Does female breadwinning make partnerships less healthy or less stable?


Social norms can have a persistent influence on outcomes. Since the end of World War II, men have been the primary breadwinner in most households in the developed world, and US data from the late twentieth century suggests violation of this norm stresses partnerships. Is this still true? We examine whether female breadwinning makes partnerships less healthy or less stable using more recent US and Australian data. We find a much more modest association in both countries between female breadwinning and measures of relationship health or stability in OLS models for mixed-gender couples than has been found in prior studies. Transitions into female breadwinning are problematic mainly for cohabiting couples and especially so for younger people and less-educated men. These results suggest that social norms may be weakening, but mating market dynamics may also play a role. We find some evidence that cohabiting women in Australia who out-earn their partners subsequently re-partner with men who have higher earnings relative to themselves.

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  1. 1.

    Other recent studies applying the BKP method include Zinovyeva and Tverdostup (2018), who conclude using Finnish data that the post-50% drop-off in female income share is mainly a reflection of co-working spouses’ pattern of reporting more equal incomes over time, and Wieber and Holst (2015), who find that the post-50% drop-off is significantly smaller in eastern as opposed to western Germany, a result they attribute to the less strict gender role norms in eastern Germany. Folke and Rickne (2020) take a slightly different approach, looking at the impact of job promotions on marital dissolution in Sweden. They find that women but not men who are promoted have double the probability of divorcing in the subsequent 8 years as compared to those who are not promoted and that this effect is strongest for couples who appear to have more conservative gender role attitudes.

  2. 2.

    We thank BKP for sending us the code that enabled us to perform these replications. Note that we do not intend to replicate all models whose results BKP report in their paper: our concern is only with the models of relationship dissolution and satisfaction as predicted by female breadwinning plus controls.

  3. 3.

    The NSFH results include controls for his and her race as well as education and, in the models of outcomes 1 through 3 as listed in the text, a dummy indicating the gender of the respondent. The PSID results include year dummies, one-interview-lagged income measures, and, in the specifications we replicate, controls for household composition and couple-specific fixed effects.

  4. 4.

    Data related to relationship quality are not available in the PSID, which first measured phenomena akin to satisfaction or happiness in 2016, as part of a “Wellbeing and Daily Life” component.

  5. 5.

    In Table 1, we provide FE estimates (column a) using the same sample as BKP but correcting the standard errors for singleton observations. We also provide FE estimates (column b) correcting for inconsistent age reporting. The results are robust to these minor edits. Note further that interviews were conducted annually from 1968 through 1997 and biennially from 1999 through 2007, meaning that the lagged measure of female breadwinning may be from 1 or 2 years prior.

  6. 6.

    BKP report that the FE results of breadwinning on divorce are generally positive but imprecise. Correcting the standard errors for singleton observations and for inconsistent age reporting, as mentioned in footnote 5, we find these effects to be statistically significant at the 5% level or better.

  7. 7.

    While more education may provide women with greater access to higher-earning partners in a world where highly educated women are desirable to high-earning men, highly educated women’s ability to achieve such a match will depend inversely upon the number of highly educated women relative to men. Ong et al. (2020) make this point and provide an alternative story of marriage-matching dynamics as women’s incomes have risen in China.

  8. 8.

    However, more recent cohort data from the USA (NLSY97) do not support this explanation as the comparable figures are 2.6% and 1.3%, differing by only a factor of two rather than five.

  9. 9.

    Indeed, we find cohabiting persons in Australia are about 10% more likely than married individuals to reply that they disagree or are at most neutral as regards a statement that “It is better for everyone involved if the man earns the money and the woman takes care of the home and children.”

  10. 10.

    The same is true in the more recent panels employed here.

  11. 11.

  12. 12.

    We restricted the NLSY97 sample to mixed-gender couples observed in non-overlapping, continuous relationships, who are over the age of 18, were not (if between ages 18 and 23) enrolled in high school or enrolled full-time in school in the prior year, and report age, education, and non-negative wage, salary, and self-employment earnings.

  13. 13.

    We restricted the HILDA sample to mixed-gender couples observed in non-overlapping, continuous relationships, who were between the ages of 18 and 64/62 for men/women respectively, were not enrolled full-time in school, and report age, education, immigrant status, city status, household composition and non-negative wage, salary, and self-employment earnings. We note that Kidd (2017) performed a contemporaneous analysis using the HILDA data of the impact of female breadwinning on outcomes in Australia.

  14. 14.

    Like BKP, we do not classify as dissolved marriages we observe ending with the death of a spouse. We cannot, however, distinguish between cohabitations that end in separation and those that end in a death. Cohabitations that end in a marriage are not treated as dissolutions until/unless that marriage ends.

  15. 15.

    Forty percent of the cohabiting sample is lost by requiring information on lagged income, versus only 20% of the married sample. The coefficient on female breadwinning is not significant in the married sample when including only the current measure.

  16. 16.

    The effect of female breadwinning is significantly different at the 10% level for the two types of unions (cohabiting as compared to married couples) in most of the specifications including lagged earnings measures. We generate this evidence by combining the married and cohabiting samples and running a model with a dummy for cohabitation plus a full set of terms interacting that dummy with all the regressors and examining the coefficient on the interaction term between female breadwinning and cohabitation. As the married and cohabiting samples are substantially different, similar results are obtained when testing for a difference between the coefficients reported in Table 2 assuming independence.

  17. 17.

    While there is no term that perfectly captures all the dimensions of relationship quality targeted by these measures, for expositional convenience and in line with common Western notions of what makes a healthy, high-quality, sustainable relationship, we use the term “relationship health.”

  18. 18.

    In order to obtain a roughly even split of observations into the “0” and “1” categories, dummy measures for NoConflict in the NLSY97 data were constructed by assigning the value “1” to the top 2 or the top 4 values, rather than only the top value, of the original answer scale. The dummy measure for Partner in the HILDA data was similarly constructed by assigning the value “1” to the top 2 values of the original answer scale.

  19. 19.

    This result is robust to estimation using the FE sample.

  20. 20.

    Australian women are more likely than Australian men to disagree with the statement, “It is better for everyone involved if the man earns the money and the woman takes care of the home and children” (69.7% of women versus 58.7% of men disagree). This gender difference is greater for those in this younger sample (72.8% versus 59.5%) and especially for cohabiting couples in this younger sample (75.5% versus 60.2%). Thus, the negative association between female breadwinning and relationship health for young, cohabiting women is not attributable to these women adhering to more conservative social norms.

  21. 21.

    That gender norms differ by education level is evident from the Australian data. The HILDA data indicate that those classified here as less educated are 15 to 16 percentage points (or about 25%) less likely to disagree with the statement, “It is better for everyone involved if the man earns the money and the woman takes care of the home and children,” than are those classified here as more educated.

  22. 22.

    These results are also observed in OLS estimates on the FE samples.


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We are greatly indebted to Marianne Bertrand, Emir Kamenica, and Jessica Pan for making their data and code available to us; to two anonymous referees for their helpful comments; and to James Stratton for outstanding research assistance. All errors remain our own.


This research was funded in part by a 2017 Summer Research Grant from the VCU School of Business.

This paper uses unit record data from the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey. The HILDA Project was initiated and is funded by the Australian Government Department of Social Services (DSS) and is managed by the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research (Melbourne Institute). The findings and views reported in this paper, however, are those of the authors and should not be attributed to either DSS or the Melbourne Institute.

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Correspondence to Gigi Foster.

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Table 5 NLSY97 sample statistics
Table 6 HILDA sample statistics
Table 7 Relationship health in Australia for persons born after 1977
Table 8 Relationship health in the USA by gender of respondent

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Foster, G., Stratton, L.S. Does female breadwinning make partnerships less healthy or less stable?. J Popul Econ (2020).

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  • Marital dissolution
  • Satisfaction
  • Economics of gender
  • Social norms
  • Earnings differentials

JEL codes

  • J12
  • J16
  • I31
  • Z13