When Sophie fell for her husband James, his earning power didn’t feature on his list of attractions. The couple met as graduates, working in a bookshop. It was a first job for both of them and they bonded over a love of literature. ‘He was thoughtful, intelligent, caring,’ says Sophie. ‘He wasn’t ambitious or driven, but I’d grown up expecting to look after myself. Which of us would end up with the better salary seemed irrelevant.’
Almost 20 years on, with a hefty mortgage and three children, it’s more of an issue. Sophie’s salary as a recruitment executive is three times James’s as an IT technician. ‘I feel I’m holding everything together,’ says Sophie, now 40. ‘I work stressful hours and I’m out of the house twice as long as James, who works locally in a low-pressure environment. He’s a very loving dad but he isn’t in touch with the children’s lives the way I am. I know their friendship groups, their activities. I write the shopping list and think about what they’re going to have for dinner – even if James is the one who cooks it. I’m also the person who plans the holidays and organises our social life. James is generally agreeable, happy to go along with things. He’s popular and sociable – everyone likes him. But often I look at him and think, “Just once, can you step up and take charge?” I’m exhausted.’
This simmering resentment is probably a two-way thing. Sophie is all too aware of what she calls James’s ‘passive-aggressive “yes dear”’ when she asks him to do something – and his tendency to avoid doing said thing for as long as possible. ‘We’re spending more and more time avoiding one another,’ she says. ‘When you start feeling like you’re his parent and wondering how he’d cope without you, it stops feeling like a marriage. It’s not good and it’s certainly not sexy.’
The alpha woman and beta man – on paper, it’s the perfect pairing. Women are forging ahead: female graduates outnumber men in two-thirds of degree subjects and female employment rates were the highest since records began at the end of last year. It’s estimated that in 22 per cent of two-parent families where both partners work, women are now the main earners, and whereas the number of stay-at-home mums is at a record low, the figure for stay-at-home dads has doubled since 1993. Just as career men once relied on a woman to keep life running smoothly, an alpha woman may turn to a beta man who is happy to juggle a less demanding job and support her while she works to smash the glass ceiling.
And there’s much to admire in such a man. If he is happy to play beta to your alpha, then he may be ego-free, non-macho, nurturing and thoughtful. Yet a steady trickle of research suggests that behind closed doors, we haven’t kept pace with the power flip.
One divorce lawyer reported a rise in divorces where the man stays at home, saying they account for ten per cent of case load. Last year, a Harvard study of more than 6,000 couples found that those in which the man does not work full-time were more likely to divorce, regardless of their financial situation. This was attributed to the ‘psychological strain’ created when a man does not ‘fulfil the stereotypical breadwinner role’. According to other studies, women who significantly out-earn their partners tend to take on more housework and childcare rather than less. Their partners, meanwhile, are more likely to have an affair. Add research from Denmark that found men who earn less than their wives were more likely to take medication for erectile dysfunction, and the picture doesn’t look promising.
On Mumsnet, various posts express the woman’s perspective. ‘Anyone else a resentful working mum?’ asks one. ‘Our son will be eight months old when I return to work. I earn twice as much as my other half and after paying for childcare and the dog walker his salary cancels out so he is going to stay at home. I’ve worked so hard at university and my career. He has cruised through life reaching 30 without working that hard (he has the potential for more) and now he’s the one that gets to stay at home. I don’t think it’s fair.’
Another Mumsnet user is further down the road – her youngest child is nine. ‘After being the sole earner for 15 years, am I being unreasonable to expect my husband to find a job?’ she asks. ‘I have tried to be patient, to understand there was a recession, that he is nervous about getting a new job. But the house is a mess and he cares more about online gaming than getting stuff done.’
According to psychotherapist Wendy Bristow, some of the problem lies with the way we are raised and socialise, and the hidden messages we receive about what it means to be a man and a woman. ‘We’re affected by those ideas whether we like it or not,’ she says. ‘Women aren’t praised for being good providers; men are. From an early age, men are taught to hang their self-esteem on what they do. Playing second fiddle to someone else is low status. A man struggling with that, and feeling emasculated at home, won’t appreciate a busy, stressed woman who walks in the door asking when dinner will be ready. It creates resentment.’
Suzanne Doyle-Morris, a specialist in women in the workforce, has no doubt that there’s a stigma attached to alpha woman-beta man partnerships. When she wrote her book Female Breadwinners, featuring couples who lived with this arrangement, none wished to be identified and all thought the setup was temporary. ‘The women felt it was disloyal to talk about it,’ she says. ‘Some said, “My parents don’t know.” Not a single one defined their partner as a stay-at-home dad or a househusband. Let’s be clear, lots were. In many cases, they brought in no income but they said, “I’m a day trader”, or, “I’m a musician”. They created other identities.’
Marital therapist Andrew G Marshall, author of I Love You But You Always Put Me Last, has several clients in this situation. ‘Attitudes are changing so it’s getting easier, but it brings challenges for both women and men,’ he says. One revolves around power in the home. ‘Traditionally, though men may have exercised more power outside the home, women held more sway within it,’ he says. ‘Our culture says that to be a good mother, you have to be in charge of the nurturing – so even if you’re at work all day, you don’t want to give up that control. The man is left with a list of instructions on what the meals are, how to prepare them and how to get them down the children. On a good day, he may have 20 per cent of the power; at worst, it’s “boss” and “help”.
‘He may feel that she’s out in the world, commanding respect, wearing nice clothes and sipping cappuccinos; he doesn’t see the office politics and rail strikes. She thinks he’s lying around failing to get things done; she doesn’t experience his isolation or low status in the eyes of others. Unfortunately, when people don’t feel appreciated, infidelity can become an issue. I see as many career women having affairs with colleagues as I do househusbands hooking up with someone on the school run.’
But no one wants a return to the 1950s model where a man’s role was breadwinner and the woman’s was wife, mother and homemaker – and it’s clear there will be many more breadwinning women in the future. So how can couples guard against problems?
First and foremost, says Doyle-Morris, choose your partner wisely. ‘Very few couples actually plan this arrangement,’ she says. ‘One loses their job or the other forges ahead, or it makes financial sense when children come along. Find a man for whom it wouldn’t be a problem if you ended up out-earning him, someone who thinks what you do is cool, who grew up with strong women around him and doesn’t build his identity only through his job.’
The most successful arrangements are helped by the woman smoothing the way. ‘Look for a supportive social network,’ Doyle-Morris says. ‘I spoke to a couple whose friends were coming up with, “I’d love to have your job – at home all day doing nothing” remarks, making fun of the husband. Banter is often affectionate, but if he’s feeling insecure already, it can be hard for your partner to be the butt of jokes. Gradually the couple found friends in a similar boat.
‘Women in successful alpha-beta relationships often appreciated their partners’ contribution in financial value,’ Doyle-Morris continues. ‘It could be the saving on childcare or the deal he found on a holiday. Notice it and verbalise it.’
Marshall agrees that praise is crucial on both sides. ‘Be curious about what it’s like for the other person,’ he says. ‘Men want a round of applause and women want to feel cherished.’
A high-functioning alpha woman could well be sabotaging her partner’s attempts to carve out his own role by intervening and micromanaging in the home. ‘She may need to step back so that he can step up,’ says Bristow. In the controversial book The Unmade Bed, Canadian writer Stephen Marche argues that men will never care about housework the way women do, so it’s up to women to lower their standards.
Sex is also important, adds Bristow. ‘If your partner is feeling emasculated and insecure about his role, then you need to let him know you still desire him, he’s still your man,’ she says. ‘If the sex disappears, if you reject his advances, he’s going to feel more hurt and more resentful.’ And resentment is toxic in a marriage. While on the surface a beta man may appear unruffled, his true feelings may show in a gradual retreat or the odd cutting aside.
This was the case for Melanie, 48, whose husband John’s redundancy morphed into ‘early retirement. We’re lucky that financially we can cope,’ says Melanie, an accountant with a six-figure salary. ‘But it did take a lot of adjustment on both sides.
‘From my perspective, why did we still need to pay a cleaner when John was at home every day? He had no motivation, no get up and go. I’d married a man in a suit with a great job, and now he was happy to be out of the rat race tinkering around at home, doing DIY favours for neighbours and watching Sky Sports.’
Although there were no big rows, there was an icy undercurrent. ‘It would be imperceptible to others – just raised eyebrows from me when the kitchen was a mess and nasty comments from him about my clothes or the way I parented. We were both becoming more judgmental, a little crueller.’
It took six months of couple’s counselling to bring them back together. ‘The key is listening to what the other is experiencing and learning to appreciate what they do,’ she says. ‘We still have a cleaner – I just had to let that go and accept it. John is brilliant with the children and tougher with the school stuff in a way I wouldn’t have been. If you can stop looking at one another and thinking, “If only you were more like this” or, “If only you did less of that” and appreciate the good stuff, you will be OK.’
There are cases, of course, when this simply doesn’t work out. Lisa is a successful travel PR – and so was her husband, until he decided he really wanted to be an artist, converting the garage into his studio. ‘He didn’t do the shopping, the cleaning, the cooking,’ she says. ‘He did take it upon himself to remodel the garden, but as far as I could see, it didn’t need remodelling. I was earning all the money and still needing to look in the cupboard to see what we needed from the supermarket. I would find myself waking in the night, bursting into tears, thinking, “This isn’t the deal I bought into.”’
Although Lisa and her husband tried counselling, they are now divorced and he, still an artist, lives with his parents. Lisa has remarried, to a man who has a similar income to her. ‘Women don’t need to be trapped in unhappy marriages any more,’ she says. ‘If you have a good job and you’re also doing everything at home, you may well look at your beta man and ask, “Excuse me. What’s the point?”’
Feature by Anna Moore