Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

How Dual Employment Affects Marriage

November 15, 2001

Today employed women make up forty eight percent of the workforce. Forty percent of white, college-educated women earn as much or more money than their husbands. Young men’s wages have been stagnant or declining for the past 30 years, forcing many new couples into dual income situations.

With all the changes in the past 50 years, what is the impact of dual employment on the lives of married men and women?

In the October 2001 issue of the American Psychologist, psychologists Rosalind Barnett at Brandeis University and Janet Hyde at University of Wisconsin - Madison reviewed research studies on how employment has changed men’s and women’s lives. Most of the effects described are positive, however, their review did not include the impact of dual wage earners on children.

The effect of multiple roles. Men and women who combine work, marriage, parenting and other family and community roles report lower levels of stress-related physical and mental health problems than their counterparts who have fewer roles.

For women, lower levels of distress are primarily attributed to their employment. Just as adding the worker role to women’s lives contribute to their well being, men feel better about their lives when they participate in family life. However, employment for a women with large family has a negative effect.

The positive effect of employment depends on the number of roles people have in their lives and the time demands of each role. Men and women are more than workers, parents and marital partners. They also function as friends, members of extended families, neighbors, students, church members or in community organizations. Research has shown that about five roles are optimal for well-being.

Marriage and stress. Even more important than the number of roles or time spent in each role is the quality of each facet of life. Problems at work, marriage problems or concern for children cause distress and anxiety.

A strong marriage is a buffer for work related stress. Both men and women rank marriage and parenting as more important to their happiness than their work involvement. By keeping friendship at the center of their marriage - even if it means sacrificing demanding job opportunities to do so - marital partners cope with their responsibilities and time demands.

Negative stress at work or in marriage is cushioned by success or satisfaction in other roles. The quality of family life lessens the impact of work related stress in men’s lives. A women’s positive work and marital satisfaction can soften the stress of childcare and the concern and stress of caring for elderly parents.

Women who moved into the workforce reported improved physical health and less depression. It is only when non-traditional women are employed more than 40 hours that the likelihood of marital disruption increases.

Flexible gender roles. Flexibility of gender role beliefs and behaviors are another key in managing work and family demands. The gap between the amount of time employed men and women spend in childcare and household tasks still exists but has decreased dramatically in the past 20 years. The quality of the marriage depends more on flexible gender role expectations than earnings, relative earnings or occupational status of either partner.

Wives whose husbands were highly involved at home reported more marital satisfaction than those whose husbands participated less. Non-traditional men who engaged in active, involved fathering reported less psychological distress. Men with traditional gender role beliefs and less family involvement were more vulnerable to work oriented stress.

Additional ways marriages benefit from dual incomes. Besides buffering stress, dual income marriages benefit by additional income, social support, increased self-confidence, new ideas and more similar lifestyles.

1. Added income. Women who work bring in additional income and thus ease financial stress and anxiety. Among lower wage earners, men appreciated their wives tangible efforts to reduce financial stress. In the 90s, men with decent incomes were not threatened by the amount of their wives incomes.

Marital conflict makes employment more attractive to home-bound wives. Her additional income gives her more clout in the marriage and is helpful in working out a more equal relationship. Divorce is greatest in couples in which the wife had no income.

2. More social support. Women benefit from work by the increased number of people who can offer support. A women’s well being is linked to social support from husbands, neighbors, supervisors and coworkers. A men’s well being is chiefly associated with social support from wives.

3. Success experiences. Work can provide opportunities for recognition and appreciation and a boost to self-confidence and self-worth.

4. An expanded frame of reference. Interaction at work offers opportunities for gaining more perspectives on the ups and downs of life. When men or women experience problems, they use these additional perspectives to cope more effectively.

5. Similarity of experiences. When couples combine work and family, their daily life experiences become more alike. They have more in common and more to talk about. They grow closer as they successfully work out fairness and cooperation in adjusting to the demands of joint parenting and household tasks.