Life | Personal Stories | Relationships & Family | Article
Is Earning More Than Your Husband or Boyfriend an Issue?
by Ooi May Sim | 28 Apr 2022 | 8 mins read
Humans have invented technology that has enabled us to connect with people across the globe. We have electric cars, robots and are also planning to send the first person to Mars. We may have come a long way as a species and made many advances in how we think, but for many of us in Malaysia, within the confines of our home, the traditional mindset still prevails.
You see, many (if not most) Malaysians still see men as providers and females as caregivers. So, a woman earning more than her husband or boyfriend is considered taboo, or shameful.
And this isn’t just prevalent in Malaysia. A 2019 study by the University of Bath found that American husbands are less stressed when their wives earn up to 40% of the household income but become increasingly uncomfortable when their spouse’s wages rise beyond that.
The survey suggests that a wife who earns a salary places less financial burden on her husband, but only if she earns less than him. As soon as she earns the same amount (as him), he will start feeling stressed. His stress level is said to increase in tandem with her salary – the more money she earns, the more stressed he will become.
Another study, by The University of Chicago Booth School of Business, found that divorce rates increase when women out-earn their husbands.
We speak to two couples and a wife who are in such a relationship, who share their experiences and the struggles they face being in a non-conforming union.
You should throw away that kind of mindset
Back in 2016, Aina was living the dream as a cabin crew with Qatar Airways. She got to travel the world, lived in Doha rent-free (sponsored by her company), and received special discounts when she dined at restaurants. The 30-year-old was also earning close to thrice her then-boyfriend Shafiq’s salary.
Drawing a higher pay cheque was never an issue for Aina. In fact, she used to buy Shafiq expensive gifts and would even pay for his flight tickets, to fly him to where she was.
However, when the Covid-19 pandemic spread in 2020, Aina decided to resign from her job and return to Malaysia and start a family with Shafiq. She is now a full-time mummy to a one-year-old but vows to return to work soon.
Shafiq, 32, recalls that when he first started dating Aina, he still had the traditional mindset that men should earn more than women. He attributes this to the social norms that he grew up with.
“I felt ashamed (but grateful) that Aina would pay for my airfare and that I didn’t use my own money. It is just ego. I had that kind of ego last time. But you should throw away that kind of mindset because it is not good for your (relationship),” says Shafiq.
After some time, he realised how wrong his thinking was and even developed an increased respect for his wife for being so capable. He also saw her hard-working ethic as motivation for self-improvement.
Men don’t need to be the only provider of a family
A couple, who only want to be known as “A” (husband) and “E” (wife) have been married for three years and have one child. In 2020, E got a job in legal affairs that doubled her salary and she’s now earning 60% more than her husband.
This situation has never bothered E. “(Earning more than my husband) does not matter because at the end of the day, focus is on the family. We need to move as a unit and keeping the family afloat is my main goal,” says E.
For A, it was quite a different story. “It did matter at first,” says A frankly, adding, “But after we had a conversation about it, (I realised that it shouldn’t)”.
“Keeping the family together and surviving together is our main goal especially in our country’s current situation where the economy is unpredictable.
“Besides, she deserves that salary based on her experience, workload, and dedication. I should be supporting her and find ways to motivate myself,” he shares.
E points out that this wouldn’t even be an issue if the roles were swapped because “the idea the world has is that men should be the provider for the family”.
A adds, “It is now (year) 2022, not 1892. Men and women are technically matched in most areas. If the wife earns more in a month and the husband is given a small allowance to take care of the household and kids, what is wrong with that? We salute housewives – why not househusbands?”
It shouldn’t matter whose pay is higher
Chloe (not her real name) became the sole breadwinner of her family in 2020 when her husband, who was working in Singapore as a chef lost his job due to the pandemic. Her husband is currently back in Malaysia and has not been able to hold a steady job.
“My husband has been working for many years as a chef so his salary is quite high. And because of his (high salary expectation), he is finding it hard to find a job now,” says the 34-year-old.
And according to Chloe, losing his job and being dependent on his wife has taken a toll on her husband.
“It matters to him (that I am earning more) because he has a very traditional mindset. It affects him personally and he has been quite depressed lately,” she shares.
Although Chloe doesn’t share the same views as her husband, she believes that it is important for both parties to work and share the family’s financial burden. “Having two incomes is important, but it doesn’t matter whose is higher,” says the mother of three.
She adds that it is tough being the only one earning money “because everything is dependent on my salary. I cannot quit my job even if I am not happy. I also worry about falling sick and not being able to work.”
Answering a question about why she thinks her husband has this mindset, Chloe says, “I think it’s the culture in Malaysia – it’s a very male dominated country. So, people feel that men must earn more and provide for the family.”
She also points out that it wasn’t long ago when women in Malaysia left their homes and started working. As more women join the workforce, social norms are starting to change.
“This is the transition period. I see that the mindset is slowly changing. Maybe in another 30 years, people will be okay with (women earning more than men). If you teach your children that this is bad, then they will grow up thinking it’s bad. But if you don’t, they will think it is okay,” she says.
Overcoming social norms
According to Lee Xiao Shiang, clinical psychologist at the Malaysian Mental Health Association, “(Modern) women are more educated and are holding higher positions (in the workplace compared to before). Unfortunately, there are still gender gaps in terms of societal expectations – men being the breadwinners and women, the homemaker, which results in unhappiness that arises out of women earning more than men.
“What I have learnt from research is that couples who deviate from social norms face a higher risk of disapproval from their peers and family. They may also receive uncomfortable questions which might aggravate their situation.
“So, although they may have started out as being okay with it, sometimes, doubt takes over as it is pretty easy to fall back to social norms because we function in a society.”
The 30-year-old adds that both genders are compromised from these societal expectations.
“Sometimes you see highly educated women going for lower income jobs, or not progressing their careers. Women who cannot get out of the ‘caregiver’ role are still very involved in household and childcare (duties), although they work long hours.
“Men who are burdened with being the provider may have to work longer hours or choose a different career path to earn more money. These situations add stress to a relationship,” she says.
But mindsets are evolving. To propel it forward, Xiao Shiang’s advice is to “work on yourself individually and as a couple. For example, when you think about your wife earning more, what are the concerns that arise from that? Address those concerns so the cycle doesn’t continue.”
At the end of the day, regardless of who earns more, it is important for couples to communicate with each other and work together as a team to work out financial, and other matters in a marriage.