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    What Happens When Women Are the Breadwinners?

    Better educated and professionally successful, rising numbers of middle-class women are flipping the script on traditional gender and marital norms.

    For centuries, it was a truth universally acknowledged that a capable man must be in want of a weaker, more pliant wife. In China, the ideal spousal relationship has typically been described in terms of “a brilliant man and a beautiful woman” or “the man sings while the woman follows” — idioms that position women as supporting and sharing in the successes of dominant men. Women are encouraged to direct their efforts into the crown achievement of “marrying up” rather than pursue their own advancement. Their individual wins are, if anything, regarded as contra the interests of their marriage, family, and other intimate relationships.

    More recently, however, women’s rising educational attainment, financial independence, and professional success has led many to feel increasingly comfortable flexing their strength at home. In some cases, this has led to greater equality, but in my research into female-dominated relationships in Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen, I also found a pattern of “reverse dependency,” in which financially dominant women flip the traditional matrimonial script and leave it to their husbands to make the sacrifices necessary to hold the relationship together.

    My research participants are self-employed women between the ages of 30 and 50 who belong to China’s nouveau riche. Some are their families’ primary breadwinners; their salaries cover mortgages, car payments, afterschool tutoring for their kids, and everything else their families might need. Others split their financial responsibilities with their partners, paying for the bulk of their family’s expenses while their partners contribute a smaller share.

    The majority felt comfortable making big family decisions on their own, including those related to investments, major purchases, and their children’s schooling. “I discuss major matters with my husband, but he never objects to anything I bring up,” said Miu Miu, a 38-year-old businesswoman who runs an e-commerce apparel store. “He takes charge on the things I don’t care about, but he always consults with me before making a decision.” (To protect the identities of my research participants, I have given them all pseudonyms.)

    Yao Li, a 45-year-old owner of a consulting firm, was more forthright: “As long as I don’t ask my husband for money for anything, it’s all up to me.”

    That’s not to say their husbands are always willing to adopt a subordinate role in the relationship. Miu Miu and her husband have had serious discussions about divorce, in part because he felt she wasn’t spending enough time at home caring for their kids. “Most men in China make the same demands of career women as they do of housewives,” she said. “When we’d argue years ago, he would say, ‘You’ve never made breakfast for me. Are you even still a woman?’”

    One difference between these relationships and more traditional “strong husband-weak wife” pairings is the women’s refusal to bend, even when divorce is on the table. A few even use the threat of divorce themselves to bring their husbands in line. In Miu Miu’s case, she waited out her husband’s complaints, and he now willingly spends more time at home with their kids, leaving her free to spend her time as she wants.

    Unsurprisingly, these high-earning women tend to have equally high expectations for their partners. All of my research participants expressed a desire for romance and passion, and they complained about the unromantic behavior of their past and current husbands. “Unromantic” here refers to a lack of sweet talk, flirting, or surprise gifts.

    The women generally attributed this yearning for romance to the ideals of love and intimacy that have inundated them since adolescence. None of them considered romance essential to their relationships and families, however. Some respondents confessed to fantasizing about emotional affairs, but said they refused to act on the fantasies to avoid endangering their partnerships with their husbands. Others did have affairs but still saw themselves and their husbands as sharing the same fundamental interests. A third of my interviewees stated that no one else could replace their husband as the father of their children.

    Based on my research, no matter how beautiful romance and passion can be, what these high-achieving, high-earning women value most is trust, security, and family. In other words, despite their occasional threats, they are willing to work to maintain their marriages and families, provided their husbands meet their needs.

    Take Bella, for instance. A 45-year-old entrepreneur and mother of two, she runs a business with her husband. After discovering an emotional affair he had with an ex-girlfriend, she considered her options for a day before laying down an ultimatum. “If you still want to be with this family, then you have to promise me three things,” she recalled saying. “You’ll call her in front of me and tell her that you’ll never contact her again; you can’t ever buy speculative stocks; and you can’t have your own private funds.” He eventually agreed to her terms, albeit reluctantly.

    Bella explained her decision to stay in her marriage in practical terms. “We co-own our company, and the money is on the company’s books, so how do you split that?” she said. “Wouldn’t our business just fail? Passion will always fade, but there are a lot of other considerations when you’re middle-aged.”

    Of course, some marriages between “strong women and weak men” do fail, leaving the women to decide on their own what comes next. Qiao Qiao, the 43-year-old owner of a cultural and creative business, found out about her husband’s affair when she was pregnant and resolved to get a divorce. Afterward, she worked to make a name for herself as a writer and eventually rode the internet start-up wave to become an entrepreneur. With her newfound wealth, she has dated several boyfriends and currently lives with a man 19 years her junior.

    Qiao Qiao understands clearly what her current boyfriend wants from her and is content with the arrangement. “I mean, he’s 19 years younger,” she said. “What do you think they want with me if not dependency, to struggle a little less for 20 years? … (And) what do I make money for anyway if not to make myself happy?”

    “If he’s with me purely for the money, then there are so many others who are richer and more powerful than me, so why stay?” she added. “There are still feelings involved, but you also can’t say that money isn’t a factor. That’s just not possible, so don’t even think about it.”

    Qiao Qiao’s attitude towards her boyfriend might be seen as transactional by many people, but it’s a price that she is willing and, just as crucially, able to pay. Women have different reasons for breaking off or continuing their intimate relationships, but at least in these cases, the decisions are invariably their own.

    Ultimately, what my research participants want most in a life partner is respect, acceptance, and support — their own personal space, the right to negotiate and make individual decisions, and a safe space for intimacy. Their resources make this possible, but they’re also forging a path that other women can follow.

    Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.

    (Header image: Ajijchan/VCG, reedited by Sixth Tone)