Are women breadwinners more likely to have cheating husbands?

New research shows which sex is more likely to stray in marriages where women hold the pursestrings

FRANCE - JANUARY 24: In this photo illustration of adultery, a couple lie on the bed of a hotel room on January 24, 2014 in France. (Photo by Alvaro Canovas/Paris Match via Getty images)

Are women breadwinners more likely to have a husband who cheats — or are they more likely to be the cheaters? It’s a question that’s been speculated upon for more than a decade. A 2003 New York Magazine feature chronicled a group of New York City “alpha women”— wives who were increasingly out-earning their “beta men” husbands—and “causing havoc at home.” “First, the wife starts to lose respect for her husband, then he begins to feel emasculated,” wrote Ralph Gardner, Jr. “And then sex dwindles to a full stop.” A new study suggests it’s the former. Women who earn the bigger paycheck by a landslide are at greater risk for having a philandering husband — rather than having an affair themselves.

It turns out, marriage in the twenty-first century may look more Betty and Don Draper — circa season one — than we might like to think. Although, according to the Bureau of Labor statistics, women out-earn their spouses in 38 percent of heterosexual marriages, they haven’t fully left the Mad Men era behind: husbands struggle when they feel “kept,” and may cheat to reassert their manliness.

But first, some good news: Couples in stable, healthy partnerships— especially those who can communicate about any hiccups along the way — don’t tend to have extramarital affairs. Cheating is still culturally frowned upon, as reported by the latest Pew results.  Some 84 percent of Americans believe that it’s “morally unacceptable,” a four percent drop from Pew’s 2006 poll. And while there’s been recent discussion of some women having a so-called “cheating gene,” the number of husbands who actually cheat has stayed fairly constant over the past few decades.

So what causes marital instability? Research published in the June issue of the American Sociological Review found that economic dependence leads to a higher chance of cheating— for both men and women— and that the dependent spouse is more likely to stray, or “bite the hand that feeds.” Dr. Christin L. Munsch, the study’s author, a sociologist at the University of Connecticut, discovered that, while chances of infidelity increase whenever one’s partner holds the purse strings, husbands have a much harder time with disparity — and cheat about three times as much than financially reliant wives.

Culling data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth between 2001 and 2011, Munsch examined more than 2,700 married people, ranging from 18 to 32 years old. In an average year, there was nearly a 5 percent chance that women, who are completely economically dependent on their husbands, will have affair— while there’s about a 15 percent chance entirely dependent men do.

Despite growing attention and support for the “brotherhood of the stay at home dad,” Munsch’s research sheds discouraging light on the trend— and how little societal norms have changed for husbands and wives. Even in 2015, women who flex their financial muscles challenge the status quo and can deeply threaten a man’s masculinity. And while there are numerous examples of high-profile, wealthy and celebrity cheaters (here’s to you, Tiger Woods, John Edwards and Donald Trump), the study noted that women are least likely to have another sexual partner when they earn 100 percent of a couple’s total income— perhaps because they’re too busy keeping everything afloat, including additional housework.

“Generally, marriage is more stable when both people are in the work force, and both are contributing financially,” said Munsch. “It’s like many other things in a relationship. Most of us don’t like inequality. Nobody likes dating someone who is way more into you, than you are to him or vice versa.”

But Munsch’s research doesn’t address the definition of infidelity. An outside sexual partner might mean different things to various couples. Studies show people don’t agree on what it means to “have sex.” For some marriages, an online affair or an encounter without intercourse might count— in others, maybe not. (As one husband famously said about his own dalliance: “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”) Also, Munsch’s data only looks at fairly young couples—and age could cut both ways. Men and women may become more likely to cheat as the emotional toll of financial dependence—and the daily grind of marriage — wears on, or they might cheat less as they become comfortable in their respective roles or are preoccupied raising families.

“This study makes perfect sense. I’ve seen it play out in my practice,” said Dr. Michelle Rozen, a conflict management expert and divorce mediator, with practices in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. She summarizes her experience with couples: “When people are powerless, they look for ways to feel powerful again.” And Rozen underscores how conformist the institution of marriage is. We try to revolutionize it, she explained. But marriage is a conventional arrangement — and so financially dependent men can experience great discomfort and social stigma.

At the same time, it’s important not to paint every husband— regardless of his income— with the same brush. “Keep in mind that men vary tremendously in how adherent they are to traditional [masculine] norms,” advised Dr. James Córdova, professor of psychology at Clark University and author of “The Marriage Checkup: A Scientific Program for Sustaining and Strengthening Marital Health.” For many men, he said, financial dependency wouldn’t be a threat to their self-identity. “I think it’s unavoidable that being completely economically dependent is an inherently scary proposition and can lead to building resentment about the power differential,” Córdova explained. And like anything else in marriage, if a couple doesn’t openly acknowledge, discuss, and “soothe” the issue, their union will suffer — whether or not either of them cheats.

Jacoba Urist is a contributing lifestyle journalist for NBC News, who also writes about art and culture for The Atlantic. She lives in lower Manhattan. Follow her on Twitter @JacobaUrist.


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