In sickness and in wealth: psychological and sexual costs of income comparison in marriage

Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2013 Mar;39(3):359-74. doi: 10.1177/0146167212475321. Epub 2013 Feb 3.


As the percentage of wives outearning their husbands grows, the traditional social norm of the male breadwinner is challenged. The upward income comparison of the husband may cause psychological distress that affects partners' mental and physical health in ways that affect decisions on marriage, divorce, and careers. This article studies this impact through sexual and mental health problems. Using wage and prescription medication data from Denmark, we implement a regression discontinuity design to show that men outearned by their wives are more likely to use erectile dysfunction medication than their male breadwinner counterparts, even when this inequality is small. Breadwinner wives suffer increased insomnia/anxiety medication usage, with similar effects for men. We find no effects for unmarried couples or for men who earned less than their fiancée prior to marriage. Our results suggest that social norms play important roles in dictating how individuals respond to upward social comparisons.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Databases, Factual
  • Denmark
  • Drug Prescriptions
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Income* / trends
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Personal Satisfaction
  • Regression Analysis
  • Sex Factors
  • Sexual Behavior / psychology*
  • Spouses / psychology*