Published:  01:14 AM, 04 July 2017

Can love survive when a woman earns more than a man?

Can love survive when a woman earns more than a man?

It's a seismic social shift: nearly half of women are paid as much as or more than their man. But, it could all end in tears... Most women under 50 grew up being taught we would have careers and be paid the same as men - a revolutionary concept that we embraced wholeheartedly.

But nobody suggested women might actually earn more than men in any significant numbers. The very idea would, even until recently, have been unthinkable. But we are. And the truth is that we don't know whether to feel triumphant or dismayed.

Recent figures from a large-scale government study show the number of 'breadwinner wives' - women in partnerships who earn more than their men - has soared to 19 per cent, with another 25 per cent earning the same amount as their menfolk.

It means that almost half of us now earn as much or more than our husbands and partners. It's a staggering figure that represents what is probably the biggest and most significant social shift of our time, with far-reaching implications for personal relationships and family lives which we're only just beginning to fully appreciate.

So who are these breadwinner wives? How have we gone from 1969, when just 4 per cent of women out-earned their men, to this? How do they - and their men - feel about their new status? And are they shining role models for a new generation or a recipe for relationship disaster?

Nikki Owen, 49, typifies this new breed of high-earning women. A director of her own international personal development company, she comes from a well-off professional background and was brought up to believe there were no limits to what she could achieve.

Nikki first began dating her fiance Mark, 50, a customer services manager, when they were both in their teens.  But, she says, 'he dumped me because he was intimidated by my ambition'. Four years ago, both single again, they were reintroduced through friends.

In the intervening years, Nikki fast-tracked her way up the career ladder, ending up as head of her own firm 'with a huge house in Sevenoaks, a flash convertible Audi and a wardrobe full of designer labels'. She now earns as much as five times what Mark does, with the potential to increase that even more over the coming years.

'When I recently landed a £60,000 contract, Mark's initial reaction was: "You've just earned in a month what I earn in a year!"' she says. Marks says: 'I have to admit that if we hadn't already fallen in love and been very close after we met again, I would probably have struggled with the relationship because of her earning power.'

Like many couples with a female breadwinner, they have had to re-evaluate their deepest feelings and expectations about relationships as both adjust to their change of roles. 'If I measure myself against my late father's values, which held that a man should be the main breadwinner and provide security for his family, then I'm failing miserably,' admits Mark. And Nikki had problems with it, too. 'When we got back together, there was an element of me thinking: "If I'm this driven, then you have to be, too,"' she says.

'I even sent him to counseling to see if they could make him more ambitious.' Nikki is echoing what large numbers of breadwinner wives have admitted to me privately - that while their men may delight in their success, the women can be secretly frustrated and disrespectful if their partner doesn't match their hunger and earning power. It's a feeling borne out by relationship patterns, says Jacqueline Scott, Professor of Sociology at Cambridge University and an expert in women's changing roles in society.

'While successful men are often happy to marry a woman who will be less ambitious, successful women tend to marry men who are their economic equals,' she says. And as more women out-earn men, both can struggle to find a sense of identity.

'The problem is that our social and emotional lives haven't changed as fast as our economic and public lives,' says Scott. Most women work, and while attitudes have moved on (working women don't expect to be 'kept', while men are happier to help out around the house and with childcare), our personal lives are still heavily defined by the experiences with which we grew up.

Our fathers largely derived their sense of identity from their ability to provide and protect, and our mothers from their family and domestic lives. And even when they were cheerleaders for the new roles and opportunities for their daughters, they taught us the same values they had.

'The perception of those traditional roles still runs deeply throughout society,' says Scott. Nikki and Mark's situation is increasingly reflected in professions such as medicine and the law, where women have begun to outnumber men and therefore often earn more than their partners.

Of course, not all working women are ambitious and driven.  Many are working simply because their families need their income, and increasing numbers are finding themselves accidental breadwinners because men's jobs have been hit far harder than women's in the economic downturn - a phenomenon dubbed the 'mancession'. A big problem for the new generation of female breadwinners is a feeling of being stuck.

If they are the main breadwinner, there is no longer even a hypothetical choice to cut back or stop working for personal or family reasons. 'Everyone is more conscious of hanging on to their jobs, and that's exacerbated when you are the main breadwinner.'

Tonia Rutherford, 40, runs her own online greetings card company - a business that supports her and her husband Richard, 39.  It turns over £100,000 a year, and although Richard doesn't draw a salary, he helps her out in the business two days a week and spends the rest of the time caring for their children, Kate, five, and Charlie, four.

The writer is the PPA editor

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