When She Earns More: As Roles Shift, Old Ideas on Who Pays the Bills Persist

Set, and adjust, expectations. Derek Tharp, who runs a financial planning firm in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, said he believed the assumptions that each partner brought to a relationship were the biggest potential sources of conflict.

“If they are open-minded and adjust their roles accordingly — e.g., he may pick up more household labor as her responsibilities in the labor market become more demanding — then things generally work out just fine,” Mr. Tharp said. “But if either spouse is uncomfortable with the outcome — he may feel that he’s failing as a husband or she may feel that he’s not carrying his own weight — then the risk for conflict may be high.”

Lazetta Rainey Braxton, chief executive of the financial planning firm Financial Fountains, said she had seen earning-related stress arise later, when a woman wanted to relinquish her breadwinning role, often to spend time with children or change to a more flexible, and possibly less lucrative, career.

“It can put a great deal of pressure on men to step up and figure out the income differential,” she said. When such situations arise, she helps couples figure out how much flexibility they have to make adjustments — stretching out student loan payments, for example — that affect their current situation and long-term goals.

Divide and conquer. Research shows that men are handling more household responsibilities, but they still aren’t doing as much as their wives. When women feel they are doing more than their fair share, their relationships have been found to suffer.

It’s amazing what a little more help around the house can accomplish: Another study, from last year, found that women whose jobs gave them greater professional status than their husbands were more likely to feel resentful or embarrassed by their husbands’ lower position — but those feelings didn’t hurt their relationships when the men provided tangible support, like caring for children or older relatives.

“Make a list of whose responsibility it is to take out the trash, make sure the car insurance gets paid, decide how much to spend on groceries, etc.,” said Sonya Britt-Lutter, an associate professor of financial planning at Kansas State University, who recently developed a program to guide couples through financial conversations.