Valentine's Day Role Reversal

She's engaged to be married, but romance isn't easy to come by in Heidi Littenberg's life these days. Her fiance's construction business has been faltering for years and the couple is struggling to make payments on two mortgages.

Financial stress isn't the only thing that's sapped that loving feeling: Littenberg, 46, of Reno, Nevada, says that the self-esteem of her soon-to-be husband has taken a hit because it's her salary, not his, that supports the couple.

"It's a pride thing," she said.

Littenberg is one of a growing number of women who will spend this Valentine's Day wearing the title of primary breadwinner. It's a role more and more women find themselves in thanks in part to a recession that's hit the sexes unevenly, at least in the paycheck. Unemployment rates for both genders was once fairly equal at below five percent, today male unemployment rate is at 10.8 percent compared to 8.4 percent for women.

VIDEO: Who Controls the Money in Marriages

But the recession is only part of the role reversal puzzle: The trend of women out-earning their male counterparts has been picking up steam for decades: According to an analysis of Census data by the Pew Research Center, 22 percent of wives earned more than their husbands in 2007, up from 4 percent in 1970.

The pratfalls of this evolution have been well-documented, with some women racked with guilt over abandoning stereotypical caretaker roles and men feeling emasculated and meeting with disapproval from traditional-minded parents or friends.

But experts say the good news is that many married couples (though not all; more on that later) have adjusted to the paycheck discrepancy and that, for younger mates, it's become a non-issue.

"What do couples do when men don't earn more money, I think, is a far less salient question for people under 40 than it might be to people over 40," said Barbara J. Risman, the head of the sociology department at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the author of "Gender Vertigo: American Families in Transition." Young couples today presume that women are going to remain in the labor force and are negotiating new ways of handling their lives right from the beginning."

Less Equality When Dating?

But Risman also said that gender pay disparities may be more keenly felt before marriage, among couples that are dating or engaged like Littenberg and her fiance.

While couples typically pool their resources after marriage, she said, men are often expected to bear the financial burden in the dating stages.

"In courtship, we're still stuck in pre-egalitarian mode -- the presumption is that when men pay for something, it eroticizes the event," Risman said. "As long as you don't pool resources, you have his and hers and as long as you have his and hers, all of the gender issues and gender expectations and stereotypes get invoked."

Littenberg does see some positive aspects to her and her beau's lopsided financial picture.

"The whole situation forced us to have better relationship," she said. "It's sort of basic, good relationship stuff -- we communicate with each other in a sensitive way."

And, tight budget notwithstanding, they're not forgetting about Valentine's Day this year: they're heading out-of-town for a concert, she said.

"We wanted to still have some romance on the holiday," she said.

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