6 Reasons Gender Role Reversal Typically Doesn’t Work


I received an email recently from a woman named Aimee who thanked me for speaking out about the importance of husbands supporting their families once children come along.

Aimee has a Ph.D. and, as a result, was the one “holding the family together as breadwinner.” But when she was laid off, things turned ugly, she said.

“I became resentful because my husband didn’t have the same drive and motivation I did to succeed. As such, I’m now separated with two children; but I know if my ex-husband was on a trajectory toward success rather than taking the path of least resistance we could possibly be married still.”

Aimee’s story reminded me of yet another woman I know—let’s call her Kim—who married a man I’ll call Dan. Kim is a highly ambitious, take-charge woman; while Dan is the quintessential nice guy. At the time of their wedding, Dan still hadn’t found his calling. He had some college under his belt but hadn’t graduated. Kim, meanwhile, was working on her Master’s degree and had her life all planned out. Dan worked odd jobs to make money but continued to flounder. Their marriage ended less than three years after it began.

The stories above highlight an all-too-common relationship scenario today: one in which the woman is the achiever and the man is, well, less of one. It is very often the woman, not the man, who either has more education or who makes more money. Or both. If current trends continue, as they’re predicted to do, more couples than ever will be in this boat. For most of them, this arrangement will not end well.

There was a time, not long ago, when no smart woman would entertain the thought of marrying a man who lacked career aspirations. But things have changed. Today it is fashionable to believe men and women are “equal,” as in interchangeable. This attitude is viewed as the more enlightened, or progressive, view of love and marriage.

But just because something’s trendy doesn’t mean it’s right, or even good. Many, many ideas are wildly popular but hopelessly flawed.

It is true that today, men and women live similar lives prior to settling down—they go to school; they pursue careers; they have sex and even live together—and thus appear “equal.” Indeed, we consider it progress that so many women have become highly educated worker bees who delay marriage and motherhood as long as possible.

Many of their boyfriends even pride themselves on hitching themselves to ambitious women, going so far as to follow their girlfriend’s career trajectory, as opposed to the other way around, as couples have done for eons (for good reason). What neither partner considers is how things will fare for them down the line.

In the vast majority of cases, these same ambitious women will drop out of the workforce or cut back considerably when they have children. In fact, part-time work or no work at all is the ideal choice for most married women with children. On average, 72%.

Seventy-two percent.

“Working part time has consistently been the top choice for women with at least one child under the age of 18 in the three years that the question was asked,” writes Wendy Wang of the Pew Research Center.

This family structure is not, as the media claim, a result of couples being backed into a corner by living in a country that doesn’t offer adequate child care. It’s because that is the way most couples want it.

“It’s important to note,” writes Kim Parker, “that when we asked people whether they regretted taking these steps [to reduce their work hours], the resounding answer was “No.’”

Which brings us back to the couples above, the ones who found themselves in a pickle because no one told them what would likely happen down the road with respect to gender roles in family life. Instead, they got the message from feminists and gender equality advocates that this new relationship dynamic has no implications at all. But it does.

Here are 6 reasons gender role reversal typically doesn’t work:

1. The vast majority of women would prefer to work part-time or not at all when they have children.

If a wife is unable to do this because she and her husband made financial plans on the assumption she’d always be employed, she will become frustrated with, and resentful toward, her husband. And when resentment creeps into a marriage, that’s usually the beginning of the end.

2. A husband’s lack of steady employment increases his chance of divorce.

In a study published in the American Sociological Review, Harvard sociologist Alexandra Achen Killewaldfound that a husband’s breadwinning mattered a great deal. If he was employed full time, there was a 2.5% chance of splitting up in the next year. But if he wasn’t, there was a 3.3 percent chance.

3. Husbands who are financially dependent on their wives are significantly more likely to cheat.

This study, also by the American Sociological Review, found that men who are 100% economically dependent on their spouses “were most at risk for cheating, three times more at risk than women married to male breadwinners,” writes Kelly Wallace of CNN.

4. Men who do a lot of housewife-type tasks are less likely to have sex.

In yet another study by the ASA, the authors found that couples in which men participate more in housework typically done by women report having sex less frequently. Similarly, couples in which men participate more in traditionally masculine tasks—such as yard work, paying bills, and auto maintenance—report higher sexual frequency.

5. If the wife becomes the breadwinner and the father stays home, she will likely become jealous of her husband’s close relationship with the kids.

It sounds counterintuitive—you’d think a wife would be thrilled to have a husband who stays home with the kids or whose job is more flexible and thus allows him to take on more child care at home—but breadwinning wives tend to feel insecure about their relationship with their children. If the husband takes on the lion’s share at home, it is he to whom the kids will turn. And this can become yet another source of resentment.

6. Wives who earn more than their husbands are chronically exhausted from working full time and taking care of the house and kids.

This is the problem we hear about most when it comes to mothers and work. Most husbands simply don’t care for the house and kids in the same way most wives do. Women tend to have expectations for how they think life at home should be. So when the husband doesn’t do things accordingly, the assumption is that he isn’t doing enough. In reality, he’s probably just not doing it her way. Either which way, conflict ensues.

The children of Baby Boomers, aka Millennials, have seen or experienced this conflict first hand and, as a result, are skeptical of the arrangement. Here’s an article that explains what gender role reversal looks like behind the scenes. As a result, many Millennials are reversing course.

To be clear, I’m not arguing for strict gender roles in a marriage—there’s almost always an overlap. Nor am I saying a full-on gender role reversal can never work. But the effort that must go into it is huge. And those who do make it work are the exception, not the rule.

In other words: don’t bank on it. Instead, assume that when the kids come along everything will change. And plan accordingly.

Suzanne Venker

Suzanne Venker is an author, speaker and cultural critic known as “The Feminist Fixer.” She has authored several books to help women win with men in life and in love. Her most recent, The Alpha Female’s Guide to Men & Marriage, was published in February 2017.

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