I am in my late twenties, and my friends are either getting married or asking their parents to leave them alone for a few more years. A friend mentioned that her parents do not approve of the man she has chosen for herself. The problem is that her income is much more than that of her partner’s. When I got married six months ago, it was a relief for my parents that my partner earned more than I did, despite being a few months younger. However, women marrying men who earn lesser or equal to them is not uncommon today.
A recent study by the University of Nottingham, United Kingdom and the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Hyderabad, found that women whose economic status equals or exceeds that of their husbands are more likely to face domestic violence. The study made me want to dig deeper because it contradicted my assumption that educated and economically independent women hold equal power in their marital relationships. As a newly married working woman, I was curious to understand how women’s work or income can impact their marriage.
I tweeted about the study asking women if they would want to share their experiences of being in a marriage where they earn equal or more than their partners. In less than twenty-four hours, my inbox was filled with women wanting to talk. My respondents were all privileged women, and most of them were in a marriage where they chose their partners. A few of them were also in live-in relationships, and one of them was recently separated. None of the women I spoke to mentioned physical violence; however, violence is not necessarily always physical.
Shriya (name changed), 35, works in a corporate firm in Bangalore and has an 11-year-old son. She replied to my tweet saying that she earned more than her husband, but his insecurities cropped up, and they separated a few years ago. “I was made to feel guilty for working long hours even when most of the household expenses were my responsibility. Had he been in my place, he would have done the same. Then why question the woman,” she said. A few other respondents also spoke about feeling guilty when they had to work for longer hours—some used words like “selfish” to describe themselves.
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Shriya and I also talked about our conventional families where we grew up seeing our fathers being the breadwinner and our mothers being the homemaker and how that has shaped us as people. This concept is being subverted now in the relationships where the woman is also earning. But can men share the load of household chores even when they never had to do it while growing up? Can women work and be ambitious without feeling guilty? Shriya also said that her husband never wanted to feed the child because he said he did not know how to do it. She was accused of infidelity and of flaunting money when she tried to be an active decision-maker in the house. “He was never physically violent, but he had severe anger issues. Even if I was virtually interacting with a male colleague, it became a problem,” she said.
The results of the study conducted by the University of Nottingham and IIT Hyderabad seem to hold true for married couples across socio-economic backgrounds. Flavia Agnes, a women’s rights lawyer who has worked consistently on issues of gender and law reforms, told me about the self-help groups she worked with in Maharashtra. “These women were not doing anything earlier, but once they got involved with the self-help group programme and started earning, they were subjected to more violence,” she said. Agnes also talked about how it takes years for a woman to come out of a violent marriage even if she is educated and financially independent. “Education system is to be blamed. Women are not taught about their rights or the legal remedies available to them,” she added.
One of the women I spoke to was in a live-in relationship and never wanted to get married. Ananya (name changed), 25, a Junior Project Fellow in a University in India, describes herself as a workaholic and believes that marriage is an inherently patriarchal institution. She earns double what her partner does. “I don’t understand why people get married. I am pretty sure I don’t want it. I will only get married if finding accommodation together becomes difficult,” she said and laughed.
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While my tweet about the study drew many responses, not all of them were bad. Arushi (name changed), 30, is an independent writer based in Delhi. She has been earning more than her husband for a while now, but it has never been a concern. “We both are quite invested in each other’s professional growth,” she said. Both Arushi and her partner grew up with working mothers. “When we were dating, I called him one day, and he said he is busy helping his mother in the kitchen and he will call back later. This was rare and reassuring. One usually does not hear things like this from men,” she added. Sumedha (name changed), 37, who moved to Germany after her PhD is also in a happy relationship. “My husband and I earn more or less the same, and it works well. I wanted equality in our relationship from the beginning itself. No gifts were exchanged during our wedding ceremony,” she told me on a call.
The assumption I started off with before reporting on this story, that women’s education and financial independence are enough to empower them, is not universally true. Earning more than men or equal to them might worsen things for women in a lot of cases; however, there are still smaller wins to celebrate if we zoom out and look at the larger picture. Most of the women I spoke to had the power to choose. They could choose if and when they wanted to marry, how they wanted to marry and whom they wanted to marry. The power to choose a man because he helps his mother in the kitchen or the power to ensure that gifts are not exchanged in the wedding ceremony, or even just the ability to say no to marriage or walk out of a marriage, regardless of how complex that is to navigate, I think, tells us that things are not as grim as they appear to be.
Prakriti is an independent writer. She writes on gender, cinema, and relationships and tweets as @kritipraa.