Getting a promotion should be cause for celebration, but for many women it spells the beginning of the end of their marriage. That doesn’t mean that ambitious women have to give up on the idea of tying the knot if they are to achieve their career aims, but that they need to be aware of what can go wrong and how to avoid becoming a victim of their own success.
The days when employers in America viewed it as shocking for a woman to continue to work outside the home after getting married have long since passed. Married women rarely held paid employment in the early 1900s, but that changed as the century progressed. According to a study published by the Bureau of the Census in the 1970s, about 23% of married women had jobs in 1950, 30% did so in 1960, and 40% in 1970. The numbers continued to increase over the years and, by 2000, nearly 62% of married women in the US held jobs. That figure has since fallen back to 58.6%, which is still a significant portion of the workforce.
These women are not just holding down jobs – many of them are thriving too. Some work full-time, hold C-suite positions, and are the top earners in their households. Married men still outnumber married women at work, but lots of wives are moving up the corporate ladder just as fast or even faster than their husbands. While employers may be happy about this, indications are that many husbands find it threatening. What becomes of a marriage when a wife receives a high-level promotion or if her income surpasses her husband’s?
For Tiffany Castagno, it led to divorce. Castagno is the founder and chief executive of Cephr, a human resources consultancy. She and her husband earned the same amount of money for the first two years of their marriage, but after that, her salary eclipsed his. “My spouse became resentful that I was making more money, and he made snide remarks about it and threw it in my face when we argued,” she says. Castagno received a raise with each promotion, but this only increased the strain on their marriage. “As things got more tenuous in the relationship, I believe my spouse became more insecure and resentful,” she adds.
Before Castagno became the lead earner, she and her husband had supported each other professionally. However, as their salaries drifted apart, so did their relationship. “I didn’t feel like I should be punished or stop my career trajectory because he was unhappy with where he was or the path he was on,” she says. It became progressively more difficult for Castagno’s husband to deal with the financial shift in their marriage.
What men feel about a changing situation
Research shows that men tend to experience stress when their wives earn more money than they do. A study on spousal income and distress published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that men’s psychological distress is lowest when their wives make 40% of the total household income and they earn 60%, but as the wife’s income rises, so does her husband’s stress – unless the wife outearned the husband at the beginning of their marriage.
Castagno isn’t alone in experiencing marital problems after achieving professional success. Many marriages get rocky when the woman prospers at work. A Swedish study on job promotions and the durability of marriage found that promotions to top jobs “dramatically increase women’s probability of divorce but do not affect men’s marriages.” Why is this? Kathy Caprino, a career and leadership coach based in Connecticut, says it comes down to the freedom that money confers. “Successful women with the financial means to live independently tend to initiate divorce more than their male counterparts. The greater economic independence women have, the more freedom they possess,” she says. This makes pursuing a divorce more possible than ever before. This tallies with Castagno’s experience. “I felt empowered and set up for success,” Castango says.
Why it matters who does the housework
Men are less affected by a promotion or a pay raise because it typically doesn’t put as much strain on the household as when a woman receives one, which normally involves more responsibility at work and possibly longer hours. That’s because married women with full-time careers do more to keep the house in order than their husbands, even if both work the same number of hours and earn the same amount of money. “Even women who are primary breadwinners are handling the bulk of domestic responsibility,” Caprino says. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, even when earnings are similar, wives spend two hours more per week taking care of the children than their husbands do and 2.5 more hours a week on housework. These numbers decrease only slightly when the woman is the sole breadwinner. Castagno experienced this too. “I definitely took care of our home more in terms of cleaning and cooking and he did some outdoor stuff.”
This information is not surprising to Linda Lautenberg, a women’s career strategist and co-founder of EvolveMe, which helps women to relaunch their careers in mid-life, or to her co-founder Judy Schoenberg, a mid-life career change expert. “A lot of CEOs, male or female, have a spouse at home,” says Lautenberg, quickly followed by Schoenberg adding, “But if you have a family, more pressure usually falls on the woman.”
Lautenberg and Schoenberg are friends and partners in business advocating for professional women. Referring to life as a chief executive, Schoenberg says, “You might travel and network more. There’s a lot of you that’s not in the relationship or at home.”
Gender expectations still exist and women often feel even more pressure to be at home with the kids and take care of the house. The Swedish study on job promotions and marriage reports that women who “have it all” score lower on emotional well-being and life satisfaction than women who “only” have a family. This household pressure Schoenberg refers to is another reason successful women may opt for divorce.
Is there life after divorce?
While getting a divorce can be stressful, it can bring tremendous personal and professional benefits too. “Some women blossom post-divorce. They get in touch with who they are and regain their identity,” Schoenberg says.
This resonates with Castagno, who has since remarried. “I’m thriving because my current husband supports me and also because I continued to grow my career.” Her confidence received a boost as well. “I learned a lot of lessons about myself, what I wanted from a career, and what I wanted out of life after going through the stress of all of that.”
Castagno advises other women to go for what they want from life – even if it means getting a divorce. “Be confident in your journey, and don’t let someone else’s choices, words, or actions hold you back,” she says. “I happened to ask for my divorce and, while it wasn’t easy, I was firm in my decision to want better for myself because I knew I deserved better.” She encourages other women to hold onto what they want too, and not to sell themselves short.
How to avoid getting it wrong
So how does one avoid becoming a divorcee in the first place? It helps to choose the right partner – one who will support your career ambitions. Caprino says, “Do the hard internal and external work upfront before you marry.” Ask tough questions and don’t be afraid to talk about your income, role distribution and the sharing of housework. “Be clear about your values and what you want, and see if your professional goals align,” Schoenberg says. Remember too that the income and distress study found that it was easier for couples if the wife outearned her husbands from the beginning.
Women are often willing to invest in everyone but themselves, so according to Lautenberg, one of the most important things for women to do is to find a community. You could, for example, join women’s networks in your field or area. “You’ll be heard and won’t feel alone,” she says. “Your community will elevate your confidence.” Today there is more support for women than ever before with efforts such as better parental leave policies, remote working and employee resource groups. So why not explore all the options.
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