The economic news for young women recently has been bright. Several studies have suggested that women under 30 who live in cities and work in industries that require a college education are earning more than their male peers, on average. Finally, some closure of the gender wage gap! But now comes that irritating old other shoe: another new study has found that women who make more money than their men are more likely to be cheated on.
The study, which was presented by Christin Munsch, a sociology Ph.D. candidate at Cornell University, at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, examined 18 to 28 year olds who were living together or married more than a year. (The cohort, it turns out, most likely to be outearning men.) It found that men who were completely dependent on their wives' incomes were five times likelier to cheat than those who contributed the same amount to the household finances.
Munsch believes this is not actually about money, but about men's feelings of sexual identity. "Any identity that's important to you, if you feel it's threatened, you're going to engage in behavior that will reinstate your place in that group," she says. "Being a man is strongly identified with being a breadwinner." Men might engage in "hypermasculine activities" displaying their sexual virility or sexual competence as a form of compensatory behavior.
Munsch's theories are more or less in line with those in the marital therapy business. Many psychologists and therapists believe that men more often cheat as an escape from their own lives or selves, rather than because they are dissatisfied with their partners and one of the things they might want to escape from is the feeling of financial inferiority. Either way, as Jesse James has recently discovered, it's stunningly self-destructive.
At the other end of the spectrum, men who make a lot more money than their wives (even ones who are not world famous golfers) were also more inclined to cheat, found Munsch. She suggests, however, it's for different reasons. While non-earning men cheat because they are unhappy, higher earning men cheat because ... they can. "Men who make a lot more money than their partners may be in jobs that offer more opportunities for cheating like long work hours, travel, and higher incomes that make cheating easier to conceal," she says.
The men least likely to cheat, for those keeping count at home, had partners who made 75% of what they made. Conveniently, that's more or less the same proportion of a man's salary the average U.S. woman earned in 2008. This is what's called a silver lining.
As for women, income disparity works in the opposite way: those who make less than their men or who aren't breadwinners at all were much less likely to cheat than those who made more. Either they express their unhappiness in less relationship-jeopardizing ways, or Munsch believes, their punier wage didn't threaten their gender identity as much. "For women, making less money than a male partner is not threatening, it is the status quo," she says. "More importantly, economically dependent women may encounter fewer opportunities to cheat, and they may make a calculated decision that cheating just isn't worth it."
The study, which drew on data from the 2002 to 2007 waves of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, found that only 3.8% of male partners and 1.4% of female partners cheated or at least copped to cheating in any given year during that period, so no matter what, the problem may be less prevalent than a lot of married folks fear. It also did not factor in age, education level, income, religious attendance, and relationship satisfaction, all of which could be as causal as income. Munsch hopes to study those in her finished paper.
So, ladies, whatever you do, don't use this as an excuse not to ask for that raise.