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The more a man’s wife out-earns him, the likelier he is to cheat, a new study finds.
Although cheating on a spouse who earns a lot more than you doesn’t sound like a very smart move, financially dependent husbands and wives are more likely to engage in extramarital sex, according to research being published in American Sociological Review.
“I think what it shows is nobody likes to feel unequal in their relationship,” said Christin Munsch, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut and the study’s author.
Munsch studied data on roughly a decade’s worth of marital and sexual behavior of more than 2,700 young adults drawn from the 1997 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. She found that while both husbands and wives whose spouses are the breadwinners are more likely to cheat, the tendency is much greater for men.
Munsch said social norms that presume the man is the provider likely play a large role. “They also have that extra pressure of living up to these norms about breadwinning,” she said. With their sense of masculinity linked to how much they earn, men whose wives out-earn them feel like they have to overcompensate in other areas.
“Men who value traditional notions of masculinity… are more likely to compensate” in ways that reaffirm traditional gender norms when their own sense of masculinity is threatened, Munsch said. For men, sexual promiscuity is one behavior that can deliver this validation.
With women, the reverse is true. “I think the consequences for a woman in a powerful position of being sexually promiscuous are potentially greater,” Munsch said. The more women earn on a relative basis, the less likely they are to cheat — exhibiting a behavior she described as “deviance neutralization.”
“These women are aware that they‘re breaking more of a social norm… [and] engage in all kinds of behaviors designed to shore up their husband’s masculinity,” she said, behavior that indicates at least some female breadwinners are ambivalent about taking on a traditionally masculine role, even if they don’t realize it themselves.
Social norms are changing
“The social trend is towards… it [becoming] more acceptable for women to be the breadwinners, or at least equal breadwinners,” said Gregory Kuhlman, director of the masters program in mental health counseling and the personal counseling program at Brooklyn College. Kuhlman also runs the counseling practice Marriage Success Training, which focuses on marriage education. “That’s the talk we talk.”
But what we say and what we do can be at odds. “There’s some evidence that both the men and women might have some mixed feelings about that,” Kuhlman said. “We have persistent, unconscious attitudes that affect our behavior.”
There is good news, though, Munsch said. For starters, a significant majority of people aren’t unfaithful, regardless of their earning status. “I think it’s important to say that the vast majority of people aren’t cheating,” she said, pointing out that nationally representative studies have found that an estimated 20 to 25 percent of married men and 10 to 15 percent of married women have had extramarital sex at some point during their marriage.
And despite these buried assumptions and expectations, which can be hard to shake, today’s marriages are more egalitarian than in the past. Munsch suggested that young men today are probably much more likely than previous generations to be comfortable being househusbands.
“Most men probably are comfortable being economically dependent,” she said. “I do think it’s changing.”