The question of who earns more in a relationship makes some couples so uncomfortable that they are willing to lie on the record about it. This is a finding that the Census Bureau found when they reported discrepancies between the salaries that heterosexual couples put down on their Census Bureau surveys and the salaries they put on their IRS filings.
If husbands earned less than their wives, the husbands exaggerated the numbers of how much they earned, saying they earned 2.9% more than they actually did. If a wife earned more than her husband, she underreported her salary, saying she made 1.5% less than she did. But when husbands earned more than wives, suddenly, both couples were able to keep these numbers straight.
Even as progress is being made for a joint couple’s earning power, psychologically, some cannot escape the feeling that they are violating a social norm when women earn more than men. The Census research said that when these married couples “violate the norm that husbands outearn their wives, the survey respondents reporting the couples’ earnings appear to minimize the violation by inflating the earnings of the lower-earning husbands and deflating the earnings of the higher-earning wives.”
When wives earn more, neither partner likes to admit it
Increasingly, the idea of men being the primary breadwinners is changing. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 38% of wives earned more than their husbands in 2015. But society has not yet caught up to this fact. In 2017, writer Ashley Ford surveyed 130 Millennial women about their conflicted feelings around being the higher-earner in a relationship. Women said they felt internal and external pressure to be solely responsible for the couple’s financial needs.
“It initially made me feel ashamed like I was settling or it meant that I wasn’t attractive enough, good enough. There was a lot of internalized misogyny about how attractive or sexy women should be with ‘successful’ men. I worried about what other people would say,” one anonymous woman breadwinner said.
This pressure around gendered roles may explain the unseen pressure couples feel to lie on government forms. The Census lies show us that who earns what is not a neutral answer. Whether or not we like to openly admit it, we measure ourselves and our partners according to their monetary value. Salaries are intimately tied to our identities as top-performing employees and as good partners who are able to provide for our families. “Even seemingly objective, clearly measurable economic outcomes may suffer from measurement error due not just to gaps in respondents’ knowledge of the outcome but also to gaps between their beliefs or values,” the researchers concluded.