Why Two-Income Families Are Happier Than Single Earner Households

Here’s why two incomes can lead to more fulfillment and lower stress.

(disclaimer- my philosophy on marriages/families is that couples need to discuss and choose an arrangement that works best for the family. There are many different ways to be successful, and it is not my intent to criticize or denigrate anyone’s choice or the way they structure their work in and out of the home. Your mileage may vary. Please keep this in mind as you read)

You have a job you don’t like, a boss who’s a jerk, few advancement opportunities on the horizon, and it’s a tough economy to find a comparable job somewhere else.

You have a great idea for a new business. You’d be great at it, and you’d feel so much better about yourself. You’d love to escape the hamster-wheel you are on and pursue your professional goals…

But, you have a wife and two kids. They rely 100% on your income, and on your employer’s health insurance plan. You have a mortgage, car payments, and you are desperately trying to put aside some money for college and retirement.

So, what do you do?

Well, you probably suck it up, and do what you have to for your family.

But this comes at a cost. You are a more stressed, less happy person. You have all the pressure to provide for your family on your shoulders—and of course, even this job you don’t like doesn’t come with guarantees. Your wife is also probably frustrated about being trapped in the house and stressed about finances, too.

In his fantastic article, Jayson Gaddis identifies Why Men Get Trapped in Soul Sucking Jobs. Some common reasons include:

  • “It’s not really what I want to do, but it pays the bills.”
  • “It’s not really my ideal job, but the benefits are good,”
  • “Hey, working for the man pays the bills.”
  • “I don’t have time to find work I’m happy about.”
  • “Yeah, wait till you have a family and then let’s talk about your ideal job.”

You are far more likely to be stuck in a job if it is the only financial lifeline for your family. And considering you spend more time in your adult life working than anything else (besides sleeping), a soul-sucking job can have huge emotional and physical consequences.

So what can you do about it? I may be an ivory-tower idealist*, but even I can’t advocate risking your family’s financial future on taking a huge leap into the unknown (especially as the vast majority of small businesses fail) without first building a safety net.

Maybe the best solution isn’t what you do. Instead, maybe it is what your spouse can do. And that may very well be to get a job. This applies to men and women equally.

Depending on your family situation (having pre-school age children may prevent this, for example), having a second income can improve a marriage and a family in many ways.

The benefits of dual-incomes are best articulated in the book Getting to 50/50 by Sharon Meers and Joanna Strober. The book is primarily focused on women’s issues, but is even-handed, appreciative of good husbands, and has lots of implications for men.

Meers and Strober assert that one of the best things you can do, both for themselves and their families, is to get at least a part-time job outside the home. They cite the following (from the American Journal of Sociology):

Marriages in which there is a sole breadwinner get divorced at a rate 14% above average, the highest of any income split.

This is likely due to the fact that 100/0 marriages are more likely to have less income, more financial stressors, a more stressed-out provider, and a homemaker who is also probably overstressed and frustrated at being restricted to a single role.

Further, they state that if both spouses work at least some outside the home, they have more common experiences, have more to talk about, and can better relate to each other’s problems and emotions (as opposed to “my wife doesn’t understand my work pressures and need to relax some when I get home” and “my husband doesn’t recognize all the work I do all day and that I need a break when he gets home.The book also talks about the positives for children, especially girls, but that’s another article).

This second job doesn’t have to be equally lucrative or demanding to bring these benefits. A 20-hour a week part-time job brings extra income and psychic benefits to both partners. In fact, balancing one high-income, demanding career job, with a second job that is more family- and lifestyle-friendly, seems to be the best match, especially if the secondary income has health insurance.

In fact, despite the book title, the presented evidence indicates that couples who have a roughly 62/38 split on income (and roughly the opposite proportion of housework/child care) exhibit the lowest levels of divorce (an amazing 51% below the average!!! and 65% below 100/0 marriages).

Further evidence comes from Kathleen Gerson’s 2010 book, The Unfinished Revolution, that discussed how, among those under 30, about 80% of women and 70% of men desire an egalitarian marriage in which both partners share breadwinning, housekeeping, and child rearing. This finding is echoed by Boston College’s New Dads study, which found 70% of men aspired to shared providing/caretaking.

And I’ve seen this play out in a few of my friends’ lives.

  • I have a friend who left his ok job and went into business for himself, thanks to the fact that his wife is a state employee with a good enough income and great family benefits that allowed him to make the leap
  • I have a friend who was able to leave his job and enter a training program in a different field, and now he is working at a job he loves (and that can eventually lead to very high income), because his wife is a federal employee with great benefits
  • I have a friend who was unexpectedly laid off. He found work relatively quickly, but having the financial buffer of his wife’s career meant they stayed afloat
  • I have a friend who became a stay-at-home-dad and started a home-based business after their daughter was born. His wife had the more stable job/income to allow this to happen.
  • I have a friend who was able to leave a pressurized full-time job for a dream 18-month consulting opportunity because his wife took a job with benefits

From where I sit (and you never really know about people’s marriages from the outside), these families seem happier than they did before the career switches. In many ways, happier parents make better, more involved parents, and everyone, especially the kids, gain from this.

* actual recent quote

—this first appeared at Fathers, Work, and Family

—image by thethreesisters/Flickr

 


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About Scott Behson

Scott Behson is a Professor of Management at Fairleigh Dickinson University, a busy involved dad, and an overall grateful guy. He runs the www.FathersWorkandFamily.com blog dedicated to helping fathers better balance work and family and encouraging more supportive workplaces, and also writes for Harvard Business Review, The Huffington Post, and, most recently, Time. He lives in Nyack, NY with his wife, Amy, and son, Nick. Contact him @ScottBehson on twitter.

Comments

  1. I appreciate this documented glance at sustainability, moreso than gender inequality as is usually covered in topics like this. Doesn’t matter which spouse is the breadwinner; the divorce rate is lower when both are employed regardless.
    Dual-income families are more resilient in hardships, too. My wife, who is the main breadwinner, has had to take extended leaves in the last couple years to care for sick family. My income helped cushion the financial blow.

  2. Single / dual incomes don’t make divorces, people make divorces and their lack of commitment to one another to make it work, make divorces …

    Some of the problem is a lot of people expect others and “things” to make them happy and when they don’t …

    • Nick, mostly says:

      You might consider a course in statistics.

      • Statistics only tell you so much. My favorite stat was once announced on every USAirways flight: “95% of our flights that leave on time arrive on time”. Given that airlines sandbag their schedules pretty generously to allow for the inevitable ground delays (the flight I frequented only required 40 minutes of air time generally but showed flight time as 1h30m), it’s not nearly as impressive as the marketing genius who added to their boarding announcements must have wanted. As a consumer, that isolated statistic is virtually useless to me. Statistics about single or dual income aside give you only a very small part of the complex picture that is a marriage.

        • Kate- Thanks for reading and commenting.

          Of course marriages are complex and a single factor is not determinative. I completely agree, and that’s not what I wrote.

          Self-serving marketing statistics from an airline are really not to be compared to well-conducted academic research.

          The referenced study is based on a large, validated dataset, and the results and conclusions passed double-blind peer review in a leading journal of sociology. As such, it cannot be tossed off as “anyone can produce statistics to prove anything…”

          • Scott – thanks for the reply. I think your piece fairly represents your view.. My comment was to Nick’s glib response to Tom.

            • Cornelius Walker says:

              glib |glib|
              adjective ( glibber , glibbest )
              (of words or the person speaking them) fluent and voluble but insincere and shallow: she was careful not to let the answer sound too glib.

              I’m not sure I was being insincere or shallow. I’ll cop to “cheeky” though.

              I recommend a course in statistics to everyone – I find unfamiliarity with the subject to be highly correlated with misunderstanding articles in which it is employed. There are undoubtedly many factors that lead to divorce, but the data make clear that single-income vs dual-income is significantly correlated with divorce. There is a book out called Naked Statistics which in part discusses the issue of correlation vs causation – it’s a very accessible book and I highly recommend it.

            • If you want to nitpick…Your definition of glib is #3 in Webster’s. #1 is: a : marked by ease and informality : nonchalant; b : showing little forethought or preparation : offhand ; c : lacking depth and substance : superficial . I’m satisfied with my characterization of the earlier comment.

              Though a bit rusty, I do have quite a bit of statistics background. I don’t feel the need to read the original study. It’s not at all surprising to me that there’d be a correlation between single earner households and increased levels of divorce. However, the anger, resentment, depression, stress, etc. that either party may feel (yes, SAHMs feel those things too) as a result of that arrangement can be mitigated IF *both* parties are committed enough to their marriage to find an appropriate solution. That’s how I read Tom’s comment and why I found the response irritating. It is an important point. If men (going back to this article) are stewing in discontent or expressing it to their buddies at the gym or in the bar and talking to researchers but not their wives, divorce is inevitable.

  3. This is all great in theory.

    Of course, in the real world, this has been the norm for 30 years. People are more stressed. They are less fulfilled. They have less real income, adjusted for inflation.

    Theories very often suck.

    • Do you actually read the articles or just comment on headlines, soullite? While its true that income has stagnated, what the hell does that have to do with the comparative research on divorce rates as presented in the article you’re commenting on?

  4. There’s much food for thought in this article.

    First, I like your disclaimer. Each couple / family needs to communicate in effective ways about what will work for them. I will also mention that this changes over time – not only because one wants to pursue a passion or ambition, but with more children circumstances become logistically more complex; with older children, complex differently; with aging parents – yet another layer of complexity is factored into the familial mix. And none of that takes into account our own personal evolution of body or mind.

    This brings me to my second point of agreement. In theory (at least), two incomes does offer a buffer in the event of the unforeseen. If one is laid off for example, there’s a little more of a safety net. But in the case of unemployment – particularly when you’re speaking of men or women who have been in the workforce for decades – the beating to one’s sense of self-esteem and identity is massive. Men and women both may see themselves as providers. When that’s knocked out from under them, the consequences can be significant.

    In couples that are genuinely close and supportive of each other and the family unit, this may indeed provide opportunity for change. For those with relationships that are already strained, this may force them farther apart.

    Third, the economics of childcare make this problematic for many. This is something that we as a society must deal with in terms of infrastructure and more importantly, belief systems. I find later elementary school and middle school especially problematic. Few affordable options other than family / neighbors – and without that, you’re out of luck.

    Last, this is a first world problem, as they say, though I agree in principle with the points you’re making. Millions are searching for or working at anything that pays, just to keep a roof overhead and food on the table. It doesn’t lessen the importance of the flexibility you’re speaking of; I’m simply noting that to be in a position to consider these options, one is already quite fortunate.

    • DA- Yours is an incredibly insightful and well-reasoned comment. I agree with every point you make and every caveat you present (it just would have led to an overl long article to include them). Juggling work and family presents seemingly endless challenges. If you look through my articles here and elsewhere, the throughline is trying to help folks think through the challenges and develop a balance that works for them. Thanks!

  5. This is very insulting to me, a SAHM for 20 years. To think that I didn’t understand the pressures my husband was under while running our small business, just because I didn’t go out and get some crappy part-time job, is ridiculous. What you’re ultimately saying here is that those who stay at home to raise their children – men or women – aren’t really working at all, since we don’t earn any money.

    Because I stayed at home, my husband was able to give 150% to building our business without having to worry about things like childcare, errands, cooking, cleaning, household management, pet care, home maintenance, volunteer work, and more. I wouldn’t change a thing. And now that our kids are grown, I work very hard as a writer, fortunate to be able to pursue my dreams after creating and environment for my family in which they were encouraged to pursue theirs.

    Oh, and we’re very happily married. For 23 years.

    • Hi Sharon-

      I am very sorry you felt insulted by my article. This was never my intent. In fact, my first two sentences are: “My philosophy on marriages/families is that couples need to discuss and choose an arrangement that works best for the family. There are many different ways to be successful, and it is not my intent to criticize or denigrate anyone’s choice or the way they structure their work in and out of the home”

      I am very glad that the family arrangement you chose worked for you and your family! There are obvious advantages and disadvantages to both single-earner and dual-earner households. The data I present show trends, and obviously are not determinative.

      I sincerely hope that, in the future, I can look back upon my marriage and feel as passionately as you do about how well your choices worked and how successful your life has been.

      Thank you for reading, and I hope I haven’t pushed you away from reading my future GMP content.

    • Nick, mostly says:

      I think you read a different essay. But please, continue with your outrage and taking offense, someone will make sure it’s directed to the proper place.

      • I’m not outraged, just have a different opinion from yours. And the quote below is what made me respond as I did.

        “Further, they state that if both spouses work at least some outside the home, they have more common experiences, have more to talk about, and can better relate to each other’s problems and emotions (as opposed to “my wife doesn’t understand my work pressures and need to relax some when I get home” and “my husband doesn’t recognize all the work I do all day and that I need a break when he gets home.” The book also talks about the positives for children, especially girls, but that’s another article).”

        There’s no need to be condescending to someone who takes the time to comment on something you write.

        • Sharon-
          I can’t control Nick’s hostile reply to your comment, but I was sincere in my response to your prior comment. Again, I am sorry for offending; this was never my intent.
          -Scott

        • Nick, mostly says:

          You come in here taking offense to an article talking about trends and statistics as if someone was passing judgement on your relationship specifically. To say that marriages where there is a sole breadwinner get divorced at a higher rate is not the same thing as saying that they all get a divorce, or that people who choose to arrange their marriage thusly are somehow wrong. And yet you found it fitting to call out the author of this piece because researchers found these trends?

          Scott owes you no apology – your response was irrational and your umbrage misdirected. I will admit that my was snarky, for which I do owe you an apology. I’m sorry.

  6. Nick, I agree that Sharon read me wrong.

    But, however unintentionally, I offended her, and for that I am sorry.

    The internet can be a place for civility, too ;)

  7. Scott you are a gentleman, thank you.

  8. Brad Taliancixh says:

    Dual incomes can ease stress and pressure. But I’ll tell you one possibility, that is great & often overlooked, is a solid home-based business. It is especially rewarding when 1 spouse can still stay home with the kids but also when you can do it as a couple. Yes, there are lots of scams out there but do your homework & you’ll find the good ones. It has benefitted our family tremendously. Ours helped us earn $40k in 2012 and allowed for a financially stress free maternity leave, for my wife, when our twins were born in Dec.

  9. I certainly can relate to this article. I was married for 20 years and the sole breadwinner. My wife thought I was just a complainer all the time, and thought I just had a bad boss the whole time; she just didn’t understand the stress and pressure I was getting at work and she could never empathize what I was going through. When I was worried about being laid off, (which became a reality late in my career), she thought I was just crying wolf.

    She decided to get divorce eventually. But, the current no-fault divorce in the US make it more economical beneficial for non-working spouse to file for divorce; I think I read somewhere that 80% of divorce of one-income family is filed by the wife. Wives usually get child-custody, child support and alimony even though she may be cheating or did something to harm the relationship. This no-fault divorce law in America is really destroying the institute of marriage, and many men are unwilling to get married because they have seen their fathers and uncles lives get destroyed in the process.

    I think 14% difference will disappear if we go back to our old traditional divorce laws from our current no-fault divorce, and also marriage rate will go up as well. For America to prosper for many years to come, we need healthy marriage, healthy family and healthy kids. We need to re-look at the current no-fault divorce laws that have devastating effects on American family.

  10. Happy Housewife says:

    I don’t think the research the author quotes is correct. Having a full-time mom or dad does not increase the chances of divorce

    From most of what I have read, there is no relationship between divorce and whether or not a couple has one parent working at home. What has been found is that when a mother who is taking care of her kids becomes unhappy with her marriage, she gets a paying job.

    There is also some evidence that mothers who are able to be full-time child care givers are happier with their marriages. In general, though, what matters for happiness is that the mother is happy with the arrangement the couple has, whatever it is.

    However, there is a recent study showing that for higher earning couples, having two incomes may make divorce less likely – but that’s only the higher earning couples. That makes sense to me since women in professional jobs are more likely to enjoy their jobs and to be able to afford high quality care.

    I’m not sure why the research the author cites goes against other studies. Perhaps it is older? Does it include any couples with an unemployed partner? Did it control for having young children?

  11. Happy Housewife says:

    As with many things in life and marriage, there are advantages to both ways of doing things.

    Couples with one parent doing full-time child care have the satisfaction of knowing that their children are getting good, high-quality care. They can raise their children with their values. They do not have to worry about the caregiver leaving. Unless their family is quite large, their children will have fewer illnesses when small. Their children don’t have to deal with as much separation anxiety at a young age.

    Men married to full-time moms do less housework and spend more time with their children. (This probably applies the other way around, the data just hasn’t been collected.)

    Full-time moms get more sleep and have more leisure time. If the mom wants to be doing child care, this may make her happier which is good for the marriage and her husband.

    Specialization helps a family. You don’t have to both keep track of the kids’ homework and schedules.

    Having one person handle the child care can mean that the couple has more time together.

    And finally, when one person is taking care of the kids, the breadwinner does not have to worry about taking the day off when a child is sick, etc.

  12. Unhappy Man Slave says:

    Balance and communication is important … This is only a small part of all the bs ….

    Married a 29 year old ‘virgin’ with a college degree thinking we would be equally yoked. I was an idiot and should have know there was a reason why the ‘nanny’ was single. Our definition of what equally yoked meant was not compatible so the marriage was doomed from the beginning. I thought with a college degree that she would work and she refused to be anything but a SAHM. Was not willing to compromise on anything in spite of my feeling trapped/unhappy/etc. Liked to pretend that I was the ‘man’ of the house yet she wanted to make all the decisions. Even after the kids were in public school and there was no real reason why she couldn’t work at least part time. Have a great relationship with my adult son who recently told me he did not understand why she refused to work. She turned my two daughters against me. Haven’t talked with them in many months and may never again. I’ve heard that I am a Grandfather but fully expect to never meet or be involved in his/her life. Even though I am not a deadbeat dad, I can totally understand why men become that way. I faithfully show up for visitation for years but my son was the only one who showed up. I even have doubts about whether they are all biologically mine.

    All this drama because of a refusal to contribute income. Hope it was worth it….

Trackbacks

  1. [...] article was reprinted at the Good Men Project online men’s [...]

  2. [...] written about some of the advantages of dual-career arrangements before (here and here). Of course, many different arrangements can work depending on spousal preferences, financial needs [...]

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