Even as more women become the breadwinners in their homes, most men today still get bombarded with messages about how they’re the ones who need to be financially successful so they can support their families. Much of this pressure is deeply tied to how we’ve traditionally defined masculinity itself. Men should be leaders, providers, and protectors of others. These are all great qualities, of course. The problem arises when not having those qualities becomes a source of shame and somehow calls into question a person’s identity as a man. Men being providers is great; men being expected to be providers? That’s stressful.

Indeed, research shows men married to women are starting to experience increased levels of stress as their wives begin to earn more money and contribute a larger or dominant proportion of the household income. And now a new study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family suggests the changing times combined with the lingering male breadwinner myth may be actually affecting men’s physical health too.

Researchers surveyed 332 men, each of whom was married to or in a serious, cohabiting relationship with a woman. The men were asked about their household’s income streams and their beliefs about gender (i.e. how much they agreed with statements like “men should equally share housework” and “men should equally share child care”). The researchers also took saliva, blood, and urine samples to assess a health factor known called the “allostatic load,” which refers to physical “wear and tear” on the body due to stress.

“Previous studies have found that if you’re going through adverse experiences like poverty as a child, you have higher allostatic load as an adult,” Joeun Kim, the lead author of the study, explained in a news release. “It’s measured through several biomarkers, and combining that information gives you an allostatic load score.”

The results showed that when men have more traditional beliefs about gender roles (such as that men should be the breadwinner) but are financially dependent on their wives or girlfriends, they tend to have higher allostatic loads. In other words, men who subscribed to restrictive gender norms tended to experience physical stress when their female partners outearned them. “This may speak to the implications that female breadwinning may be threatening in a way that could potentially impact health, depending on a person’s ideas about gender roles,” Kim explained. 

Holding more egalitarian views on gender, on the other hand, reduced the odds of experiencing those physical effects of stress over who brings home the bacon. The truth is, ditching norms around masculinity and gender helps men just like it helps women.

“In a lot of discussions about gender equality, men are often left out of the conversation,” Kim said. “But it’s not just about women. It’s about true equality across gender. Men are also bearing the burdens imposed by society, for example, the pressure to be the family breadwinner. We know that men tend to die earlier than women, and this research speaks to how we can help improve health measures.”

To help men transition into our increasingly egalitarian future smoothly, it’s important that we all collectively stop perpetuating archaic scripts around what men “should” and “shouldn’t” do just because they’re men.

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