Why men who make less than their wives lie about their earnings

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“MANNING up” normally refers to stoicism in the face of hardship. But men who earn less than their wives do tend to “man up” as well—by exaggerating their income when responding to survey-takers. That is the surprising conclusion of a paper published by researchers at America’s Census Bureau. Their comparison between self-reported data and actual tax filings over the past ten years shows that, when outshone by their better halves, men overstate what they earn by 2.9%, while women report earning 1.5% less than they actually do. 

The share of women who earn more than their husbands has risen steeply in America since the 1980s. In 1987, about 18% of women were the main breadwinners in households where both spouses worked. By 2013, that figure had jumped to almost 30%. This may be because women are now more likely to get a university degree than men are, and because the decline in manufacturing jobs and the 2008 recession both hit men’s employment particularly hard. 

Women who earn more than their husbands still suffer unwelcome consequences. A study by Marianne Bertrand and Eric Kamenica at the University of Chicago found that such relationships are more likely to end in divorce. The researchers also revealed that when women outearn their husbands, the share of housework they do increases. Another study by researchers at Cornell found that men who earn less than their wives are more likely to be unfaithful (as are those who earn significantly more). 

What causes these retrograde patterns? The fact that women who earn more than their husbands take up more housework and underreport their earnings may have to do with the pressure to maintain traditional gender norms: the idea that men should be the primary earners in a family remains deeply ingrained. When men fail to live up to their expected roles, it hurts their self-esteem and social standing. It can also make women lose respect for them. 

Things may be slowly changing. One study found that the likelihood of divorce did not increase among couples with higher-earning wives who married in the 1990s or later. Researchers at Harvard have also found that when wives felt that their lower-earning husbands did enough housework, both spouses were more likely to report being happy in their marriage. Perhaps that promises a new definition of actually “manning up”.

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