When Christine and Dominick Pallatto moved to Los Angeles from New York nine years ago, they made a pact: Whoever found the steadiest work would be the primary breadwinner; the other would work at night and stay home during the day to care for their infant daughter.
Mrs. Pallatto soon scored the biggest paychecks with a banking job, while her husband tended and managed a bar . . . and eventually took over the day-care duties.
"We made the decision that I had the greater monetary opportunity," said Mrs. Pallatto, now a bank vice president. "I supported him financially and he supported me emotionally, but it's definitely a partnership.
"Not only did it work out great for both of us, but our daughter, Corey, was the real winner because she developed as close a relationship with her daddy as she has with me."
The Pallattos, both 44, are among a growing number of dual-income couples where the wife brings home most of the bacon.
The proportion of wives who earn more than their husbands jumped from 15.9 percent in 1981 to 21 percent in 1991, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
President Clinton and his wife, Hillary, a corporate lawyer, are perhaps the most notable example. The first couple's federal income taxes for 1992 revealed an adjusted gross income of $290,697 -- but the president earned just $34,527 of that as governor of Arkansas.
Labor researchers say that the trend is reshaping stereotypical gender roles, and that the traditional expectation that husbands feel threatened by their wives' earning power is becoming a moot issue in the recessional '90s. Success among these couples revolves around a balanced male ego and reassuring female sensitivity toward those feelings, work force experts claim.
But family therapists argue that's a best-case scenario and not always realistic.
"It does take a secure man and a good relationship when the wife earns more, because it goes against social expectations," said Arlene Johnson, vice president of Families and Work Institute, a New York labor research and consulting firm.
"For years, men had the burden and stress of providing for the family, and all that responsibility was on their shoulders. With more women earning more money, men have more free time for %% the family, there is greater family revenue, and everyone wins."
Some men are angered
Family therapist Mark Miller, who specializes in men's issues, challenged that assessment.
"While there are certainly men who are comfortable with their wives having equal or higher amounts of money, others are more traditional and feel a great need to be the head of the household," Mr. Miller said. "They can feel depressed, threatened and angered, and might try to assert control in another other way . . . possibly through intimidation or emotional or physical abuse.
"Sometimes there are hidden feelings of worthlessness, and, in extreme cases, they may want to split up or divorce and find another woman who earns less."
As if to underscore his point, several couples declined to comment, saying the issue was too sensitive to address publicly.
But other couples said the changing of the guard actually has strengthened their marriages, both financially and emotionally.
Judy and Ron Fischer, both 48, view their marriage as an equal partnership, even though Mr. Fischer works for his wife and earns less.
"She makes more than me, but we put it all in the same pot and use it together," said Mr. Fischer, who in 1981 declined a %J partnership offer at a management consulting firm to take a job with his wife's executive search company.
"I think, subconsciously, there may have been a time when I thought of myself in the traditional role of breadwinner in the family. Then I went to work for the real boss, my wife. There was a time of adjustment, when I felt uneasy working for a woman, for my wife, and that it was very conceivable that she could make much more money than me. But over the years, I've come to accept it and have benefited from it."
Mrs. Fischer added, "It certainly sets up a bit of friendly competition. If your marriage is strong and if egos don't get in the way, that's healthy.
"Fortunately, we're not concerned where the money is derived from -- who makes more or less -- because our feeling is that it goes to the good of the whole, not its individual pieces."
Attorney Lenni Benson, 34, said acquaintances have expressed admiration over her role as main breadwinner in her marriage to ** high school teacher and counselor John Wellington, also 34.
"I have a lot of jealous women friends, because John is not threatened by my career and making more money," Ms. Benson said. "I don't have to tiptoe around him.
"It's interesting in this day and age that it's still an issue. I mean, so what? But we do get comments on it."
No resentment for teacher
Mr. Wellington, who used to be a lawyer but switched careers to fulfill his dream of teaching and guiding young people, said he never felt threatened by his wife's career.
"There was no jealousy, no sense of missed opportunity or resentment," he said. "And if there is ever a time when Lenni wants to do something else that would earn her less money, I wouldn't have any problem with that."
Labor researchers say there is a tendency among couples in their 20s and 30s to take a partnership attitude toward their careers and move ahead with family plans in tandem.
"Because of the balancing of incomes, they'll say, 'This relocation is yours, and the next is mine,' or 'Whoever makes the most money first, the other quits and takes care of the kids,' " Ms. Johnson said. "When both spouses are good earners, it allows them freedom to adjust careers -- leave a job they don't like, turn down a relocation or pursue another interest or hobby.
"I think that would have been a problem for a previous generation."
Dominick Pallatto agreed.
"Times are definitely changing for the better," said Mr. Pallatto, now a nightclub manager. "I wish I could have had me for a father. I never saw my father. He was always working, while my mother stayed home. But that was a different era, a different socioeconomic period in our history."
Ms. Johnson said the traditional mold of male-dominated breadwinners is breaking as an increasing number of women prepare themselves for high-powered careers, take shorter maternity leaves and increase their wage-earning power. Employers recognize the trend and are raising women's wages accordingly, she said. Women's median weekly earnings represented 66.7 percent of what men earned in 1983,and that rate increased to 75.4 percent in 1992, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
"Today's women are growing up with an expectation of work, like the men, and the goals of both require two incomes these day," she said. "I think what's positive is for everyone to pursue their interests or talents regardless of their sex."