While there are many factors that can lead to infidelity in a marriage, a new study identifies one factor that may elevate the risk of it: economic dependency.
Christin L. Munsch, Ph.D., assistant professor in the University of Connecticut’s Department of Sociology, examined the effect of relative earnings on infidelity. The study, “Her Support, His Support: Money, Masculinity, and Marital Infidelity,” used data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth and reflected more than 2,750 married people ages 18-32.
The study found that both men and women who are economically dependent on their partner are more likely to cheat than if they bring home equal income or are the breadwinners, with men three times more inclined to do so.
Among those who were totally economically dependent, women had about a 5.2 percent probability of cheating; men, 15 percent.
“People just don’t like being dependent,” Munsch said. “We naturally kind of compare ourselves to our partners. You don’t want to keep coming up on the losing end of that comparison. But if that was the only thing going on, we’d expect men and women to have more similar rates. But what we see is women are more likely to cheat, but men are much more likely to cheat, so there must be something else going on there.”
Munsch cited research that discusses what some call masculine overcompensation or compensatory manhood acts – how threats to masculinity incur more of a loss of status than do threats to femininity, and men may respond to masculinity threats with extreme demonstrations of masculinity.
The infidelity – which can be equated with sexual virility and masculinity – may become a proxy for feeling threatened for not being the breadwinner.
“Lots of gender roles have changed, this is one that has really remained pretty consistent,” Munsch said. “I’ve done interviews with young college men. These are men who are in college who have more women in their classes then men, and the women are outperforming them, but when I ask them about their future relationships – they fully expect they’ll be the breadwinner.”
“I think that’s still a very strong norm,” she said. “When men aren’t living up to that consciously or unconsciously, they are feeling somewhat threatened.”
While men and women were both most likely to cheat if they were economically dependent, the study found different results on the other end of the scale.
For women, the larger their percentage of the combined marital income – the less likely they were to cheat. However, among men, the probability of cheating decreased as the money they made relative to their spouses increased, until their contribution to the marital income pool was about 70 percent.
After a man’s contribution to the income pool passed 70 percent – the men became gradually more likely to cheat.
“Those are the men we hear about all the time – these men in powerful positions – such as movie stars and athletes,” Munsch said. “Because they are more famous and wealthy, we hear about those instances so much more often,” she said, even though the men who were dependent proved more likely to cheat.
As for why women who were the highest breadwinners were least likely among the women to cheat, Munsch said research shows that these women often increase their share of the childcare and housework workload.
“Research shows women compensate for basically threatening their husbands by being breadwinners, so in order to bring their gender identity in line with expected norms, they also do more housework than their husbands.”
By participating more in housework or child care, in addition to being the breadwinner, these women may not be interested in or have the time to pursue extramarital relationships, Munsch said. “They might also be more satisfied in their relationship,” she said.
Munsch said psychologists and others who work with couples may find this information useful in helping clients understand their own behavior – and each other’s. “A lot of our behavior in relationships stems from larger cultural expectations regarding gender,” she said.