Aaron Frazier married his college sweetheart, Danielle, four years ago, knowing that she outearned him by $10,000 a year. Now that gap is even bigger.
But even though Aaron's accountant salary today is half the $90,000 his wife makes monitoring clinical drug trials, it doesn't cause any friction.
"I think both of us are pretty modern," said Danielle, 29, of Antioch, Tenn.
"She does more cooking, and I do more housework," said Aaron, 30, adding that if they had a baby, he would start out being the primary child-care giver.
Couples such as the Fraziers--with the wife bringing home most of the bacon--are becoming increasingly common and accepted among the nation's twenty- and thirtysomethings, the result of shifting education and job market patterns, and new attitudes toward work, family and gender differences.
That could help accelerate the growth in the number of marriages in which women are the sole or primary breadwinners. Census Bureau data show that 25.3 percent of women in two-income marriages bring home the bigger paycheck, up from 17.8 percent in 1987.
Younger women, now graduating from college at higher rates than men and aggressively recruited by many employers, are becoming anything but desperate housewives. Some, like Danielle Frazier, outearn male peers starting with their first jobs.
The salaries of college-educated women have risen much faster than those of male graduates, up 34.4 percent since 1979 versus 21.7 percent for men, according to Catalyst, a New York-based research group.
Among twenty- and thirtysomethings, more women than men have college degrees. The gap is widest among 25- to 29-year-olds, according to the Census Bureau, with 25.5 percent of men holding a bachelor's degree compared with 32.2 percent of women. Women now account for close to half of medical and law students, funneling them into lucrative careers.
The Labor Department projects the education disparity will widen in coming years.
Partly fueling that gap is the belief among many women that they still need to be better trained than men to succeed--"to jump through the hoops," said Stephanie Coontz, a historian at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. "Men don't feel that as much."
Although men overwhelmingly say they would prefer to work, a growing number have told pollsters over the last 20 years that they'd be OK with their wives supporting them.
"Men are saying, `I don't mind being married to a woman who earns more than I,' and women are giving up the notion that they have to find a man who can support them," said Coontz, who has written several books on marriage and gender roles.
To be sure, men overall still define their self-worth in terms of their salaries more than women do. And men on average continue to bring home bigger paychecks.
But the pay gap is shrinking, even as some highly paid women have chosen to leave their jobs to raise children and others run into glass ceilings. Women earned 81 cents for every dollar a man made in 2005, up from 76.1 cents in 2001 and 66.6 cents in 1983, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The agency found the gap narrowest for workers in their 20s and early 30s. Women 25 to 34, for example, earned 89 cents for every dollar men made in 2005, whereas among 35- to 44-year-olds, women pulled in 75 cents for every dollar that men made.
No matter what their age, women with fatter paychecks say they reflect their soaring career goals, release them from traditional roles as wives or mothers, and give them a stronger voice in their marriage. "There's a certain exhilaration that women are feeling," historian Coontz said.
"Women have suddenly been freed to pursue ambitions that they once had to channel into finding a successful man rather than being a successful person," she said.
Wives also are reporting that their husbands roll up their sleeves at home more often, doing dishes and laundry and caring for the children--34 percent as compared with 24 percent a decade ago, according to Ellen Galinsky, president of the New York-based Families and Work Institute.
Younger couples increasingly expect this sort of equality or flexibility, Coontz said. Women who first poured into the workforce during the 1970s sparked this change in attitudes, she said.
They and the growing number of women who followed them into offices and factories during the 1980s and 1990s "created a whole new climate," Coontz said.
For some couples, however, the paycheck gap becomes a sore point.
Personal-finance expert Suze Orman said the issue generated a huge share of the advice requests women sent her. Because "money is a physical manifestation of who you are," she said, some men who earn less than their wives or girlfriends feel they must be less valuable people, and that belief can put a strain on relationships.
Some marriages don't survive. Steven Nock, a University of Virginia sociologist, found that women who earned more than their husbands were more likely than higher-earning men to leave an unsatisfying marriage.
Ego-deflating jokes or remarks at wives' office parties sometimes grate at less-earning husbands.
Parents and in-laws can inadvertently make matters worse.
Aaron Frazier said that when Danielle had gotten a raise, his mother was happy for her, but "she's pushing me to step up and get my income increased."
He is pushing himself as well, planning to eventually get a master's degree with the goal of a management job."I think at some point the [salary] gap will close," he said.
Molly Selvin is a staff reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Co. newspaper.