implications of the not so womanist choices that I make from time to time. All the choices and decisions that I make are not always womanist/feminist choices just because they were made by a woman, and that is 100% ok! Again, what’s important is thinking critically and understanding what you’re doing. It comes down to practicality and what will, ultimately, make you happy/work for you :).

    • Carolyn S

      I do wonder if this might be a situation where a little therapy might help. A safe place to talk through what the heart of your concern is might help you figure out if this is anxiety, societal expectation or something else. Maybe what is killing you is the pressure you feel in being the financial safety net for your family, maybe it’s a professional gap that makes it hard to talk about your work with your partner, maybe it’s just SOCIETY, but talking it out could help.

  • Eh

    I could have written this. My mom was the breadwinner for most of my childhood because my dad worked part-time/went to university/had flexible jobs so he could take care of us (to reduce daycare costs). I have a masters degree. When I met my husband he was in school for IT which he finished but he never found a job in the field. When ever someone asks what my husband does (manages a chain restaurant) they ask if he is looking for something else in his field (nope). My husband took six months off (we live in Canada) when our daughter was born. People made comments to me about being cheated out of my year off. When I came back to work people commented on how hard it must be (actually not too bad since she’s with her dad) but no one made similar comments when my husband went back to work (actually most asked if he was looking for a different job). And as crappy as it is that my husband works weekends and works afternoons, it works for us because it means our daughter is in daycare for less than 7 hours a day (e.g., we don’t pay for extended day) and he does housework on his days off while she is at daycare (so less work for me).

    I dated guys who made the same amount or more than me and some of them had issues with me being career driven. Not that they expected that I be at home with the kids, but that my career is important to me was an issue for them. I have also dated guys that made less than me who were intimated by the fact that I made more than them and that took away their job of being a provider.

  • Carolyn S

    This conversation also highlights what a privilege it is to be partnered. Single people have to make enough to pay their bills AND do all their chores and keep the house clean.

    • Amy March

      I think it has actually influenced my views significantly on what kind of contributions I’m looking for in a partner. Working part time and also taking care of the housework/cooking/cleaning isn’t at all appealing to me, because I already very much have a handle on that.

      • Ashlah

        I always think back to The Feminine Mystique, where Betty Friedan discusses the idea that homemakers fill much of their time with extra, superfluous housework. I certainly understand the appeal of having someone else do all of the chores while you’re at work, but it’s not even close to necessary.

  • Jenna

    If, then, a couple thinks it’s important for someone to stay home with the kids, it is worth considering that it could be dad instead of mom. If he doesn’t care that much about work and defines himself by his home and relationships, that is a good sign that he’d also be an excellent stay-at-home parent, if you both agreed that was a good idea.

    The idea that a man should earn enough for his wife to stay home with their kids (at least for a time) is an outdated one. If the man is not suited to that kind of breadwinning or – as is pretty common – the woman is not suited to being a stay-at-home parent – it doesn’t work well. What roles suit us are not defined by what’s in our pants.

    As for ‘marrying down’ generally, I agree, it’s dumb to assume women should always marry someone as successful as them or more so in two very narrow areas (education and employment). Those are not two things that necessarily contribute to love, a cooperative partnership or a happy home life.

    I will say though that while degrees and actual job don’t matter that much to me, I would not marry someone who is not intelligent and well-read (which of course you do not have to have a certain degree or job to be, though I do find that college grads and those who’ve been to grad school to tend to be somewhat more well-read – simply because you HAVE to read to get through the program – though not necessarily more intelligent). I want a partner who can come at conversations with the mind of someone who is smart, insightful, quick and has a strong foundational knowledge base. This is a dealbreaker for me – of course I want cooperation, generosity, kindness and love too, but I don’t think I could be happy in a marriage where we can’t or don’t discuss issues of the day on similar intellectual footing.

    Of course, again, this does not mean I insist my husband (and I am married) must be college-educated (though he is). It is possible to be all of these things without the degree. One of the smartest and most well-read people I know left college her senior year. (She’ll get her degree soon, 15 years later, I think mostly for the job opportunities it brings). But…I can’t deny there is something of a correlation.

    Next year I’m planning to start a Master’s program. My husband is not. This doesn’t bother me in the slightest. He’s a well-read, intelligent and insightful critical thinker. Great to converse with. That’s what matters – or at least, that’s one of the things that matters to me.

  • Maggie Dragon

    I find the idea of “meaningful” work deeply worrisome, especially when meaningful becomes a substitute for a fair and appropriate wage. As an academic (who is currently staring into the abyss that is a job market where only 46% of newly minted Ph.Ds. have tenure track positions after three years), there is often an expectation that I should do what I do cheerfully and without complaint for next to nothing. Adjuncts can work for years with no healthcare, at wages that fall well below a living wage and often qualify them for federal poverty relief programs. “Do what you love” often turns into “because then you’ll put up with our nonsense.”

    I don’t think there’s any shame in having a job that you can tolerate and that allows you do what you love, whether that’s take care of the people who matter to you or garden or pursue some sort of side hustle.

    • clarkesara

      Yep. I’m the “breadwinner” because my FH is a writer. Which means he doesn’t get paid a fair wage. Which is why I’m the breadwinner. In like 1975 or something, he would be the big man patriarch with the real career while mine would have been considered a side hustle or something to do till the babies come along.

  • Greta M.

    Originally ran January 2014! Really curious how this couple is doing now, if there have been any new insights/ developments.

    • Jess

      Same! Update please!

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  • jass

    amazing article .wedding is all about meeting 2 souls.It should be organized well to make a perfect wedding.

  • Gabby

    I think the emphasis on women “marrying up” is also a contributing factor to the low compensation of workers in female dominated fields. I work at a non-profit and formerly worked in education, both fields in which workers (nearly all women) tend to be under-compensated for the work they contribute to their communities. Now, I’m not bringing this up to complain about the pay scale. I chose my career field entirely aware of the poverty level earnings I would be receiving. However, so many times I’ve heard the low incomes of colleagues in the field justified because their work is seen as simply “supplemental” to their husband’s. People have said to me that the pittance of an income my field provides is irrelevant, because my partner is an engineer for a prestigious company. Never mind, that I am financially independent of him (and I prefer it that way). But it seems that the assumption that women marry men that are more highly educated than them and that are higher earners, and many women do just that, actually does female-dominated fields a disservice. It gives society an excuse to under-compensate the irreplaceable work of women in ladycentric fields such as social work, teaching, and even nursing, where women make up the vast majority of employees but still make less than their male colleagues. Hopefully the concept, and assumption, of “marrying up,” fades away in this century, and with it the gap in women’s earnings.

  • Madison McFarland

    Thank you for writing this. It’s unexplainably relieving and comforting to read that others experience this same situation. My dad has provided everything for our family, and my mom has not worked (until recently as a hobby) but had the pleasure and luxury of raising her children. As I am now in my first career being paid a decent salary, with a Master’s degree, I have felt much anxiety dating my boyfriend who is a wildland firefighter. At least once a week, I am quizzed by friends and family about what his future plans are. It’s extremely frustrating that they do not value his sacrifice, his willingness to work long, physically and mentally demanding days.. sometimes 21 days in a row! But I have realized that I must just step back, look at this man that I love, and appreciate him with all that I have. Life is about more than just money, and he gives me so much more than I could ask for.

  • revooca

    “my fiancé is still only defined by one thing: his job. No one assigns any value to his other contributions—his relationships, his marriage, his family—because effort in those areas by men is not validated.”

    UGH. THIS.

    My husband is a kind, sensitive man who works a blue collar job and probably always will. He gets anxious whenever he meets new people, because, inevitably, the first question they ask after his name is what he does. Then they tend either to stare blankly or make an unconvincing attempt to explain how “important” his job is.

    As the daughter of a lawyer and a full-time mom, marrying him has taught me a lot about how poorly blue collar workers are treated. I have a college degree; he doesn’t. This has also shown me how differently the world works when you’re an intelligent, capable person without a diploma to “prove” it.

    Workplaces tend to devalue the contributions of their blue collar workers. Case-in-point: my husband’s company continues to rake in record profits AND he works for the branch that contributes more money to their parent company than any other branch, yet he hasn’t received a raise in 6 years, despite obtaining advanced certifications and taking on more responsibility. His coworkers have the same complaint.

    His company also takes every opportunity they can to exploit their labor. Case-in-point: my husband has received payments from two different class action suits against his company filed by former employees. One lawsuit was the company trying to skirt state regulations by withholding pay for travel time. The other was the company breaking their contract with the government by not paying employees the prevailing wage while working jobs at government sites. As these things usually go, it was settled out of court, no one went to jail and he did not receive anywhere near the amount the company actually owed him in withheld wages (it’s funny how you can go to jail for stealing $200 from a liquor store, but not $20,000 a year from your employees).

    Now that the company is being required to pay prevailing wage, they’ve chosen not to allocate it fairly among employees. Instead they’ve put just a few employees on the job sites and filled out the rest with temp workers (who are not required to be paid PW). So there are people with no more experience or qualifications than my husband making three times what he makes annually, simply because he manager can’t be bothered to create a rotating schedule.

    After a year of his manager making up requirements for receiving PW assignments (first you had to have a certification, so he got it; then you had to set up your schedule a certain way, so he did it) and then not following through, my husband finally called him out for it at a team meeting. He didn’t even plan to say anything, but his manager asked him outright what he was upset about. (He’d already expressed his frustration in private over the last year, so this came as no surprise.) So he spoke up at the request of many other workers who either nearing retirement or supporting families. He explained how PW assignments were a way that his boss could show his workers he values their work by increasing their earning potential and asked what was getting in the way of him doing that. His manager had no response.

    Now he’s hearing through the grapevine that his manager intends to fire him if he “pulls” anything like that again. He’s really upset and more than a bit scared. But I couldn’t be prouder of the man I married, who was willing to stand up for what’s right. These are the kinds of things we miss when we only value someone’s title.

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  • Chitlin Circuit

    I think a White woman wrote this
    Black women marry down and literally get drowned

  • fromaway05

    Hypergamy meet equality. All the men taken to the cleaners since the adoption of no fault divorce welcome you.

  • Paul

    i’m with you. My wife and I have been married for 14 fantastic years. She’s a Cardiac Anesthesiologist. I’m a dog trainer–well, I own a small dog training business, but never the less, I’m a dog trainer, she’s a doctor. The only one who ever gave us grief was my mother, but only at first. Finally she said, “well, if you can’t be a doctor, marry a doctor”. Oy–she means well. Anyway, my wife’s colleagues always pick my brain about their dogs behaviors, and my wife loves that. Long story short, she makes $250,000 and I make around $45,000. Everything I make goes straight into our retirement accounts and we live on what she makes. No kids and we’re in our 40s. Happy Happy.

  • Katie DeBaun

    This is beyond perfect. I love the line, “I am not the breadwinner by default, but by choice.” My fiance does part time retail work (but it looking for a full-time job with health insurance for the both of us) while I work my way through a strenuous PhD program. I will out earn him, there is no question. And I despise the idea that I’m “marrying down.” A career isn’t everything. We only have 80-100 good years on this earth, and my fiance deserves to be identified by perfectly valid things beyond a career. He is the kindest person I know who is wholeheartedly dedicated to his family, to me, and my family, and to his friends. Why should this not be just as valued as some career that would not make him happy?