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Does it matter if a wife earns more money than her husband?

Congratulations if you checked "Not at all." Clearly you are a forward-looking and enlightened person. You may also be kidding yourself. Deep down inside – especially when it comes to relations between the sexes – what we say isn't always what we feel, and may not be at all connected to what we do.

Take a friend of mine, whom I'll call Sandra. After she worked her butt off to get her MBA, her income shot up. Not coincidentally, her marriage also began to fall apart. "I don't think he could handle my success," she says.

She's not the only one. In her excellent book The End of Men, Hanna Rosin offers numerous examples of high-achieving single women who play down their success in hopes of attracting mates. It's not that men object to women who make good money; they just don't want their wives making more than they do.

How prevalent is this belief, or prejudice, or whatever you want to call it? According to a new study by economists at the University of Chicago, it remains deeply embedded in our culture. And it exerts a large influence on marriage rates, divorce rates, career decisions, marital happiness, even the perennially gnawing question of who does the housework.

"Couples where the wife earns more than the husband report being less happy, report greater strife in their marriage, and are ultimately more likely to get a divorce," says the study, titled Gender Identity And Relative Income Within Households.

Women outstrip men in educational attainment and women's incomes have risen sharply, while male employment has taken a beating – you'd think that lots of wives would be the higher-earning partner these days. But that's not the case. The percentage of marriages in which wives out-earn their husbands remains surprisingly small, just 26 per cent. (Last week, a new Pew study found that women are now the primary providers in 40 per cent of households with children – but that includes single mothers, a large and growing group.)

Indeed, the Chicago study found that many wives with high earnings potential adjust their lives in order to make less than their husbands do, either by dropping out of the work force or switching to part-time work. Not only that, women who out-earn their husbands do more housework, not less. Standard economic theory would predict the opposite. But people aren't rational economic units. The study's authors guess that the "threatening" wife takes on a greater share of the housework "so as to assuage the 'threatened' husband's unease with the situation." Which may, in turn, make her so fed up that she wonders why she bothers putting up with him at all.

My own view is that the fragile male ego is not the only issue here. Women are also deeply invested in traditional assumptions about breadwinning. Gender norms have changed enormously, and for the better. But most women still expect to marry up (or at least sideways), even if they don't think they do. They want partners who can prove they are providers. They do not want househusbands. In every group where men are failing to provide – especially at the bottom – marriage is in decline.

The idea of men as providers isn't some casual social construct. It's essential to masculine identity. For most of human history, it's been how men have measured their self-worth. Luckily, gender norms are malleable – but not, perhaps, as malleable as we'd like to think.