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How financial advisors can assist married couples that are fiscal unequals.
By Michelle Arpin Begina and Maureen Kelley
The dialogue about money has shifted for women and the tone of their voices has changed. No longer is the focus specifically on how to manage finances and make educated investment decisions. Women are having a now moment, asking for advice on how to best handle greater earnings and career success while maintaining a healthy marriage. Surprised by a combination of negative emotions and dissatisfaction at home and with their spouse and attempting to find balance in their powerful new role of wealth is a lonely journey for many.
Opportunities for support are rare and empathy for problems that arise from financial success is hard to come by. Melissa, a 43-year-old breadwinner, is private by nature especially when it comes to money. She is conflicted by the issues that financial success has brought upon her marriage and feels guilty about unpleasant feelings toward her husband. She just assumed she would have a balanced partnership and has lost respect for her husband, becoming resentful and questioning whether she is preventing him from being ambitious.
Seeking support, she opened up to her 63-year-old friend and mentor about the pressure and strain that out-earning her husband had put on her marriage—to a highly-charged, emotional response. Unable to recognize or understand Melissa’s pain, she was told to, “Just deal with it and stop whining.” After all, opportunity, equal pay and breaking the glass ceiling are what women fought for these many years.
The strong wave of contemporary feminism isn’t going to diminish and will continue to impact our culture. Women have absorbed the changes of the last 50 years that have redefined what it means to be female in America. To be a girl today is to gain from decades of conversation about the complexities of womanhood, its forms and expressions. Women have been outpacing men in earned bachelors and master degrees since 1982 and doctorates since the mid-2000s. A secondary reshaping is underway with more 25- to 32-year-old women attending college than men. The gender-income gap is closer than ever with young women today earning 93 percent of the average hourly wage of men, and approximately 29 percent of women are earning more than their husbands.
Why then, if women are having career and financial success, are they so dissatisfied at home? Data from a 2013 study by Marilyn Bertrand at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business of 4,000 married American couples found that regardless of amount, once a woman earned more, divorce rates increased. The conflict arises from discussing money, more than the money itself, which leads to marital dissatisfaction and contributes to divorce. Unlike other arguments, money squabbles are more intense and take longer to recover from. Adding to dissatisfaction levels, studies reveal that gaps in housework actually widen when a woman is the primary breadwinner, leading men to do less childcare and work around the house. Some suggest this results from a perceived threat to their masculinity and women overcompensate for these feelings by doing more.
Many women never expected their income would be the foundation of the family’s financial resources, yet they and their husbands navigate the situation successfully. One couple expressed a willingness to adapt for one another by creating a family model that places caring for their children above earned income without casting one spouse or the other into traditional gender roles. The husband remarked, “my identity is not tied to a job—it’s everything outside of that” and, “her opportunities were just too good for me to intervene.” The couple naturally created a working agreement on financial matters based on shared values of family, financial security, work flexibility, support and mutual respect.
The millennials are taking notice of the trend. Jenn, who describes herself as a 32-year-old serial dater, is now ready for a serious relationship. Having earned an MBA, she has a very successful career in finance. Now involved with a man whose vocation is carpentry, the reality is that they’re very fiscally unequal. This imbalance has caused a lot of deep reflection and candid dialogue. She is uncertain as to whether this is a deal-breaker in a long-term relationship. Knowing she would be the major earner, she is realistic about the implications of a financial future together. “This is going to require a great deal of soul searching for me,” she commented.
Reflecting on fiscally unequal relationships, Jay Hughes, retired estate attorney and an expert in this subject matter of “fiscal unequals,” says: “The critical question is whether couples in such relationships can courageously accept their new situation and balance the powerful role of women and their wealth with the issues of male self-esteem. Just as new roles are being forged for women, so must new roles be forged for men.” Couples need to take a breath and evaluate who and where they are. Financial advisors can help by neutralizing and normalizing this issue. Since advisors are in the position of both knowing clients and understanding their finances, who better to assist? Money disagreements are normal and often stem from feeling ignored or there’s an unfairness to it all. Consider facilitating conversations that will help clients renew family and financial goals, while staying focused on the current problem(s) and brainstorming potential solutions together. Begin by asking what expectations they have, what disappointments and what they would like from one another. In the process, help clients evaluate their satisfaction with household and parenting issues (that require financial resources) and money-related issues. In the end, the couple may rewrite their scripts that modernize and honor the set of values they each possess.
Michelle Arpin Begina is a Senior Managing Director, Snowden Lane Partners.
Maureen Kelley is a Senior Consultant, MADRE Financial.