Q: Earlier in life I concentrated on my career early in life and only married in my fifties. My right-brained husband is a wonderful man in many ways. Shortly after our marriage, however, he quit his job as manager in a fast-food restaurant. We had not agreed to that prior to marriage. I thought he was going to get another job but the reality is that he hasn't worked in the 11 years since. There is always an excuse: “no jobs,” pay is too low,” “hours aren’t good,” “can’t get weekend days off,” “he needs to be a house-husband” since my job is busy and stressful at a VP level. I'd like to retire but I can't support two on my pension. It is so frustrating. I love him but am losing respect for him. How can he be satisfied to be living off me? I believe he felt better about himself when he was working as a manager. I neither need nor want a house husband and I feel manipulated. Some nights I don’t even really want to see him—all rested and relaxing around the house. He may have made dinner but it didn’t take all afternoon and I can get a housekeeper to come in a couple of times a month. Do you think he has a brain problem?

A: It takes collaboration (openly acknowledged or de facto) for a male to live off his wife. He has to want to do it and she must be willing to allow him to do so. It isn't ideal for either. Studies have shown that males feel good about themselves based on their JOB and SALARY. The more money they make, the better their self-esteem. Enter the right-brained male who often is a good nurturer and a great cook but because of lack of education or experience or ability to complete with left-brained males in a left-brained world he is unable to land a job with the desired prestige and salary. The next best thing is to marry a woman who has a prestigious, high-paying job, which boosts his own self-esteem vicariously. "Look who I married." When he finds a woman with a good salary, he works hard to make himself indispensable so she’ll marry him. (There definitely are exceptions and sometimes it even works, especially if there are children involved. There are similar patterns with some females and high-salaried males.)

Do I think he has a brain problem? Sometimes a house husband begins to compare himself to his wife’s perceived success and to other males who are employed outside the home, and the vicarious reward begins to pale. In order to justify his having quit his job, the man must now concoct a story to tell the world (and he comes to believe it) that his wife has such a stressful job that he MUST not work because he MUST be a support to her. He's really the only person who believes that (except perhaps his wife who colludes to keep his self-worth boosted). People rarely say anything to him directly but they know what is happening, and at some level he knows it, too. Again, there is the excuse that he is taking care of her. Yes, he likely does a lot of helpful things. But as you pointed out, you can hire a housekeeping to come in a couple times a month to keep up the house, especially when no children are involved. He deludes himself into believing that staying at home shows his love for his wife (when he really is avoiding the stress of getting out and working). Interestingly enough, these males often develop health problems that make it so they cannot go out into the workforce. Obesity is one example, can interfere with hormonal balance and suppress immune system function.

An attorney recently talked about how this scenario is a common problem for many high-level professional women. Some grin and bear it and just end up supporting him as a "boy toy," being grateful for whatever they do get from him, while others give him an ultimatum: "get a job or leave." They're tired of working hard and paying for everything. The outcome to an ultimatum is never assured. Sometimes the male chooses to get a job and sometimes he decides to look for another woman who will support him in the style to which he has become accustomed. If he stays and the time comes when his wife retires, the man now has no vicarious job to boast about and the excuse "I need to take care of her" no longer holds any water. If the couple divorces, there are definite financial consequences to the spouse who earned the most money during the marriage, at least in some states. California for example. Such scenarios may provide part of the momentum behind the move for more women choosing to remain single after divorce or death of a spouse.