Could having a more financially successful wife actually be bad for a man's health?

A new study led by a Rutgers University sociologist suggests it could, at least for men born between 1931 and 1941. Men from that era, who would now be in their mid-70s to mid-80s, had poorer overall health in late middle age if their wives earned more than they did, especially if she started earning more earlier in their marriages.

Kristen Springer, who led the study, hypothesized that being married to a female "breadwinner" put such men under extra stress because it conflicted with the societal expectation of the time that men should provide the dominant income. She expected that men of that generation would be most affected by such a "masculinity threat," but says "it's very likely that some of these patterns still exist."

The study, which included work from Chioun Lee of the University of Wisconsin and Deborah Carr of Boston University, analyzed 30 years of income and health data for 1,095 couples from the Health and Retirement Study.  It was published in the Journal of Aging and Health.

According to the study, even in 1977, two-thirds of Americans believed that "it is generally better for a marriage if a husband earns more than his wife."  Forty percent of people 65 and older still believed that in 2013.

Workforce participation by women has, of course, increased over the last century and so has their contribution to family income. In 1960, only 3 percent of women earned more than their husbands, the study said, but 29 percent earned more in 2013.  Previous work has found that men who earn less may act out by being abusive, having affairs, or doing less housework.

In the study, 70 percent of the men were always the primary breadwinner and a few others had relatively equal incomes or brief periods where the wife earned more.  The team was interested in couples that transitioned to female breadwinning — that means the wife earned more — in the early, middle, or late years of these long marriages.  These were not "kept" men; most of them had jobs, although the researchers could not tell how many hours they worked.

The researchers looked at the men's health in 1992, a point at which they were old enough to develop some health problems but still young enough to be expected to be in the workforce, Springer said.

They attempted to control for health problems that might have kept men from working by comparing their childhood health, which Springer said is a surprisingly good predictor of adult health.

The strongest health effects were among the men whose wives started earning more while they were in their 20s and 30s, a group that made up only about 5 percent of the sample.  Those men were 41 to 48 percent more likely than the long-term breadwinners to have cardiovascular problems or other issues such as chronic lung disease, stomach ulcers, or back pain.  The late-transition group, where wives started earning more when couples were in their 50s and 60s, were 21 to 26 percent more likely to have health problems.  They were less likely to have cardiovascular diagnoses or diabetes than the early-transition group.  Springer said those conditions take years to develop and may have been more common in the group exposed to more years of chronic stress. She also suspects that health issues may have played a bigger role in earnings changes in the late-transition group.  One mystery is why men whose wives began earning more in the middle years of their marriages were just as healthy as the primary breadwinners.  On average, these men had more children and the team theorized that they may have been thankful for more family income.

Springer said men would likely be healthier if a "more egalitarian society" became the ideal.