"I'm afraid Paul is going to quit his job again," says Catlin, 26. "If he does, I don't know how we're going to manage. I make a very good salary as manager of a women's clothing store, but it's nowhere near enough to support us and our 5-year-old son."
Paul and Catlin have been together for eight years, married for six. And except for the first two, when he worked as a manager at the department store where they met -- and where everyone talked about him as a rising star -- Paul has been job-hopping, "just like my father," Catlin recalls with a sigh.
The memory burns. Catlin's father was a printer, but he was unambitious and, since he never got along with co-workers, he'd rarely stay at one job very long. The financial insecurity turned FTC Catlin's mother into a shrill-voiced nag who berated her husband while she worked as many jobs as she could and still raise a family. "I swore I'd never let that happen to me," Catlin says.
But that's precisely what is happening. "I cringe when I hear myself, yet I can't stop, especially when Paul turns away as though he doesn't hear what I say," she adds.
History seems to be repeating itself in more ways than one: As Catlin began moving up the career ladder -- initially thrilled to be a full-time mother, she went back to college for a business degree when her son was 1 year old -- her husband has been routinely laid off. Catlin is convinced he's jealous of her success: "Whenever I try to tell him about my work, and how excited I am, he turns on the TV. The fact that he never congratulates me hurts terribly."
Paul, 34, admits it's hard being married to Wonder Woman. "She gets raises and promotions every 10 minutes," he says. "And she has such a good time ordering people around all day at work that she keeps right on giving orders when she gets home."
Paul never intended to make a career in retail, but he's as upset as his wife that his star, which was rising so fast when they first met, has fallen so far. Soon after he and Catlin were married, he started taking civil engineering courses and, when he got his degree, he was hired by a well-known construction company. Paul expected that things would continue exactly as they had even after their son was born. But without even consulting him, he claims, Catlin enrolled in college, leaving him alone every evening with a newborn for company.
About the same time, the bottom fell out of the construction business, and Paul has been struggling ever since. "What can I say? You knock on so many doors and get so many turndowns, you can't face further rejection," he says. He certainly doesn't need his wife to carp at him as his mother always used to do. "Life is pretty miserable," sighs Paul. "My career is off-track, my wife and I merely coexist, and we never make love." He feels he's on a downhill slide that he's powerless to halt.
"Catlin and Paul's complaints have become a common refrain," notes Jane Greer, a marital therapist in New York. "As increasing numbers of women begin to earn as much, if not more, than their spouses -- the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that nearly one-fourth of American women today make more money than their husband -- the balance of power in a marriage shifts, too."
One way to make sure your marriage doesn't crack under the burden of a fiscal power struggle is to discuss the disparity in your career success so you're both aware that these issues may be a trigger for stress. Despite three decades of socioeconomic change, a man's ego may still be tied to the size of his paycheck. Understanding this is key.
Don't be afraid to voice your resentment occasionally if you earn less. By the same token, if you're bringing home the bigger paycheck, listen to your spouse's feelings and don't flaunt your success. Also, remember that bringing home more of the bacon doesn't entitle you to make all the decisions or be hypercritical about what you perceive as your partner's shortcomings.