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Economic Dependence in Marriage and Husbands' Health: Testing Three Possible Mechanisms

Kristen Springer

Gender & Society
June 2010

Prior research suggests that midlife husbands have worse health when they earn less than their wives; however, the mechanism(s) for this relationship have not been evaluated. In this study, the author analyzes 1,319 heterosexual married couples from the Health and Retirement Study to explore three theoretically grounded mechanisms. The author begins by assessing two well-established family relations theories (economic resource and marital dissatisfaction) to explore the mediating effect of marital power and relationship quality. The author then draws from gender relations theory, multiple masculinities literature, and cognitive dissonance research to test the possibility of a male breadwinner mechanism. The results demonstrate that family relations theories are insufficient explanations but provide strong support for the male breadwinner mechanism. Specifically, being the secondary earner is harmful for the health of highest-income men—who historically have the strongest expectation of male breadwinning. These findings suggest that stereotypes about male breadwinning can be dangerous for men’s health.

Kristen W. Springer. 2010. "Economic Dependence in Marriage and Husbands' Health: Testing Three Possible Mechanisms." Gender & Society, 24 (3): 378-401.