Making big flip relationships work
Kassandra Bibas, a marriage and family therapist who specializes in female breadwinner relationships, shares her perspective.
What made you decide to focus on female breadwinners as your area of expertise?
A lot of this came about through my own experience of being a woman breadwinner. My ex-husband was a student at the university I was teaching at. I got my MBA while he was still finishing his undergrad in engineering. By the time he graduated I was already a professor. So I was making more, simply for the fact that I’d been out in the workplace.
What were the challenges you experienced?
Back then, I didn’t call myself the breadwinner. There are a lot of women breadwinners but they don’t go and tell people about it. They don’t publicize it. They feel some level of shame because people expect the man to be the provider.
Tell me more about this feeling of shame. What causes it?
A lot of that shame still surfaces when you go to a party or you go to a family gathering for Thanksgiving, and your family says, “Well, what’s Dan doing?” And Dan has to explain that he’s taking the kids to school in the morning and picking them up in the afternoon. Or maybe he’s starting a new business that isn’t bringing in money right now.
As a working mom, some of the questions that I get asked are: “How do you have time to go to Girl Scouts or the kids’ recital? If you’re working, how do you do all the other stuff that moms do? How can a dad ever replace a mom?” The mommy guilt starts to come in.
What’s your advice for dealing with that?
It’s so important to get away from the shame of “what does my husband do,” and not being able to explain at a family gathering—why he’s not the breadwinner, why you are. Know in advance, what do you love about your relationship? What do you love about your spouse? What makes this a strong relationship?
So you aren’t caught off guard when that question comes, because it’s going to come! “I love the fact that he’s so committed to our family. I love the fact that he knows exactly what he wants to do with his career and he’s not willing to settle for less than his dream. And I love the fact that we support each other in everything that we do. And I think that our family works because we know exactly how to support each other best.” You start to say stuff like that, and it shuts people up really fast!
What other common problems do you see in big flip relationships?
A lot of breadwinner wives have powerful positions. They either own their own companies or they have top-level positions. And so they don’t leave the boss at work. They walk in and they say, “I need you to do this. I need you to take care of that.” They pull out the to-do list rather than say, “How was your day? I would love it if we could talk later about all the things that you need to do this week.” Remember—your husband didn’t marry the boss. He married you. So what he’s looking for, when you walk through the door—is that there’s a softness, a “here’s our team” approach rather than “let me tell you what you need to do.”
Let’s talk about housework—another common friction point in big flip families.
The problem with the household chores and the delegation of work in the house is really more about two things. One, the release of control, and trusting that things will get done. They may not get done perfectly, they may not get done your way, but they’ll get done. Second, is what women breadwinners choose to focus on. So are you focusing on what your spouse did right today? Or are you focusing on every little thing that went wrong? What we focus on is what we see.
Focus on the right things—I agree with that in theory, but it’s not easy to do in real life! Can you give an example of how you’d do it?
How could you reframe the focus on all the things he did well? How can you speak to him in a way that says, “You did great. I so appreciate that”? Or if it didn’t go well at all, instead of saying “Can we talk?” say “You know what? I want to tell you how great you did today. And I would love it if you would do _______” and concisely fill in the blank. And then trust that he’ll do it, leave him alone, and wait.
Not all female breadwinners have chosen to play that role voluntarily; some do so because their husbands have lost their jobs. What advice do you have in these situations?
Sometimes the lesson is as simple as: we were living right at the cusp of making two incomes work, and now we need to get together and figure out (a) how to make one income work for the meantime. And (b) even when he gets back to work, create a financial reality where it doesn’t take two incomes should another recession happen, should something else change.
What are some red flags that tell you a big flip relationship is in trouble?
I talk to women breadwinners all the time who are giving their all, they’re supportive of their husbands. But there’s a pattern of him not staying at the same job, quitting jobs before it’s really time to quit, not contributing to the household. So not only is he not working—but he’s not doing the dishes, he’s not really caring for the kids, and she really is doing two full-time jobs. It may not bother her in year one and it may not bother her in year three, but at some point she’ll get to a place where she says, “I really need a partner. I don’t need another child.”
What advice do you have for the men in a big flip relationship?
They need to understand how to define their masculinity within a world that hasn’t come to terms with the idea of a man who isn’t bringing home the bacon. Stay-at-home dads need to redefine their masculinity within the role that they’ve taken on, and be comfortable communicating openly about what they do.
Are there other topics you want to talk about, that we haven’t discussed yet?
One of the things that I think is so critical in this conversation that we haven’t yet had—is what’s really going on between breadwinner wives and their husbands in terms of sex and intimacy. A lot of these studies that are coming out are saying: oh my goodness, if you are a woman breadwinner and you’re married to a man who’s not the breadwinner, your sex life sucks. It’s not good because he feels emasculated and you feel resentful.
I don’t like these studies. And I don’t like them because they’re pointing to the wrong thing. They imply that it’s the woman breadwinner role that’s causing the sex life and the intimacy to go down the drain, when in fact it has much more to do with the undercurrent of emotions that aren’t being talked about. It’s not the woman breadwinner. It’s the resentment and the stonewalling and the not talking about how we’re redefining this that’s really causing intimacy issues. Even in relationships where there aren’t women breadwinners, you still have all those things going on. We just call them different things.
Why do you think society has such a hard time with the idea of female breadwinners?
There have always been women who have taken the lead. For centuries. Cleopatra! There’s nothing new about women who are powerful and who own their power. Some of these conversations we’re having—women rise and men fall—it’s the wrong conversation. Because anytime in your family one of you rises, you all rise together. Woman breadwinner is nothing new. In fact, in certain ethnicities, African-American women specifically, most of them have been breadwinners for the bulk of their existence in America. But how we talk about it, and whether or not we empower girls to feel okay with being women breadwinners—that is a new conversation that we haven’t had yet.
Any last words of advice for big flip couples?
I want people to know that women breadwinner relationships can work, that they face the same challenges and difficulties as other relationships, and that there’s at least a thousand ways to make the relationship as successful as you want it to be.
Does it take collaboration between both people? Yes. And it’s a work in progress all the way through. So you don’t arrive. What makes it work is not the arrival—it’s the journey, the discovery of what this looks like, the unfolding of what makes it work. Not the—does he make enough, does he do enough, does he fold clothes the way that I do, does he wash dishes the way that I do, he didn’t do bath time, bed time. None of that matters at the end of the day. What matters is that you two create something, and you consistently create something, that makes everybody smile at the end of the day.
*NOTE: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Kassandra has a B.A. in Sociology from Vassar, and went on to obtain an MBA and a Master of Arts in Marriage and Family Therapy. She counsels female breadwinners, and is a female breadwinner herself.
About The Big Flip
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