Men have traditionally been considered the main earners of the household. But over the past few decades, more and more women have been earning more than their partners. How has this affected relationship dynamics?
In Singapore, stereotypes of the assumed roles of men (breadwinner, provider, head of the household) and women (caregiver, homemaker, housewife) still linger. However, it’s no longer rare for women to out-earn their husbands or boyfriends. We speak to three women about how their higher income affects their relationships.
Keeping it open and honest
Vanessa, 30, is in a long distance relationship with Srđan, 33, from Croatia. She’s a deputy editor of a travel magazine and, with the exchange rates, has an income three to four times higher than that of her partner’s, who works as a hotel reception manager.
“I think we have a good dynamic where we can talk openly about anything – even if it feels uncomfortable in the moment,” says Vanessa. “Money continues to be a touchy topic, but I think we are trying to reject that notion by talking about it as honestly as possible,” she adds.
Srđan agrees. “There is an indoctrinated obligation amongst Croatian men to be providers,” he says. “The dating culture in Croatia reflects this as well, as men who are not financially independent and of ‘inferior’ financial means will be considered less attractive.”
To counter these mindsets, he and Vanessa keep an open dialogue about the setbacks of their cultures. “We’re overcoming these gender doctrines of our respective societies,” he says. “We fight it by nurturing a communication style that is completely free of any shame or holding back.”
“[We] talk exhaustively about everything,” Vanessa adds, stressing the importance of being willing to see things from the other person’s point of view, and being open to admitting when a misstep has been made, or an opinion has been biased.
Splitting the bill
Siti Jeffrey, 27, and her partner Kenneth Chong, 31, work in the same industry. The income gap is less than a thousand and, at present, has not presented significant difficulties. With the exception of their upcoming wedding and leasing of a HDB flat, most purchases are handled independently.
“Our investments are completely separate,” says Siti. “We don’t stand to gain from each other financially.” Keeping things open and pragmatic, Siti says that while she’d be willing to support her future husband if situations change, she “would definitely set terms and conditions that would not jeopardise [her] own financial condition.” On dates, the bills are usually split according to what the individual has ordered, with neither feeling pressure to give or ask for more.
“We manage our own finances individually, as though we’re friends,” says Kenneth. “[And] you don’t start a joint account even with very close friends.”
“Sometimes, the real reason is not really about the income, but other factors such as authority, power or control.”
In this together
For Shila Naidu, 30, who works at a non-profit organisation, the sum of both salaries matters more than who earns more, especially given Singapore’s high cost of living. “Money is but one part of a relationship; fixating on it is unhealthy and demoralising,” says Shila, who currently earns slightly more than her husband, a sound engineer.
“I think I felt a lot more obligated to spoil him early in our marriage because I earned significantly more than him [then],” Shila says. “[Now] we live within our means and have adjusted our lifestyles accordingly. Strangely, the older we get, the less we seem to want,” she adds.
Violet Lim, CEO & co-founder of Lunch Actually Group, says that while men are still largely expected to be the breadwinner of the family, most couples today are breaking that stereotype.
Still, she does encounter men who specifically seek partners who make less than them. In such cases, Violet says it’s important to understand the real motive. “Sometimes, the real reason is not really about the income, but other factors such as authority, power or control,” she says.
While Vanessa and Srđan work through the distance and their significant pay gap, they both look forward to greater flexibility within the relationship and the joys it will bring. “Both of us have big dreams of traveling the world together, and for that, we’ll need lots of money!” Vanessa says. At the moment, she has a long-term savings plan lined up for retirement, and consistently sets aside about 15 percent of her salary each month for future travels.
For now, she’s glad to have Srđan’s support. “I feel nothing but pride for her success, and I always make it a point to be a constructive and helpful force in her life, job included,” he says. “I have absolutely no issue with her being a higher earner.”
It’s the same with Shila and Jeffrey. “I think everyone, no matter how much they earn, wishes for more,” says Shila. “But apart from this general desire, [my husband] has never expressed discomfort that I earn more.”
At the end of the day, Siti says that shared values are the foundation of a strong relationship. “We’re both independent people who have a very practical view and are generally prudent when it comes to money, so it’s not a source of stress,” she says.
A word of advice
Communication is also key to avoiding money issues that can cause a strain on the relationship. “Talk and talk and talk. If it takes you to tears, so be it, tears will dry but mutual clarity stays, and it’s worth it,” says Srđan.
Vanessa agrees, adding that while talking about money and financial matters may get tiring and stressful, the benefits of openly talking things out are ultimately rewarding. “I feel like we are building a strong foundation of mutual trust and understanding with these conversations, brick by brick,” she says.