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A recent study of 200,000 couples in Denmark found that men's usage of erectile dysfunction drugs increased by 10 percent when their wives slightly out-earned them. Controlling for factors such as age and illness, the study linked drug usage to an insignificant change in wages – from $5 to $10 a week – "that essentially moves you from being breadwinner to not a breadwinner, and that has a social stigma attached to it," says study author Lamar Pierce, associate professor of strategy at Washington University in St. Louis' Olin Business School.
Pierce initiated the study – which also found women who out-earned their husbands were more likely to have insomnia and use anti-anxiety medication – due to concerns about women opting out of career advancement to protect their romantic futures.
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In grappling with these roles, couples do make accommodations. For example, women whose salaries surpass their husband's tend to do more housework than other women, says Julie Brines, associates professor of sociology at the University of Washington. "What we often find is that couples find themselves adopting more traditional behavior in other domains of their marriage to compensate," she says. "A lot of people are improvising, and it's not surprising if you're in a situation that seems culturally largely unprecedented to fall back on older traditional models."
Those who seem to fare best are couples who have agreed on an unconventional arrangement, or are young or unconventional themselves, according to Veronica Tichenor, author of the book, "Earning More and Getting Less."
Even so, couples who agree on a nontraditional arrangement may be surprised by their response once they're in the situation. In her research, Mundy found that women who consider themselves feminists admitted to resenting and losing respect for their male partners who had become dependent on them. While culture has prepared females to become self-sufficient, Mundy reasons, it hasn't laid expectations for women to become providers. And that may require a change, she says.
The ideal arrangement may be for couples to alternate roles as they build their families and careers, she says, noting that family responsibilities commonly drive women out of the workforce.
"Maybe this is what it's going to take if we want women to lean in," she says, referring to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's new book title, which has become a buzzword for female empowerment. "We're going to have to tolerate situations and not stigmatize situations where a husband has been the behind-the-scenes support person."
Updated on 05/29/2013: This story was originally published on May 23, 2013. It has been updated.