Wednesday, August 8, 2007

The Perils of Powerful Women

A-list Oscar winner Hilary Swank and her C-list spouse, Chad Lowe, divorced after 8 years of marriage. Pop star Britney Spears married pizza delivery boy, Kevin Federline, and the marriage derailed after 3 years. Jessica Simpson made $35 million to Nick Lachey’s measly $5 million, and the marriage ended after 3 years. After 4 years, Tony-winner Christina Applegate, star of Broadway’s “Sweet Charity,” divorced hubby Jonathon Schaech, whose acting career was sputtering. Clearly, there is a problem with women who out-perform the men they love.

Ten years ago, business guru, Tom Peters, called women “the most powerful economic force on the planet.” More years ago than that, Goldie Hawn announced that she was looking for a man who was more successful than she; when she met Kurt Russell, she bragged about how much more accomplished than she he was. Today, successful women are optimistically named Alpha Women. The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that 5.3 million wives earned more than their husbands in 1987, but by 2004, that number had grown to 8.4 million, and is ever expanding. Neither these Alpha Women (nor their male counterparts) deal gracefully with their partner's less-glowing assignment to Beta Man. Glenn Close's character of the aggressive lawyer in the TV series, Damages, tells her young associate, "It's biology. A man should want to be in charge. The trick is making him feel that he really is... Most men can't handle an ambitious woman. It may take you a few tries, but make sure you find one who can."

The Glenn Close lawyer has a point. As a result of Alpha Female Phenomenon (AFP), relationships and marriages often derail—or, in the case of many high-powered Singles, they never even get off the ground.

A 2003 global study of 10,000 people found that when women are more successful than their husbands, they are twice as likely to leave them. Today, women’s out-earning capacity has hit 1/3 of all married, working women. A report published last week showed that 20-something women in such large cities as New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago, Boston, and Minneapolis, are already topping the earnings of men. Moreover, this trend is a global one. Reuters in London reported that within a decade, more women than men will make financial decisions in the home. So what does this mean to the shelf life of our relationships?

When I discussed this issue on NBC’s iVillage, the two beautiful, successful show hosts revealed how difficult it was for them in their marriages to men who financially contributed less. When I discussed this issue on the Fox News Channel, the three hosts, two males and one female, had already been heatedly discussing it. Eleanor Mondale interviewed me on her radio show in Minneapolis, one of the cities where young women out-earn their male colleagues, and we spoke of hope for the future.

Why should a woman’s proud professional achievements be accompanied by her man’s feelings of emasculation? If they are to survive, couples must learn to cope with being honestly TWOgether.

How can we accomplish that? A relationship must embrace truthful communication about real feelings and fears. When a guy feels financially inferior, his self-esteem crumbles, and he morphs into child-mode. One of my clients, humorously, he thought, signed his anniversary card to his wife and mother of his two daughters, “Your third child.” The wife had already lost respect for her man-child, while he felt unneeded and worthless.

No one person in a pair should feel s/he is doing the heavy emotional lifting. If someone feels too put upon, sex will abruptly end. After all, you can’t have sex with your child! My Gilda-Gram warns, “A parental relationship is an asexual relationship.” This can be a rusty nail in the marital coffin.

Successful relationships boast respect and admiration, no matter what each partner's earnings are. As important as it is for Beta Man to feel “manly,” Alpha Woman still craves reassurance she’s desirable. My Gilda-Gram asserts, “The goal at home must be toward partnership, not power brokering.” The husband of Meryl Streep’s character in “The Devil Wears Prada” asked for divorce because her work out-ranked him on her to-do list. Successful working women were never taught to role-flex at home. Many women feel that turning their power on and off is phony. Yet every hard-driving Type A personality must do that to conserve her health.

Last week, I had dinner with two Single, high-powered Baby-Boomer women. One was suddenly getting the cold shoulder from a man she had been dating for two months. They had recently compared their earnings. At a party, his family had commented that she far out-classed him. Now he was withdrawing. Both women said a man’s smaller wallet didn’t mean anything to them. But it sure meant a lot to this woman’s boyfriend, and now there was nothing she could do.

Just as sad are the twenty-something women who tell me they worry about out-earning their men. In the dressing room of a fine boutique, I heard one young woman say, “For now, it’s okay that he’s struggling as a musician. But I know this will be a problem for us once I finish law school.” What happens to these women—and their relationships? Do they put their career aspirations on the back burner—only to fall off the stove? Do they unconsciously put forth less effort in their jobs to appease their partner?

Clearly, much must change. Couples must play to each other’s strengths, not attack each other’s differences. Since women believe they are the Relationship Police, here are some guidelines the feminine force can follow to better their odds for relationship longevity.

The New Rules for Women:
1) No matter what you are earning, if you really mean it, boast to the world, “Bob is much better with finances...or golf...or cooking...or, whatever... than I am.” Also tell him!
2) Recognize it’s impossible to be a power broker by day and a femme fatale by night. If you need reassurance that you’re still feminine, embrace your feminine side—even on the job. Your femininity makes you shine, rather than detracts from your power.
3) Give up the Prince Charming myth. My book, “Don’t Bet on the Prince!” advises, “If you don’t expect your man to be your savior, you won’t get angry when he’s not.”
4) Incorporate play into your dialogue. There is bottom-line Male Talk and more detailed Female Talk. Laugh about how you want your information exchanged. Real power reflects your ability to lighten up and laugh.
5) Remember this Gilda-Gram: “Communication is the heart of relationship salvation.” Be honest, be truthful, and be forthright, even though the topic of earning inequity might be scary to discuss.
6) Make your guy feel SAFE enough to express his true feelings and fears. If he won’t open up, it’s because he doesn’t feel protected. Offer him a safe haven without judgment or criticism.

These 6 points are only a start. But they are, at least, a beginning. It is obvious that women are becoming more powerful in the workplace. Let’s deal with the realities and ramifications now, so our daughters won’t feel they must apologize for their success as it becomes even bolder.