Depending on a Spouse for Financial Support: Myth vs. Reality

If you ask women whether they want to depend on a man to support them, most will say no. Young women today have jobs, paychecks, and interesting goals. But their life choices tell a different story. While interviewing recent college graduates for my next book, I was struck by how similar the women’s decisions were. They earned their diplomas and then found jobs in fields that sounded creative and enjoyable, if not particularly well-paid.

And yet a disturbing pattern quickly emerged.

A year after graduating from Tulane, one woman was working in public relations — as were most of her college girlfriends, all of whom earned around $30,000 a year. But their boyfriends — who graduated the same year from the same college — went into finance and were already making more than $150,000 a year. The women didn’t seem distressed by that pay gap, but they had no real explanation for why they weren’t concerned. When the truth emerged during in-depth interviews, they had a hard time admitting it — even to themselves.

The reality was inescapable: whether consciously or subconsciously, these young women simply assumed they wouldn’t be fully responsible for their future standard of living. Surely a high-earning spouse would eventually make up the gap between the lifestyle they envisioned, and their own lesser salary at a fun job.

The most obvious problem with this assumption is the fact that women can’t always count on having a husband to support them. Marriage rates in this country have hit a record low and are expected to keep declining; for the first time in American history, the majority of adults are not married. One study reported that a quarter of all millennials are likely to skip marriage entirely. As a result, women are increasingly on their own — a trend exacerbated by the prevalence of divorce, lengthening lifespans, and greater longevity among women than men. At some point in their lives, 80 to 90 percent of today’s women will be responsible for their own finances. And yet many fail to anticipate that reality — which is one reason why twice as many women fall below the poverty line in their later years, compared with men. Women consistently earn less and have more gaps in their work history, so it’s easy to foresee the economic challenges they’re likely to face as they get older.

Nearly a decade ago, my first encounter with their resistance blindsided me with its ferocity, as well as its unexpectedness. In 2007, I published a book called The Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving Up Too Much?, which was inspired by the so-called opting-out movement. As a growing percentage of women dropped out of the workforce to become stay-at-home moms, the media glorified their decisions as happy lifestyle choices that resolved the stress of juggling work and family. Unfortunately, the press coverage of this trend failed to report how damaging its consequences were likely to be. My book documented the long-term risks of economic dependency, which I saw as a helpful corrective to the unrealistic expectations of cozy security fostered by the romanticization of stay-at-home motherhood.

But to my amazement, The Feminine Mistake was extremely controversial, igniting a firestorm of criticism before it was even published. There was no denying the facts, which prove that quitting the workforce is a serious risk that takes a lasting toll on women’s economic well-being. Despite that reality, many stay-at-home moms were infuriated by the seemingly obvious statement that it’s dangerous to depend on a man for support. I was stunned by the intensity of their anger, which manifested itself in everything from an online campaign against the book, to personal attacks on my marriage, and even my dog.

But it didn’t take long for a national catastrophe to underscore the truth of my warnings. The Feminine Mistake was published a year before the financial crisis plunged the country into a recession. Millions of people lost their jobs, and affluent suburbs were soon riddled with For Sale signs as formerly wealthy families tried to sell their homes. In the tough times that followed, many wives learned the hard way that it’s not safe for a family to rely on a single breadwinner. As time passed, I read all too many articles and blog posts with headlines like "Becoming a SAHM Was the Worst Mistake I Ever Made." Because the financial crisis was so severe, I assumed it gave American women a persuasive lesson in the value of economic autonomy. But apparently, I was wrong.

This fall, I was astonished to read that a new book with a similar theme had touched off a comparable controversy. The Pie Life: A Guilt-Free Recipe for Success and Satisfaction was written by Samantha Ettus, who quickly discovered that many women are still enraged by the suggestion that they’ll have better lives if they keep working.

"I’m already getting hate mail, and the book isn’t even out yet," Ettus told The New York Post in September.

That kind of backlash is a predictable result of the way females are socialized in this culture.

"It’s the idea that all you have to do is grow up and attract a man who will sweep you off your feet and take care of you," Ettus says. "When we hear about cases where someone’s husband dropped dead or left them, we think those are unicorns. But those are the norm."

In coping with such challenges, we’re better served by facing reality than sticking our heads in the sand. And yet all too many women still avoid any facts that frighten them.

A couple of weeks ago, I met the wife of a successful television producer at a party. She shuddered when she heard my name.

"I bought The Feminine Mistake and started to read it, but it scared me so much I couldn’t finish it," she said, glaring at me as if women’s economic vulnerabilities were all my fault.

She spent the rest of the evening avoiding me.

This woman hasn’t worked for pay in a couple of decades, and she has no career other than motherhood. But her children are now 17 and 20, so when the youngest leaves for college next year, her self-appointed role as full-time mother will be finished forever.

That phase is a dangerous one for stay-at-home moms, because the empty nest has a devastating effect on long-term marriages. Among couples over 50, the divorce rate has doubled in the last 20 years. When the kids grow up, many couples realize that their children were the only thing holding them together. In the past, most couples resigned themselves to the status quo, but these days many decide it’s time for a fresh start when they reach the second half of life. As a result, marriage is no longer a safe haven for aging women. As recently as 1990, fewer than one in ten people who divorced were 50 or older. That figure rose to one in four in recent years. It’s no wonder that women, like the one at the party, are scared, but fortunately, not everyone is so averse to facing the facts.

As I walked into a local bookstore last week, another woman came up to me and asked if I was Leslie Bennetts.

When I told her I was, she said, “Your book saved my life.”  

Instead of fleeing from the message of The Feminine Mistake, this woman had devoured the information and decided not to resign herself to a circumscribed life and a risky future. She started a new career, and she has since become a successful author. Indeed, she was so excited to share what she's achieved that she phoned her husband and asked him to come over to the store and bring a copy of the galleys of her next book. When she gave it to me, both of them were beaming with pride at her accomplishments.

Now her kids are growing up, but she isn’t afraid of the empty nest. Because she planned accordingly, she’s created an exciting new path for herself, and her future beckons with enticing possibilities.

"I’m so happy," she said, looking radiant.  

It’s hard to imagine why any woman would want to settle for less.

In addition to The Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving Up Too Much? Leslie Bennetts is also the author of Last Girl Before Freeway: The Life, Loves, Losses, and Liberation of Joan Rivers.


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Join the Discussion

2 Responses to “Depending on a Spouse for Financial Support: Myth vs. Reality”

  1. lk1066

    In addition to being able to financially support yourself (YOU are the only person you can really depend on), women–and men—should keep a portion of their finances separate. I had a checking account and later investment and retirement accounts in my name, my husband had his, and we had ours. Regardless of how much or little money you make, make sure you retain control of some of it. Do your own investments; do joint investments together. (If you have different priorities or risk tolerances than your spouse, you can compromise on the joint, but you can do what you want with the stuff in your own name; your spouse can also compromise on the joint and do whatever in his or her own.) If during part of your life, you aren’t working for money but you are married, be sure to contribute to a spousal IRA. It amazes me that many people don’t know that a couple can double their IRA savings if they stay together by making sure to max out both spouses IRAs, not just one persons. If things don’t work out or if your spouse dies, you still have some money in your name. There is no reason for people, men and women, to let themselves be penniless when money is made, by them and/or their spouse.

  2. lk1066

    Another reason to retain some financial independence is that when you give it up–say you stop working before you have built up separate investments—you will probably find that you also lose power in the relationship….it happens all the time. If only one person makes and controls all the major financial decisions, even if the other party does things that enable the money person to thrive and to hold down household expenses, the person solely in charge of the money ends up with more power—often power that goes beyond investments. In truth, money is power….don’t give up either when you don’t need to do so.