Hubbies Happier if Wife Has Income, Say Midwest Couples

MICHAEL MALIK, a Chicago-area auto mechanic, definitely wants his wife to work. Like many young husbands, Mr. Malik has rejected a traditional homemaker role for his wife and instead wants her to help pay the bills.

''He would not want me sitting home and asking him for his money,'' says Malik's wife, Samantha, who works 50 hours a week as a hair stylist in Skokie, Ill. ''He pays the rent and I pay everything else. It's about half-half.''

The Maliks may not be atypical. A recent study of young married couples in the Midwest shows that the husbands of working women are happier than the husbands of homemakers. The study is the latest signal in the shift under way in attitudes about gender roles. But it also suggests that, while men are adjusting to having their wives work, they aren't happy yet about mopping the floor and pitching in with child care.

''Two-earner families are going to be very important, and this says something about the view men are having now and what is to come,'' says Terri Orbuch, a sociologist at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research and the main author of the study. Experts say they believe that two major social trends underly the shift:

* As mounting economic pressures in the United States make it more difficult for men to succeed as the sole breadwinners, husbands are welcoming wives' earnings as a means of maintaining an accustomed living standard. Another study shows that 55 percent of employed women bring in half or more of their household income.

* Following the historic movement of millions of American women into the workplace since the 1960s, younger men increasingly expect their wives to hold jobs. In 1994, nearly 60 percent of women 16 and older were in the labor force, up from 33.9 percent in 1950.

''At this point, the expectation among young people is that both people work so they can have a better standard of living,'' says William Pinsof, head of the Family Institute at Northwestern University.

The study is limited in size and scope and does not gauge the well-being of women or older men. But the research is considered new for examining the impact on husbands. The study, released last month, is also one of the first to examine and find significant differences in the impact of working wives on white and black husbands.

The study was conducted among 264 couples, most aged in their late 20s, who applied for first-time marriage licenses in Wayne County, Mich., in 1986. Researchers interviewed the husbands and wives during their first and third years of marriage.

About one-third of the wives were categorized as ''wage earners.'' These women saw their jobs primarily as a source of income to enable them to support the family and better enjoy their lives. Another third were ''career women,'' who considered their work as one of the most meaningful parts of their lives. The rest were ''homemakers.''

The study concluded that, among both blacks and whites, ''Homemakers' husbands appear to fare worst in terms of well-being. They have the burden of the provider role with no financial support from their wives.''

In contrast, the husbands of wage earners were happier, especially those with low incomes and children to support. Financial backing from their wives relieved some of the pressure on the men to succeed as breadwinners, without diminishing their power in the household, the study found.

''When women simply work because of finances, the husband can say this is a personal hobby for her, it's not very threatening,'' says Liz Thompson, a Chicago-based marriage counselor and family therapist.

''A blue collar construction worker wants his wife to work at something he can pretend is not very important,'' Ms. Thompson says.

The findings for husbands of career women were more mixed.

White husbands of career women felt more fulfilled than those of homemakers, but this was tempered by anxiety if they took part in housework or if the couple had children. Black husbands of career women were less happy overall, possibly because they felt their lower-average earning power and an unstable job market made their position within the family vulnerable, Orbuch said.

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