A working woman is the key to a husband’s happiness

July 31, 1995
  • umichnews@umich.edu

ANN ARBOR—The husbands of working women are happier than the husbands of homemakers, according to a University of Michigan study.

“Homemakers’ husbands have the burden of being providers with no financial support from their wives, especially when children are present in the household,” says Terri L. Orbuch, a sociologist at the U-M Institute for Social Research.

The husbands of women who work mainly for the money are better off than the husbands of homemakers, because they receive financial support from their wives without feeling threatened by their wives’ careers.

But for the husbands of career women, the situation may be more mixed. According to Orbuch, “career women may pose too great a threat to their husbands.”

The study is one of the first to examine the effects different types of women’s work have on husbands’ well- being, instead of comparing all women who work with those who don’t. It is also among the first to analyze how these effects may differ in black compared with white couples.

For the study, Orbuch and colleagues interviewed three groups of men, drawn from a sample of 264 (121 Black) couples who had been married for three years. About one-third were the husbands of career women, one-third were the husbands of wage earners and the rest were husbands of homemakers.

“It’s the meaning of work to women and men that counts, not whether a woman works outside the home or doesn’t,” says Orbuch. But she emphasizes that factors such as the couple’s race, why a woman works, if a couple has children and whether a husband helps with the housework play an important role in deciding what work means.

“Black wives have traditionally worked outside the home more than white wives, out of necessity,” she notes. “As a result, a woman’s working has different meanings for Black and white couples.”

White husbands of career women did not feel anxious about their wives working, Orbuch found, unless they gave up power in the home by participating in housework and child care.

Orbuch found that how Black husbands feel about their wives working depends on family income, however. Black husbands of wage earners are not threatened by their wives’ work if family income is relatively low and a second income is necessary. Nor do they seem to be threatened by participation in housework and child care.

But if family income is not an issue and the wife works because she wants to, not because she has to, then Black husbands are likely to feel depressed, Orbuch found.

“Black husbands may be more vulnerable to or threatened by any challenge to the balance of power within the family because of the unstable job market and lower earning power of Black males,” Orbuch speculates

With U-M graduate student Lindsay Custer, Orbuch authored an article on the study, published in the May 1995 issue of the Journal of Marriage and the Family. The study was funded in part by a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health.