More men are marrying up, and more women are marrying down.
That’s the grand takeaway from a recent study of U.S. Census data from 1990 to 2011 conducted by researchers from the University of Kansas and Texas A&M University. Women made substantial gains in higher education over this time — they now outnumber men in terms of college enrollment — and their earnings increased faster than men’s during this period, too.
As a result, women are likelier than ever to marry a man with less education and to contribute more to their household income, while men are experiencing the inverse — they’re marrying better-educated women, and providing less monetarily to their families, the study finds.
While the news won’t come as surprise to anyone who’s been reading the economic and societal tea leaves over the past decade — specifically in terms of gender — it does raise a question: How will this reversal of traditional gender roles affect straight relationship dynamics? As lead author and sociology professor ChangHwan Kim notes, “Now women are more likely to get married to a less-educated man. What is the consequence of this?”
Relationships have always been inherently transactional, and historically, in the most sexist way possible, such as families selling their daughters to the highest bidder, at which point they became the literal property of their husbands. This was almost entirely the function of women having essentially zero earning power and thus being financially dependent on men. But now that the pay gap is narrowing — and in some cases, inverting — it only stands that power dynamics will shift in a similar fashion.
For one, fewer people might get married. Poor financial prospects are the primary reason blue-collar marriages are on the decline, for instance. Essentially, when men can’t earn a decent living — in this case, due to the the loss of manufacturing and other working-class jobs to automation and outsourcing — their stock in the marriage market plummets. Not to mention that as women achieve greater economic independence, their incentive to marry for financial reasons decreases.
Another alternative: Only rich people will get married. After all, as marriage rates have declined among working-class Americans, marriage has increasingly become the province of the middle and upper classes. Per June Carbone, a professor of law at the University of Minnesota and co-author of the book Red Families v. Blue Families:
Marriage is kind of a status symbol for the rich now. There’s this cultural shift among upper class, where high-status men want to marry high-status women. Their ideal partner is a professional woman who’s close to your equal (but who won’t show you up). Mark Zuckerberg marries a doctor, for instance. In fact, the only group in American society for whom marriage rates have gone up are the top 10 percent of women in terms of income, mainly because ultra-rich men find them so desirable.
Finally, all of this comes with the specter of death, too. Recent research shows that men who rely on their wives to be the breadwinners die younger. The study’s author recently telling us:
Men who feel their masculinity is threatened often engage in health-harming behaviors to demonstrate their masculinity. We wanted to see if that was happening here, so we controlled for smoking, drinking and body weight; however, even when we controlled for these behaviors — as well as income, age, education, depressive symptoms and the husband’s’ childhood health — we found that men who are secondary earners for long periods of time still experience poorer physical health and are at increased risk of cardiometabolic diseases [e.g., diabetes, heart problems, high cholesterol, hypertension and stroke] and stress-related issues [e.g., back problems, chronic lung disease, psychiatric problems and stomach ulcers]. These results suggest that the stress of violating cultural expectations of masculinity is also a cause.
And while that’s obviously in the extreme, this much is true: Men have been socialized since birth to believe their social worth is directly tied to how much they earn, and now that more of them are earning relatively less than their wives, their discomfort is sure to only increase. “It’s always hanging over you that you aren’t the dominant one in the relationship,” a 49-year-old male attorney from Detroit told me back in May, adding that his wife’s making more than him temporarily destroyed their sex life and nearly killed their marriage entirely. “She’s the one with the power.”