Wife's Higher Pay Can Test a Marriage
By Joan E. Rigdon
The Wall Street Journal
(Copyright (c) 1993, Dow Jones & Co., Inc.)
BLAUVELT, N.Y. -- Bond broker Tom McDonough works on Wall
Street, lives in this rustic suburb and, at age 39, relishes riding $10,000
Last fall he jetted to Bermuda for a week of executive meetings. But
when the executives filed into conference rooms, he joined 120 women
and two other men at question-and-answer sessions for spouses.
Mr. McDonough's wife, Ellen Hart, is a 44-year-old Gemini Consulting
Inc. vice president whose six-figure salary is more than triple his. Since
she's often on the road, he limits his own work hours and travel to care
for their seven-year-old son, Arthur. It's a role he loves, but it threatens
to swallow his career. Two years ago, he balked at Ms. Hart's chance to
transfer to London for a year because without a good job offer of his
own, he would have had to become a house husband. "I remember
thinking of myself as a nanny," he says.
Two-career couples are standard these days, and many of them count on
the wife's income to foot hefty shares of mortgage and college tuition bills.
But now a few women are doing what was unthinkable just one
generation ago: earning substantially more than their husbands.
These women are growing in number as they reach senior management,
successfully launch their own businesses or enter high-paying fields such
as medicine. Other women find themselves earning more as their
husbands are laid off during downsizings or reach career dead ends.
The income gap doesn't necessarily hurt a marriage, as long as the man
feels he's at least an equal. Hillary Clinton earned substantially more than
her husband, the governor, when she was practicing law, and he boasted
of her success.
But an income gap that clearly gives the wife all the power can undermine
or even end a marriage. A Manhattan financial consultant feels frustrated
because her finance-executive husband took too long to decide "what he
wanted to do when he grew up." She says she hates being the primary
earner because she has lost the freedom to take off a year to spend with
her children or work on special projects.
The woman resents her husband's lack of power because "we weren't
raised as women to think we were going to be married to losers."
Men resent that attitude. S. Ross Goodman of Hicksville, N.Y., says he
was happy with his job managing a discount store until 1984, when he
married Meryl Abramson, a computer specialist and
At her urging, he went back to school to learn computer programming
and took a pay cut to join her company. She also pushed for his
promotion to a job as local area network administrator. "She wanted to
be married to a professional," Mr. Goodman says. "I don't think I was
given a choice."
Ms. Abramson says she simply wanted her husband to reach "at least the
same level" that she had, or to be more ambitious. "I thought I tried to
build him up."
In the end, Mr. Goodman's ego was depleted by the "fact that I was
sitting in the breadwinner's seat," Ms. Abramson says. Mr. Goodman
counters that if anything, she was the one who couldn't stand his lower
status. The two divorced last summer.
But most problems caused by a woman earning more than her husband
are more subtle. For men, the switch can hurt their self image, especially if
they were raised to be Ozzies in the Ozzie and Harriet scenario. Many
men "can't tolerate the ego diminution of a wife who's more powerful than
he is," says Patricia S. Cook, an A.T. Kearney vice president and
executive recruiter who is also a psychologist.
For women, femininity can be undermined. On the surface, most seem
happy to live up to the Superwoman challenge. But "even the most
liberated woman has fantasies of being taken care of," says Manhattan
psychologist Barbra Locker.
In general, "it's an unusual couple" that can negotiate equal power, Ms.
Cook contends. At best, "the couple realizes that who makes the most
money is going to shift between them."
That's the case with Mr. McDonough and Ms. Hart. Although they
started out as financial equals, they have leapfrogged each other as each
tried on new careers and jobs. Mr. McDonough finds it hard to talk
about; he initially declined to be interviewed. He changed his mind, Ms.
Hart says, when she asked, "`Are you ashamed that I earn more?'"
In fact, Mr. McDonough boasts of his wife's success to colleagues at
Harry's, a bar in Lower Manhattan where he and other bond brokers are
regulars. But he says he has "been told outright by friends that they
couldn't stand to have their wives make more."
When they met at Ramapo College in Mahwah, N.J., in 1975, Mr.
McDonough was an economics major and Ms. Hart was a psychology
teacher who marched in antiwar demonstrations. After graduation, he
landed work as an insurance claims adjustor, spending his days haggling
with auto mechanics over repair bills. But in time, Mr. McDonough's pay
edged past Ms. Hart's teaching salary.
The two married in 1980. A year later, Ms. Hart put aside her disdain for
corporate America and became a business consultant, helping to design
executive teams. Two years later, Mr. McDonough hit the big time,
landing a job as a bond broker with Manufacturers Hanover.
Ms. Hart, who had earlier resisted marriage because "I thought I might
lose myself," defended her independence by insisting on separate bank
accounts and splitting the bills. "I even used to know who owned what
stock," she says.
That separate but equal arrangement halted after she gave birth and quit
her job. Home for 18 months without an income, she began to feel like
her mother, stretching her father's paychecks.
"I felt like I had to be Ms. Frugal since it wasn't my money," Ms. Hart
says."Tom didn't hook into that at all. He kept saying `Whatever the
family's got, the family's got.' He didn't have one second of trouble that he
was the breadwinner and I wasn't. But I did." Her insecurity lingered until
she returned to work.
The 1980s reversed their fortunes. While Ms. Hart returned to work and
logged double-digit raises and promotions, Mr. McDonough's career
stalled. In 1987, new trading regulations capped commissions, forcing
him to sell more bonds to make the same profit. Then, three years later,
Manufacturers Hanover merged with Chemical Bank. He survived the
first round of cuts but not the second.
That's when Mr. McDonough realized his options were limited. With Ms.
Hart on the road several days a week, he wasn't free to choose work that
demanded travel, long hours or a lengthy commute. "Someone has got to
relieve the babysitter, and that person is me," he says. So he turned down
a banking position which would have required the family to move to
Rochester, N.Y., and took a lower-paying job as a bond broker at a
small Wall Street firm.
The specter of transfers still causes angst. While Mr. McDonough can't
consider one, his wife can, which would force them to rethink his career.
The issue surfaced two years ago, when Gemini offered Ms. Hart a
temporary transfer to London. Even if he had found a job there, he would
have had to find a new one in the battered U.S. financial services industry
after his wife was transferred back. "That was just too scary," he says. "I
thought of it as an unnecessary risk."
For Ms. Hart, the transfer was a chance to become a better business
consultant by learning how business is done abroad. And "every
weekend, we could have flown to Paris," she says a bit wistfully.
Spending money is tricky, too. Although the couple makes mutual
investment decisions, Mr. McDonough hesitates to say whether he's free
to spend at the levels Ms. Hart's income would allow. "You're the one
making more," he says, tossing the question to her.
That said, he discloses he's considering a big purchase: a Harley
Davidson Superglide motorcycle that starts at $10,000. "A man at my
station of life deserves to trade up," Mr. McDonough says.
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