The breadwinner wife

Brian and Priscilla Tran, a Christian couple married for nine years, reflect on the question asked of the husband: ‘How do you feel about your wife earning more than you?’

Brian’s Perspective

I remember the first time I was asked this question. It wasn’t a joke; it was a husband asking because his wife started earning more money than he did. They had been married for a couple of years and he wasn’t where he wanted to be financially. He was genuinely hurt by not living up to the expectation that he should earn more than his wife. I looked him dead in the eye and spoke very softly so no one else could hear, ‘My wife buys me pretty things’. He laughed really hard… and then we had a real conversation.

I trained as a social worker, then I moved into church ministry. My wife, Priscilla, is a property development manager. At the height of my career, I probably wouldn’t ever earn what she could earn at the early stages of her career. I can’t be mad at that, it’s something I had to just accept. But acceptance doesn’t mean it wouldn’t play on my mind; it didn’t mean the weight of cultural pressure, the values that I was raised with, and the expectation from society wouldn’t be there. So, I had to figure out what was important.

I didn’t marry my wife to protect or provide for her. I married my wife because she is full of joy, she cares for others, she’s thoughtful, and she loves people with sacrificial love – that is really important to me. Our incomes or potential incomes weren’t a factor in the joining of our lives. When we got married, our household income wasn’t a lot. It was fine, romantic even – we were building our lives and finances together.

“But what is important is that in our marriage, we complement one another.” – Brian Tran

It was when we both settled in our careers that the differences in our incomes really showed. We had both moved to Sydney to start new jobs, but her salary was close to double what I was earning. The reality was her salary would increase exponentially more than I could ever earn. The salary disparity became stark, but I choose to not let it bother me. Why?

  1. First, I made my choices with my work/career. If I wanted strong earning potential, ministry and social work wouldn’t have been the right pathway. I enjoy what I do. Society places a lot of pressure on men to earn lots of money. It is a nonsensical notion if you want a good, functioning society made of people with diverse skills and experiences, working for a common good. In that case, some will earn more, and some will earn less. If everyone was trying to earn the most, it would be chaos. In our society, I chose a helper job, not a money job.
  2. My wife and I have different skills. She has a high IQ. She’s a details person, who can analyse and think critically. She’s very task-orientated and has a laser focus without distraction. Her skills are valued in the property industry. I have a high EQ. I’m a feelings person, who likes exploring people’s stories. I often look past details to consider impact and relationship. I am valued in social work and ministry. In our fields, our skills are desired and paid accordingly. But what is important is that in our marriage, we complement one another. We both like doing different things our marriage needs. It makes us happy and it’s quite beautiful.
  3. It says in 1 Corinthians 12:18-19: ‘But in fact, God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.’ This is important. We can’t all be the same, but our differences need to work towards the same goal. Our bodies do different things, yet they work in unison for the benefit of the body. The church has many different parts, and each has its own part to play in the works of the kingdom. Marriage must be the same. Dysfunction in marriage comes when you try to do it on your own. When one tries to be greater than the other. Marriage happens when you work together, knowing you bring different things to the table but using those things to serve one another and help one another.

‘How do you feel about your wife earning more than you?’

The husband I was speaking to was a Christian guy. That was important for our conversation. People think that being a good husband is about provision. It’s a cultural and societal pressure that we’ve been taught from a young age. Working hard at your career, bringing home the most money, being successful and powerful. It puts the man as the primary person in the marriage and everything else flows from him. That’s actually misogyny and it’s wrong. It’s a terrible way to live and a terrible philosophy for marriage.

“How much money you bring to the table isn’t a competition. There shouldn’t be winners and losers. Marriage is about being one.” -Brian Tran

The Bible teaches us that being a good husband is about dying to yourself and loving your wife. Working together to care for your marriage and your family. Sacrificing your desire to be the most important, the most powerful, the most successful. And often, sacrificing the need to be ‘right’. You must strive to make decisions that benefit your marriage and your family. All these things are for the sake of God’s glory, not so you can be the best ‘Jones’ on the block.

How much money you bring to the table isn’t a competition. There shouldn’t be winners and losers. Marriage is about being one. Through sickness and health, good times and bad. As Christians, our lives are about who we understand Jesus to be and how we reflect this understanding to those around us. It’s not about how much we earn.

Priscilla’s Perspective

Brian has been asked this question a number of times. I’d like to share my thoughts as I have never heard of a woman being asked the reverse question about her husband.

I understand the base assumption that men generally earn more than women. Many have written on the gender pay gap so I’ll focus on the other assumption: that the husband might feel upset in some way about this situation.

My key issues with this assumption are twofold:

  1. Your identity, including masculinity, should not be affected by earning power.

Although financial support is a key way to provide for your family, it’s not the only way: men should also provide emotional, relational and spiritual support and leadership to their families.

“One downside to our capitalist and materialistic society is that we mistakenly attribute financial wealth and productivity to a person’s value.” – Priscilla Tran

Further, the ability for wives to provide financially does not diminish her husband’s provisions but is combined with it. You’re partners on the same team; it’s not a zero-sum game or a competition. Therefore, a wife’s financial contributions should be welcomed, not seen as an attack on masculinity nor a source of shame.

2. What one earns is not indicative of their value as a human nor their contribution to family or society.

Most adults work. Only some of that work is paid. One downside to our capitalist and materialistic society is that we mistakenly attribute financial wealth and productivity to a person’s value. This results in attitudes ranging from disrespect to disgust for people who don’t contribute financially in our families (such as stay-at-home parents, carers, children) and society (such as people who don’t do paid work and may rely on social welfare).

This mistaken attitude can result in unhealthy dynamics and, sometimes, abuse (emotional, financial, physical).

In families, this can look like:

  • Thinking that your greater income means you have greater (or the only) say in how your family’s finances are spent, or that your needs are higher than that of others.
  • Not valuing or pulling your weight in unpaid labour (housework, caring duties, carrying the mental load of managing family admin and affairs).
  • Not giving your family the attention and energy they need (such as not being truly present when you’re home because you’ve given the best of yourself to your paid work).
  • Not contributing to your partner’s superannuation because they’re not working.

In workplaces, churches and society, this can look like:

  • Disrespecting, not valuing and not caring about or for people who earn less or don’t earn any income.
  • Caring more about and attributing greater weight to the opinions of those who earn more money, which also contributes to lobbying power and decision-making.

I believe a person’s value lies in being made in the image of God. Therefore, I try to value people the way God does: immensely, regardless of what they do or don’t provide.

All this is to say I don’t think less of Brian for earning less than me, and he doesn’t think less of himself either. My attitude didn’t change when I was working while Brian was studying for his Masters, and it didn’t change when he was unemployed. The way I value myself and others doesn’t hinge on how much or little I or others earn. That’s the beauty of having my identity and life ‘hidden with Christ in God’ (Colossians 3:3).