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Image: Daniel Mulhern and Jennifer Granholm
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"I never wanted to be a first lady," says Daniel Mulhern, husband of Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm. When she was elected, he gave up his career to focus on raising their children, and he still grapples with figuring out where his place is, he says.
By msnbc.com contributor
msnbc.com contributor
updated 10/22/2009 11:24:47 AM ET 2009-10-22T15:24:47

Derrick Hayes’s wife, an oncology nurse, makes twice the money he does in his job as a juvenile corrections officer in Columbus, Ga.

And he since she brings home much of the bacon, he wants to make sure he’s offering her some perks too. He leaves affectionate notes around the house for her and tries to keep the house tidy. And he wants to make sure he shines in one special area.

Since she is “handling certain areas of the relationship” like making most of the money, he said, “you’ve got to handle your business.” By “business,” Hayes means sex. “You’ve got to be creative. You’ve got to be good!"

As more and more women in the U.S. out earn the men in their lives , or become the sole breadwinners, men are trying to figure out how they fit into the relationship, including in the bedroom.

The old cliché that men would or should feel emasculated by earning less, or none at all, does not seem to hold, but it does affect sexual lives and some men, especially men who straddle generations, do feel a sense of vague discomfort, not about sex, but about what, exactly, their role is supposed to be.

Hayes, 39, says how much his wife makes doesn't make her any more or less desirable to him, but he feels an internal pressure on himself, an attitude reflected in the newly-released “Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation.”

"If you are weak in one area, you have to be strong in others,” he says.

New York comedian Dave Rosner is dating a physician who makes far more money than he makes. Rosner also happens to be an officer in the Marine Corps Reserve with wartime deployments under his belt, so he’s certainly attuned to macho culture.

He makes a conscious decision to compartmentalize and not mix economics and sex, he explained. “I don’t sit around saying, ‘Oh, I don’t make as money as you do, so I can’t take you to a nice restaurant.’”

Giving back
Fellow New Yorker Steven Lowell used to work at AIG making a good living before the economic implosion. Now he works for a small, Web-based start-up that’s financed “on a shoe-string.” His wife, meanwhile, works for a major New York City museum and provides the lion’s share of the couple’s income. He’d like to make more, naturally, but he’s happy with the situation as it is.

“It has affected our sex life,” he said of the recent turnabout. “It’s made it better.” It’s better he said, because he has adopted Hayes’ strategy. “I’ve never said this to her, but I try to provide that sexual feeling for her to give back for what she does for me with her work.”

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If this sort of thing sounds like something June Cleaver would have said if June Cleaver could have ever said such a thing about Ward, it’s no accident. Research on sex and income disparity is very thin, but two social scientists who were then at Cornell University stated in a 2006 study called “Power and Dependence in Intimate Exchange” that “individuals offer greater sexual gratification to partners” with several qualities. Among those qualities were “earn higher incomes.”

Men, especially men of a certain age, are attuned to political correctness and well-versed in how they are supposed to feel about egalitarianism between the sexes and female economic might: Hooray!

Yet they also have ideas about what it means to be manly in a relationship.

'I never wanted to be a first lady'
There may be no more dramatic testimony to the evolving roles of American men and the women they love than the signature line on Daniel Mulhern’s e-mail messages: “First Gentleman, State of Michigan.”

Video: More women becoming breadwinners Mulhern is the husband of Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm. He’s a 51-year-old product of the Midwest who was raised on the cusp of the greatest shift in gender roles in the nation’s history. When his wife became governor, he gave up his career to become a house husband, the primary child nurturer, the public second-banana. Not surprisingly, he struggles to figure out where to place his feet now, especially when it comes to private moments with his wife.

“I am far from finished thinking about this stuff,” he told me. “It is no exaggeration to say I think about it every day.”

Mulhern described an inchoate feeling of disquiet during a roundtable discussion with Maria Shriver .

“I can’t think of anybody saying anything critically in six and a half years about me and my role. In fact, tons of people have said wonderfully supportive, marvelous things about trying to support Jennifer … But it’s the internal sense that something’s wrong. It shouldn’t be like this. I never wanted to be a first lady.”

Then Mulhern said something many people might incorrectly assume signals a throwback sensibility. “I don’t want a partner. I do want somebody I can talk to. But, I mean, I want a woman.”

When Sexploration asked him to elaborate, Mulhern described a wariness about the language of gender. “Partner” evokes the image of an old Soviet propaganda poster — chiseled male and female comrades holding a shovel and a hammer staring into some bright utopian future. That’s not for Mulhern. And he doesn’t want a straight role reversal, either.

“I have heard lots of married working women say ‘What I need is a wife,’” he told Sexploration, “and I do not want to be [Jennifer’s] wife. I don’t think she wants me to be it. I don’t want that utilitarian partnership. I want…well, it’s hard to finish that sentence. Mystery.”

In our rational modern society “mystery” is often frowned upon, but mystery is a key part of male self-image and hence male sexuality. Mulhern, for example, is intensely proud and supportive of his wife’s accomplishments. But he is also a romantic who references Arthurian legend and chivalry. So being married to a woman who “reigns” in an actual state means his notion of his role “is turned on its head. She is the conqueror who needs to have her wounds salved. She does not want you to wield the sword … It is difficult not to feel some primal aspect of jealously. Maybe not jealousy. Displacement.”

Jeremy Adam Smith says he’s heard that before. “I think almost all men feel that to some degree” when women make more then their men, said Smith, author of “The Daddy Shift: How Stay-at-Home Dads, Breadwinning Moms, and Shared Parenting are Transforming the American Family.” He believes stay-at-home fathers make a manly contribution yet he also shares Mulhern’s vague feeling, especially since he lost his own job in May.

“I was one of tens of thousands of journalists being laid off but I still beat up on myself all the time,” he recalled. Even though he applauds new male roles, he still thought he was supposed to provide security to his family. Now he’d failed and began asking himself seemingly irrational questions like “Why did I choose this profession? Is there a future? Is there something I could have done to make the magazine more successful?” That negatively affected his sex life, though, he laughed, not nearly as much as having children.

Men in lower-income brackets suffer erectile dysfunction at higher rates than men in upper-income brackets. The reasons why can be complicated, ranging from diet and exercise habits to stress, but self-image and a feeling of powerlessness also play roles.

As Mulhern said, “a man has to take care of his masculinity.”

Men may allow their self-image to be affected by what other men say, but the reaction of the woman we love is the single most important element in preserving our male pride. Men need a woman to remind them they are manly, desirable, competent. If they have that, they are capable of embracing and even enjoying evolving gender roles.

10 surprising sex statisticsAs University of Oregon professor of public health S. Marie Harvey, who has studied power in intimate relationships, said: “I think there is a heterosexual male thing that women bring out. It’s that piece in them. They need it and want it, and a heterosexual woman likes that in a man.”

Such reminders don’t have to be overtly sexual or grand. “One of the things we did,” Mulhern said, “is that we now have time at the end of the night when Jennifer has half a glass of wine and she gets me my tea. I may be inclined to do it — she is busy working, emailing — but I make her get my tea. It is the one classic traditional feminine thing that Jennifer does and we both tip our caps to the power of culture and a time long gone by.”

Brian Alexander is the author of the book “America Unzipped: In Search of Sex and Satisfaction," now in paperback.

© 2013 msnbc.com.  Reprints

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