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.
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.
Littenberg was one of a number of breadwinning women to share her experience with ABCNews.com. Some of their relationships have weathered their nontraditional income divisions better than others. Read more stories -- submitted by both men and women -- below.
Five Cats and a Fry Pan
My boyfriend's been living with me for 3 years now. He's STILL trying to start a home business in computer repair. As a result, I support him TOTALLY. I also totally support the five cats my boyfriend's adopted into the house. I've bought him a Home Beermaking Kit for Valentine's Day. I've bought myself a fry pan. (I bought my own Christmas presents, too.) I REALLY wish I could at least claim him as a deduction.
-- N.C., Highland Springs, Va.
Just Like 'Desperate Housewives'
For most of our relationship (10 1/2 years) I have made more money than my husband. I have the college degree and steady work history. He has followed me around as I have moved up the ladder. Most recently, we were almost equal with his regular job, plus day care benefits, plus a second coaching job, but he was fired from his full time job for having the second job. Now, he is working a security job at half the pay while finishing his coaching season and watching 2 little boys.
I don't have a problem with making more, I am competitive, I still do all the housework and mommy duties that I need too, and probably more. I know at times he has had issues with the situation, but we look at our family as a partnership and bring to the table what we can. We're kind of like (the characters of) Lynette and Tom from "Desperate Housewives" -- I can be high strung and a control freak, and he's the comic relief and really great [at] everything else.
-- Chris Hartman, Salina, Pa.
On the Brink of Divorce?
My husband hasn't had a steady job in over 5 years. He's trying to get his own business going, and it's put a lot of tension on our relationship...last year we were almost at the point of having to file for bankruptcy. He has a job now, but it's straight commission, and he refuses to get a salaried job. We've been married for 21 years and this could be our last.
-- Pat, Phoenix, Ariz.
Can't Sweat Over Who Makes More
For as long as I have known my Julie (my wife)she has been paid more than I have. She has been working for the Department of Justice for many years. I worked in retail in video stores for a while and eventually ended up working on a research contract for DOJ.
About four years ago I took a job working directly for the DOJ and took about a 50 percent cut in pay in the process, but with a huge improvement in benefits and stability. My pay is back up to where it was, but still not up to where hers is ... Generally, I don't think about it much and I don't think she does either. Our paychecks are direct deposited into the same bank account. Times are tough and we watch every penny. So we really don't have the time or energy to sweat something like who makes more. We are just happy, in this time of a tough economy, that we both still have jobs and a roof over our heads.
-- Daniel Levy, Mesa, Ariz.
Doing the Best He Can
My husband and I are newlyweds and very happy. The only issue we have is that he graduated from ULM of Monroe in Dec. 2009 in Construction Management and is unable to find employment. ... He is employed with his uncle being a laborer on a farm for $8.00 hourly with no benefits.
I am the assistant manager w/a local loan company and now make $11.84 hourly with complete benefits. I pay 80 to 90 percent of our bills and he feels that he is not providing for me as he should. He has told me several times that he does not feel like a man due to the circumstances. I have tried to comfort him by telling him that he is doing his best he can and the economy is a huge factor in him not finding better employment.
We are both traditional people to an extent and are use to the man being provider and the woman being the mother and keeper of the household. He feels worthless and emasculated by the fact he is not the "bread winner."
-- Mandy Little, Jena, La.
My wife earns nearly double what I earn. She graduated college at 23 and got her career going. I didn't graduate college until I was 34. She's been in her career field for nearly 10 years; I've been in mine for 2 years.
All our finances are together; we don't have separate accounts. We live well within our means and it's never a problem except during Christmas time. I handle all the finances so I'm the one that sees the overspending during Christmas. There's some tension/stress; but I've backed off some because her overspending isn't really causing us money problems.
We're a team when it comes to any decision ($$ or otherwise). Since I handle all the financials, my wife laughingly told me once, "Honey, I feel like all I do is work and spend!"
-- Chris Crider, Austin, Texas
Caring for Their Ill Son
My husband and I have been married 22 years ... I have been the major breadwinner since we got married in 1988. My job in insurance had the best benefits and carreer growth potential and we wanted one of us to be at home for the kids.
He is infinitely more patient than I am. I value his contribution of taking care of the family & he values my contribution of earning the money. We both feels the other does more, which makes us appreciate each other possibly more than traditional roles. When the check comes for dinner at a restaurant, my husband slides it over to me.
My husband has a checking account for small daily expenses (gas, school supplies, etc) and I have the checking account with the major bill paying and big expenses. Both names are on each account, but mine is to pay for monthly expenses...
We have 2 biological children and 2 adopted children. Our adopted children are both special needs and our son is severally mentally ill. In 2006, my husband even home schooled him when he was too ill to attend public school.
My husband is 53 years old. He is my most precious gift. I wonder how many other men would give up their jobs to take care of a mentally ill son? I don't think that there's that many out there. We are blessed.
-- Cyndi Purtee, Pearland, Texas
'It Didn't Bother Me Until Now...'
I have been in a relationship for almost four years and during that time I have made more money than my boyfriend. It didn't bother me until now. He's always broke and I lately I have to pick up the bill!!! I also have kids and just bought a house so that's another expense I have.
He lives with me but lately it's been getting to me because I pay for most of the things. The money he makes is enough for his bills and I'm always having to help him out every month. I make enough and I know I don't need his money but it would be nice for him to pay the mortgage once.
I love him so much but sometimes I feel like he's smooching off of me! This Valentine's I'm not going out of my way. I hope he does something for me ... I've done enough for him, financially and emotionally.
-- Adriana Roman, Little Elm, Texas
Valentine's Day on a Budget
I have been married to my husband Aaron for almost four years and I make about 80 percent more than he does.
According to Aaron, this has never bothered him because he sees it as even though the majority of the money may earned by me, it goes towards the family as a whole.
As the family's main breadwinner I do all of our budgeting and most of our spending. No matter who makes how much or how little, our dates (including Valentine's Day) are always planned on a budget.
We set limits for any gift buying. We also save any gift cards we receive throughout the year to restaurants to be used for special nights out like Valentine's Day and our anniversary.
We are saving for our first home -- a goal that both of us are working towards financially regardless of who can put more money towards it.
-- Elizabeth, Milwaukee, Wis.