This just in from Cool, Bewildering News About How People Really Are: A study published in the American Sociological Review has found that one way to help cheat-proof your relationship is to make about the same amount of money as your spouse. Because, when one of you makes a lot more, the lower earner becomes more likely to cheat—even more so when that lower earner is a dude.
It’s garbage times we live in! But let’s not let our blood pressure shoot all the way through the roof, into the stratosphere, watch it transform into a literal giant fiery comet and then stand there helplessly as it rockets back down toward earth, the place holding everyone we’ve ever known or loved, to destroy everything. Because really, the news isn’t that bad if you’re:
- not even married
- are lucky enough belong to any other species except humans which would never get married in the first place on account of being more evolved
- have a unique ability to constantly adjust your earnings so that they are never too high or too low so that your spouse will love you correctly for all time
Oh, never mind, it’s still horrible.
Over at the Washington Post’s Wonk blog, Max Ehrenfreund provides a handy chart that more clearly defines the contours of this horror:
To do the study, Christin Munsch, a sociologist at the University of Connecticut, examined data for about 2,800 heterosexual married people under the age of 32 who participated in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, a big federal research project, between 2001 and 2011.
She found that the less that men and women earned in income compared to their spouses, the more likely they were to cheat. This was especially true of husbands.
Men were also more likely to cheat if they made significantly more than their spouses, while women who made a lot more than their husbands were less likely to be unfaithful.
Munsch determined cheating not by asking people directly, because people lie—but based on marital status and the indicated number of sexual partners in the previous year, which people are apparently more comfortable with disclosing than saying it outright. Ehrenfreund:
The fact that women and men who make less than their partners are more likely to cheat is counterintuitive. Infidelity frequently results in divorce, so this group is putting their access to their spouses’ earnings at risk by straying. But people don’t always behave in a way that just seeks to raise their income, and a difference in earnings might lead to resentment, Munsch theorized.
The small number of men who make less than their wives might feel a need to demonstrate their independence. Previous research has suggested that when the wife is the breadwinner in the household, the husband may feel that he is failing to fulfill his traditional responsibilities.
Well, sorry about those traditional responsibilities. Boo-fucking-hoo. But, hey, this is not always the case! Not if that man is capable of stepping outside the idea that a man does not have to be the provider, or if that lesser man can stay busy, and has anything worth doing other than sitting around feeling shitty and emasculated for not earning. Ironic then that a different kind of distraction in this situation could lead to greater fidelity.
And, while resentment may explain why the lower earner takes their love elsewhere, what about the higher earner who strays? While the higher earner risks losing access to their family if children are involved and the couple divorces, they can still get away with cheating because money is a buffer from literally everything.
Munsch looks at these results through a social exchange theory, which suggests that our relationships are a lot like the economic marketplace, where “actors reciprocally exchange a range of resources, including companionship, love, sex, money, social mobility, housekeeping, and childcare,” she writes. We also marry people who are about as smart as us, about as good looking, and about as rich. But this is interesting:
From an exchange theoretic perspective, resources and power are positively related. According to the principle of least interest (Waller 1937; Waller and Hill 1951), the power of actor A over actor B is a function of B’s dependence on A for valued resources (Emerson 1962; McDonald 1981; Thibaut and Kelley 1959). In other words, power is relational. Because resources increase power and decrease dependency, the party receiving fewer benefits has greater bargaining power to improve upon the exchange (Cook and Emerson 1978).
You may have heard this principle of least interest idea about relationships before: The person with the least invested in any relationship has the most power. Whoever cares more, whoever needs it more, is basically more fucked. That person will take more shit over the long haul because they are more invested and have more to lose. This is why your hot boyfriend who is always getting hit on might be less inclined to settle down, why your boss doesn’t have to give notice to fire you but you are supposed to give weeks in advance to quit, and why AT&T couldn’t give a fuck if your phone never works even though you’re paying $200 a month. Power is real. Leverage is everything.
And in marriage terms, Munsch explains that this combination of high power and low dependency gives someone a greater likelihood of walking. That person “needs” you less. Of course, historically the person earning more and needing less is the man. Now that women are working more than ever, and two incomes are needed to live anything like a decent life, the picture has shifted. Munsch notes that a high-earning woman can now bounce back easier from a divorce, too, and therefore keep looking for a more satisfying option. (See: Elizabeth Taylor.) It’s this leverage, then, that might be making these men panic.
Of course, it’s depressing to think your marital happiness and longevity could all come down to money. Money, let’s never forget, changes everything. But money here is really just a proxy for our ideas about gender roles in relationships. And while much of the marriage advice literature tends to focus on shared values and goals, very rarely is this articulated specifically about gender and how that will play out on the domestic front.
In other words, a certain type of woman wants a man to earn more; a certain type of man needs to; a certain type of man doesn’t equate his value with his earning power, just as a certain type of woman doesn’t equate her worth with her looks (those last two are no doubt rarer). It’s not shocking that these halves need to match up; it’s not exactly inspiring to remember how tenuous this balance is, and how vulnerable to circumstantial change.
File this all under more proof that we are all a little bit fucked over by gender. But at least there’s a good side to this—the way it becomes literally invaluable to find someone who will really throw all in with you (assuming throwing all in is something both of you value). Two people both working together to make a family go and contributing more or less equally in the logistics of that are more invested in maintaining the status they both work so hard to create. It makes both people less likely to throw it all away for a little sidepiece.
Munsch advises Ehrenfreund that one way around this problem for young people seeking equal partners is to look for someone who is going to be happy for your successes. That seems like a good start, but, not to be deeply cynical—even if you have all that sorted out, it doesn’t guarantee eternal fidelity. Unhappy people cheat; so do happy people. God knows what it takes to make anything last forever (polygamy?), but please reveal in the comments if you have figured it out.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.