BOSTON — Ellen and Alex live pretty well. They take vacations when they want, eat out regularly, and they just bought their first house in an affluent Boston suburb.
And Ellen gets most of the credit for making a comfortable lifestyle affordable.
She earns twice as much, in her job as management consultant, as her husband.
And it doesn't seem to bother him a bit.
"I'm actually surprised at how easy it's been for me, because I was raised in Mexico - and that's a very male-oriented society," says Alex, a graphic designer.
"It would be different if there was any pressure from her family," he says, "or they made comments about it."
Today, more women than ever before earn more than their husbands.
Yet a woman earning more can alter a couple's relationship at home.
Society's stereotypes are hard - particularly for men. While men appreciate the added income and freedom to pursue alternative career opportunities, they have a tough time knowing - and knowing that others might know - that their wives make most of the money.
Many couples either shun any conversation about the topic or don't want their names in print if they do.
"[Men] like it in the short run. It may mean more economic security," says Thomas Nowak, a sociology professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. "But there still are quite a few guys who have difficulty with women who out-earn them."
More women earning more
It's an issue facing more couples today. In dual-income families, 22 percent of wives out-earn their husbands, up from 18 percent in 1987, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. And that's up from 4.4 percent in 1970.
In addition, more women are primary providers for longer periods of time, research finds.
The trend isn't all that surprising. A growing number of women work in high-paying fields such as law and medicine or hold positions in top management; and the wage gap between men and women is closing.
A 1996 survey by New York-based Catalyst found that 75 percent of senior-level women executives are the primary breadwinners of their families.
For example, the title on the door of Ellen Kullman's office at DuPont reads vice president, which means both a rank and paycheck that tops her husband's, who is a manager in the company's Teflon business.
"Since it's pretty apparent publicly that I earn more than he does because we work for the same company and our titles are very different, it's never been an issue, really," says Ms. Kullman.
"When we got married we only had debt," she says. "So as we've gone forward, everything is pretty much in joint accounts.
"We discuss how we choose to save, invest, and spend our income, but I don't ever remember an issue ... of mine versus his."
Downsizing is also a factor. As men have lost their jobs or taken lower-paying positions, more wives have become the primary breadwinners.
Modeling a new role
Several factors affect men's response to the role reversal.
Social psychologists have found that when a woman earns only slightly more than her husband, he often doesn't acknowledge the difference. He may even think of their incomes as equal.
The husband's current career status also plays a role.
"If a man has already had a successful career, then he can more gracefully - at least for a period of time - watch his wife's career flourish," says Professor Nowak, who has researched the topic with his wife, Kay Snyder, also a sociology professor.
But if a man hasn't made his mark yet or has lost his job, he says, it's more threatening.
Nancy, for example, assistant corporate controller at a large company on the East Coast, has been the primary breadwinner for the past 10 years. But it's still sometimes hard for her husband, who is a general contractor.
"I think he feels societal pressures on him that the man should be earning more or at least supporting the family," she says. "He feels his worth is valued by his job, and if he's not making money, then his worth is down."
What makes it easier, men say, is knowing that their wives like their work and don't feel trapped.
"If Ellen [the management consultant] were unhappy with her job, I think it would be a different story," says Alex. "I'd feel more guilty about the fact that my line of work doesn't pay as well."
While most couples apparently share important decisions, they don't share domestic chores.
The couples interviewed by the Monitor,said the men either helped with or did much of the cooking, cleaning, and child-care duties.
Yet research indicates that most women who out-earn their husbands still shoulder most of the household duties (see chart).
Self-esteem at stake
Nancy's husband does most of the housework, including chauffeuring around their 12-year-old daughter. But when she first went back to work after he lost his job, that wasn't the case.
"He felt that was showing that he was a failure because he had to do all these things that were traditionally my job," she says.
"Eventually, he was able to understand that he was being helpful and supportive, and it was making our lives a lot easier."
In Alex's and Ellen's case, he also does most of the shopping and cleaning, partly because she works longer hours and travels more. But he also says he likes doing it more.
"He does everything," Ellen says. "He does the laundry. He does the shopping. He's a dreadful cook, so that's the one thing we balance a little more. But he takes up the burden of everything."
Things are about to change for them. A baby is due any day, and they've mutually decided that Alex will stay home full time while Ellen returns to work.
"We're trying not to set up major expectations," says Ellen, "where I feel like, no matter what, I'm going to have to have all the financial burden, and he's going to have to be the primary caregiver..
"We're going to try that out, and if it doesn't work, we're going to adjust it."
Alex seems happy to leave the breadwinning to Ellen.
"My contribution may not be reflected in the financial sense," he says, "but I'll be working my tail off."
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