The Physical Cost of Earning Less than Your Wife - Pacific Standard

The Physical Cost of Earning Less than Your Wife

New research from Denmark finds men who fall behind their wives in earning power are far more likely to use erectile dysfunction drugs.
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Ladies: Has your income risen to the point where you now make more money than your husband? He might insist he’s perfectly OK with that, but the medicine cabinet may tell another story.

New research from Denmark finds that, compared to those who continue to outearn their wives, men in that ego-deflating situation are significantly more likely to use erectile dysfunction drugs.

“Even small differences in relative income are associated with large changes in ED medication usage when they shift the marriage from a male to a female breadwinner,” a research team led by Lamar Pierce of Washington University writes in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Furthermore, prescription drug records suggest wives suffer “increased stress or insomnia when they are the primary breadwinner,” the researchers write. “These results are consistent with a broad literature suggesting psychological and sexual costs from men losing their traditional marital role of breadwinner.”

Pierce and his colleagues looked at Denmark primarily because the country keeps unusually complete records, allowing them to easily match demographic information with medical prescription records. In addition, they noted, that northern European nation is known for its “progressive gender attitudes,” suggesting any impacts found there might be amplified in more traditional societies.

Analyzing data on more than 500,000 couples over a 10-year period (from 1997 to 2006), they found “men outearned by their wives are more likely to use erectile dysfunction medication than their male breadwinner counterparts, even when this inequality is small." They add that "the increase in ED medication usage continues as the gap between the wages of the wife and husband increases.”

While these findings are striking, they are confined to a specific group of couples: Those where the husband started out making more, but the wife overtook him. This suggests that “men who knowingly marry high-earning females suffer no psychological costs from future income comparisons,” the researchers write.

“We find that this effect does not exist for unmarried cohabitants,” they add, “suggesting that the social construct of marriage plays a critical role in how men view wage comparison.”

A 2010 Pew study found the percentage of American wives who outearn their husband has grown over the past two decades from 4 to 22 percent. It’s not clear how many marriages experienced a reversal in lead-breadwinner status, but given the number of layoffs in the recent recession, the number surely isn’t small.

“We in no way suggest that the trend toward female breadwinners is socially harmful,” the researchers write. “Greater equality and opportunity for women present undeniable economic and social  benefits.”

And yet, they note, “If social norms against female breadwinners continue to be strong, increasing female income will produce real costs.” Including the cost of certain prescription medications.

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