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How does a woman handle being the “Bread Winner” in a Relationship?

by Ladawn Elliot

For centuries the title “bread winner” has been a designation reserved primarily for men.  However, due to the ever changing landscape in the workplace, the financial profile for two parent families are shifting; making the title “bread winner” just as prevalent among women as it is among men.  Companies are constantly restructuring and downsizing which has resulted in a considerable portion of the male workforce being demoted or terminated. Conversely, women seem to be advancing in their careers and are being hired or promoted into jobs that offer hefty salaries. This evolving labor force is transforming the role of women in the workplace as well as in the home.

There are other factors that contribute to women shifting from the supporting role of second income earner to becoming the family’s primary or sole “bread winner.”  Men that are diagnosed with terminal and chronic illnesses or suddenly become injured and disabled have caused women to unexpectedly assume the role and title of “bread winner” for their family.  Women that willingly choose to become the “bread winner” based on their unique family circumstances also add to this growing trend of title shifting.  A prime example of this occurs when a couple determines that it would be more cost effective for one of them to give up their career to become a full-time stay-at-home parent.  After comparing salaries, benefits, and work related expenses such as fuel cost, parking fees, lunch, etc.; couples can make an informed decision on which one of them will remain in the workforce. If it is determined that her salary is higher and will sufficiently provide for the family, she then becomes the family’s sole “bread winner;” while he stays at home to care for the children.  Women that are in relationships with men that are underemployed, unable to keep a job, or simply unwilling to work also contribute to the paradigm shift of women becoming the family “bread winners.”  The women in these relationships have entered into an unspoken agreement to be their family’s primary or sole “bread winner.” Some of these women don’t enjoy or approve of this “I don’t have any other choice in the matter” arrangement they inherited.  Unfortunately, lowered expectations and an absence of standards allow them to stay in these relationships and begrudgingly accept their role as “bread winner.”

There are a myriad of reasons that the title of “bread winner” is shifting from men to women.  Some women have received this title due to the changing workforce, or by challenging societal norms and selecting what is thought to be a less traditional role for women to better support their family’s needs.  Others have had the title bestowed upon them by default because of unanticipated family changes or their decision to remain in relationships with men that are habitually underemployed or unemployed. Whatever the reason, these changes have systematically created a trickledown effect, causing a shift in family dynamics.  As a result of this change in roles, women are now faced with managing new titles, new responsibilities, new challenges, new pressures, new fears, and a bevy of new unanswered questions. What does a woman do when her significant other is underemployed or unemployed through no fault of his own? What does a woman do when her mate is unable to secure or keep a job, or simply unwilling to work? What choices does she have? How does she manage being the “bread winner” and still remain supportive of, attracted to, and trusting of her significant other? Is it possible for her to still view him as the family leader? Can he still technically be called the head of the household?

Women that are suddenly thrust into the role of primary or sole “bread winner” as a result of their significant other being unexpectedly demoted or terminated, diagnosed as medically disabled, or decision to become a single income family must quickly partner with their mate to build an emotional framework that supports their family structure. This framework should allow couples to acknowledge their fears as they openly and honestly discuss any concerns they may have. Couples must learn to be patient, tolerant, supportive, positive, and flexible with each other as they adjust to their new roles.  Shifting the role of “bread winner” from husband to wife does not alter a woman’s position as wife and mother, nor does it absolve a man from his responsibility as husband and father.  Men are to remain the spiritual leaders, protectors, decision makers, and supporters for their families. Women should continue to support and respect their husband as the family leader and continue to work in partnership with him to maintain their family’s health and well-being.  In order to maintain a supportive and trusting relationship, couples should work as a team and consult with each other before making important decisions. Clearly defining roles and responsibilities that are consistently implemented helps to prevent confusion, uncertainty, and resentment. Viewing the relationship as a partnership and not a financial dictatorship will deter disrespectful behavior, discourage emasculating conversation, calm fears, and provide security and continuity.  If couples work within this emotional framework, men won’t feel insecure about their wives becoming the “bread winner” because his roles as husband and father won’t be challenged or taken.  Moreover, women will view their new role as “bread winner” as an opportunity to contribute to her family in a different way, and not as the new leader of the family. She won’t feel forced to be the man of the house. She will be able to trust, seek comfort, strength, and security in her husband and still find herself attracted to him.

In order for a couple to successfully transition the role of “bread winner,” they have to create a new action plan for their family.  This plan should include a timeline for the man to secure a new career opportunity (if applicable), identify changes in parental duties, household chores, and a detailed budget that operates on one income or a significantly reduced two income status.  This new plan should list all of the mandatory monthly expenses (mortgage/rent, food, utilities, and health/life insurance) along with the required amounts and payment due dates.  Couples should also seek ways to save money on these fixed expenses. This would be a great time to start using coupons, buying store brands and sale items, and arranging payment plans for utilities. If the couples knows that the man will be unemployed permanently due to injury or a medical condition, they should contact their mortgage lender to discuss refinancing or loan modification options.  Maintaining financial stability should not only be a family goal it should be a priority. As such, families must resist the temptation to keep up appearances and be careful not to become emotionally attached to material possessions. They should be open and receptive to the possibility of selling their home and downsizing if the need should arise.   The next items that should be budgeted are the essential luxuries, these things are important and highly valued but not needed (private school tuition, multiple cars, credit cards, etc.).   Couples should have intermittent discussions void of negative emotions regarding the affordability of these expenses as they adjust to the family’s new income. Some of these expense may have to be temporarily or permanently cut out to eliminate undue stress, unnecessary pressure, and to maintain the family’s financial stability.

Unhappy women “bread winners” that are in relationships with chronically under employed and unemployed men have to be honest and ask themselves some tough questions.  Do I really want to be in this relationship?  Is this relationship beneficial or detrimental for me? Am I comfortable with displaying this relationship model for my kids? If the answer to these questions reveal anger and shame, make her feel lonely and unappreciated, and bring her to the realization that she is settling; she then has to decide whether she will remain hopeless or free herself from her dead end relationship. When a woman allows herself to be continuously used in any way in a relationship, she slowly disappears and exists only as a shell of her former self.  Her self-esteem, self-worth and overall well-being are all negatively impacted.  In time this financially unbalanced partnership becomes overwhelming for the disenchanted “bread winner.”  Her respect, trust, love, physical attraction, emotional connection, and sense of security steadily began to dissipate for her significant other; making it difficult for her to view him as the leader, provider, and head of the house.  These feelings unconsciously and consciously manifest themselves in a myriad of ways. She may become despondent, withhold intimacy, emasculate him, or seek comfort in someone else.  Unless he is willing to change his attitude about providing for his family, she will continue to distance herself mentally, emotionally, and physically. It is ultimately up to her to decide if she is getting a fair return on her investment.

The composition of families will continue to evolve as life happens.  More and more women will become the “bread winner” of their families making the title less obscure for women and eventually becoming a societal norm. Both women and men should embrace this shift in roles, as it can potentially provide more options for families to meet their individual needs.  Women that have earned the title by default due their mate’s background, lack of education and marketable skills, or refusal to contribute and provide for their families have to stop enabling these men and giving them a free pass on adulthood. Doing so provides poor modeling and adds to the breakdown of the family structure.