The song describes a partner’s initial acceptance of Musgraves’s success, and then the downfall and pain that occurs when he doesn’t realize what a relationship with a “breadwinning” woman entails. “He wants a breadwinner / He wants your dinner / Until he ain’t hungry anymore,” she sings. “He wants your shimmer / To make him feel bigger / Until he starts feeling insecure.”
For many Musgraves fans, the lyrics in “Breadwinner” were relatable. When Nashville resident Trista Spurgeon, 55, heard the song, she was transported back to when she first heard the term, she said: “I lived in a neighborhood where most moms stayed home, and dad worked and was the breadwinner. That’s what I learned. That’s what we did.”
Spurgeon said she has felt the lasting impact of the cultural norms of her youth. In 2005, she and her high-school sweetheart divorced. Their “biggest issue,” she said, “was that I made more money than him.”
Farnoosh Torabi, editor-at-large of CNET Personal Finance and author of “When She Makes More: The Truth About Navigating Love and Life for a New Generation of Women,” has interviewed hundreds of women on the topic of being the breadwinning spouse. What she has found is that many will confess that it’s “a new role” for them, she said. They’ll tell her, “I didn’t have this modeled in my life or patterned in my life growing up.”
Research suggests that when women do out-earn their husbands, neither of them likes to admit it, pointing to persistent gender stereotypes about who should make more money in heterosexual relationships. “There is this silent killer [in relationships],” Torabi said, “which is our gender expectations of one another.”
In 2020, Musgraves and then-husband Ruston Kelly ended their three-year-long marriage. Kelly had inspired romantic lyrics in past Musgraves albums, but no such niceties are found on “Star Crossed.” In “Breadwinner,” she sings, “I wish somebody would’ve told me the truth / See, he’s never gonna know what to do / With a woman like you.”
Latasha James, a 30-year-old living in Michigan, experienced the imbalance of working when a partner did not while she was in college. Her main goal was future-proofing her marketing business and setting herself up for after graduation. This was something that turned off former partners after they realized the time she needed to dedicate to her business, she said.
“In a lot of my past relationships, I felt like that’s why they were initially attracted to me. Because I had this cool lifestyle where I work for myself and can travel a lot and do have flexibility and do have extra income to do cool things,” James said.
But then, she said, those partners would realize that her success relied on dedicating time to her work — sometimes at the expense of spending time with them.
As she put it: “Initially, they’re really attracted to that and as they start to peel back the layers and realize how much hard work it is, how much time away from them it requires … then it starts to eat away at them.”
When James heard “Breadwinner,” there was an instant connection. “Just lyrically, it was something that was fresh and very needed,” she said. “I don’t really hear a lot of love songs or breakup songs that I can really identify with a lot of the time.”
James, a self-employed marketing strategist and digital content creator, said she has learned from these past experiences, and when she met her now-husband six years ago, she was honest about her priorities. A relationship was nice, she said, but her main focus was growing her business and reaching her goals.
“From the beginning, he was so supportive. Always being my number one hype person, cheering me on and viewing my successes as our success,” James said. “And the reverse is true too, I look at his success as my success as well.”
James thinks that, especially for breadwinning spouses, “it’s just important that we don’t qualify success as financial.” There are many ways in which partners contribute to relationships, and “invisible labor” should not be discounted, she said.
Although Breanne Dodge, a 22-year-old parks and recreation student at the University of Missouri who also runs a Kacey Musgraves fan account on Instagram, is not married, she still can relate to Musgraves’s lyrics.
Dodge hopes to build a career within the National Park Service and eventually work her way up to become a superintendent of a national park. But she’s been questioned by former partners about her career aspirations, she said; the question “Do you really think that’s something you can get?” is one she’s heard often.
Even when Dodge excelled in her side jobs, her accomplishments were belittled by former flames.
An experience that has stuck with Dodge was one she had with a server she was dating. Dodge, a bartender, made substantially more tips than her ex, she said. “Every time I would tell him how much I made in that night, it was, ‘You’re making that much because of your body — of course you’re going to make more because you have boobs.’”
Alexandra Killewald, author of “Money, Work, and Marital Stability: Assessing Change in the Gendered Determinants of Divorce,” argues that lack of financial motivation is the reason men’s roles have not sustainably changed in the household. As women’s employment rates increased “dramatically” over the second half of the 20th century, she said, “ideas about women’s work soon followed.”
“Women, of course, had so many motivations to increase their employment, working for a larger share of their lives, to move into higher-paid occupations,” she said, “so that gave us an incentive to change the female homemaker norm. But there isn’t sort of the same incentive to change the male breadwinner norm.”
Torabi, beyond being an author and entrepreneur, earns several times more than her husband, she said. Through her own experience, and by working with other couples, she has found strategies that can lessen the tension felt by unequal wages.
“What I often tell couples, and practice in my own relationship … is that the emotions are important,” she said. “You want to understand where each person is sourcing their self-worth in the relationship.”
In Torabi’s relationship, her husband has prioritized his financial contribution to their relationship by saving for their children’s education. But being a financial contributor doesn’t just include the money that a partner brings to the table. For partners that aren’t earning, being responsible for money management, budgets and investments are ways to level the proverbial playing field, Torabi said:
“It’s important to realize that what makes each person in the relationship a valued member of the relationship has nothing to do with how much they earn.”