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The New Trophy Wife

Alpha women are highly sought-after partners, but men may be more intimidated than they admit.

Pete Beeman, a 36-year-old sculptor, met Page Fortna, 34, on New Year's Eve in 1997, while she was studying for a doctorate in political science. "I was totally impressed that she was getting a Ph.D.," recalls Beeman. "She has a powerhouse background that speaks of personal drive and dedication. It was attractive, not in a sexual way, but in a necessary way. I'm not interested in someone who doesn't have as much to offer me as I have to offer her."

Massimo Tassan-Solet met Karin Dauch at an Internet merger party in 2000. She introduced herself to the derivatives trader, now 36, by announcing, "Hi, I'm Karin, and I have to go now." "She was strong and unconventional in her approach, but she did it with humor," recalls Tassan-Solet of Dauch, who at age 29 owned doubleKappa, a Web design and branding company. "I don't look at people as a list of what they've done," says Tassan-Solet. "But what she's done is remarkable."

Beeman and Tassan-Solet aren't the only newlyweds who are proud of their wives' CVs. New trends in the mating game—marrying someone like yourself—plus an unstable economy breathe new life into the term "peer marriage." In previous generations, successful doctors, lawyers and bankers sought wives who looked good, were well-bred and made a mean Stroganoff to boot. Now, more and more alpha males are looking for something else from the A-list: accomplishment.

According to a poll, 48 percent of men (and an equal percentage of women) reported dating partners who drew the same income as they did. Twenty percent of men reported dating women who earned more. Jim Pak, 34, was introduced to Kristin Ketner, 38, a Harvard MBA and a hedge fund manager, through a mutual friend, who warned him not to be intimidated by her credentials. She was a research analyst for Goldman Sachs; he was unemployed and playing a lot of golf. "In certain regards, she outshines me," says Pak of his wife. "She's more accomplished academically. People may be more impressed with her than with me." (Pak is now chief financial officer at an electronic stock trading services group.)

Men's attraction to professionally achieving mates is one piece of a much larger story. "We're experiencing a historic change in the things people want out of marriage, the reasons they enter into it and stay in it," says historian Stephanie Coontz of Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. Men in their 20s and 30s embarking on first marriages are relieved to no longer be the sole breadwinner and decision-maker, a burden many watched their fathers shoulder. "These men are truly redefining masculinity," says Terrence Real, a psychologist and author of How Can I Get Through to You? Closing the Intimacy Gap Between Men and Women. And the pursuit of a high-achiever is not solely the province of youth. Status-conscious tycoons want to have second marriages—and affairs—with alpha women. "Older men want the most impressive achiever in the office. In the eyes of a man's peers, the woman with the career and degrees counts for more than Miss America," says Frank Pittman, psychiatrist to Atlanta's elite. "Status is attached to a woman who is successful, not to a woman with a perfectly pear-shaped ass."

Common wisdom holds that men are socially programmed and biologically compelled to select women based on beauty and youth, physical traits that signal reproductive health. But many men date "across" and, increasingly, "up" the axes of education and achievement, with less regard for age, or for the notorious "arm candy" factor.

"There's a higher degree of parity between marital partners," observes Pak. "Men want a wife who reflect well in every aspect." In some circles, more eyebrows are raised when a guy marries a woman who doesn't match him in education or professional status. Says David, a single 33-year-old assistant professor at a prestigious university who routinely filters online dating ads using the criterion of education: "If I were with someone who wasn't of comparable intelligence, energy and drive, there'd be those who thought I'd wimped out and chosen a relationship where I could call the shots and be the all-powerful center."

"Showing up with a stacked bubblehead is like conspicuous consumption," agrees Real. "It's embarrassing to flag yourself as not interested in a real relationship." But is a woman's success sexy?

"Absolutely," says David. "And the absence of an attempt to do something interesting or difficult is a turnoff." Henry Kissinger may have been right: Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.

Rise of the Power Bride

When Scott South, a sociologist at the University at Albany, State University of New York, examined the characteristics most desirable to black and white men ages 19 to 35, he found that a woman's ability to hold a steady job mattered more than her age, previous marriages, maternal status, religion or race. Men were more willing to marry women with more, rather than less, education than they themselves had. A wise move, since women eclipse men at the same rates at which they attain bachelor's and master's degrees, and the number of women pursuing higher education continues to steadily climb.

Many of today's grooms believe that through positive or negative example, their own moms set the stage for a high-octane wife. After his parents separated when he was 12, Jim Pak watched his mother raise three kids while pursuing an advanced degree in art history. "That kind of role model helps you not be intimidated by highly motivated, successful women," he says. Others view their mothers' lives as cautionary tales. "My mom was very unhappy that she had little energy for anything other than raising her four kids," says a former newlywed groom who married a woman who works in finance. "I wouldn't want to marry someone who felt that unfulfilled."

"Our generation is highly cognizant of the divorce rate," adds Pak. "We learned from our parents' mistakes."

But it's not always easy. Charting a marital course markedly different from that of one's parents means there's no role model to consult. And an alpha woman expects more of a domestic partnership—and an emotional connection—than her husband may have seen growing up. "Women are demanding more emotionally because logistically they don't have to get married," says Real. "They want guys to be articulate and open about their feelings." The trouble, finds Real, is that "most men are not trained to do those things."

A solution to this impasse, says Barry McCarthy, a psychologist in Washington, D.C., who works with many high-achieving couples, is for spouses to communicate their expectations from the get-go: "It's great that men are no longer the success object and women are no longer the sex object. But when people organize their lives differently from their cultures or families of origin, they have to make it work practically and emotionally. You have to negotiate before [marriage] how you're going to deal with the core issues of sex, money and kids."

The Unromantic Bottom Line

There's another pragmatic reason men prize new high-earning brides. Our romantic ideals are always grounded in economic realities, from the Victorian marriage model to the 1980s masters of the universe for whom a standard-issue trophy wife was a badge of honor. The bearish market calls for couples to act as an economic unit. Families with two breadwinners have been in the majority since 1998, and single twentysomethings' and thirtysomethings' desire for a two-income merger has intensified in the shadow of the recession. Women earn less than men (78 cents to the male dollar) and seriously lag in the highest-paying sectors, like engineering, investment banking and high tech. But wives have been catching up to and surpassing their husbands since the 1980s, particularly among the well-off. (Of wives who earn more than $100,000, one in three is married to a husband earning less.)

"It used to be that men were a good catch because they were high earners. It now looks like this applies to women, too," says University of Wisconsin economist Maria Cancian, who teamed up with Megan Sweeney, a University of California, Los Angeles sociologist, to study the increased importance of wives' wages.

How openly embraced is the prospect of a female breadwinner? According to Pak, a 30-year-old is much less likely than his father to correlate his self-worth with his ability to provide for a family. Pak's wife, Ketner, believes that men who are comfortable with themselves will factor a potential bride's income into the marital calculus, as women have long done. Says Page Fortna, "Men think, 'If we combined our two incomes, how would we do?' But I wouldn't say it's flipped [to the point where] men say, 'I won't have to work, I'll just live off her.'"

Real is more emphatic: "Men aren't just OK with it. They're relieved." Men have long considered traditional marital roles "anemic and constricting," according to Real, and no longer being the sole breadwinner is a loosening of the straitjacket. Not to mention the improved standard of living. "These guys aren't worried about their male ego in relation to their wife's income," says Real. "They just want to plan a nice vacation together."

If financial straits make alpha women hot commodities for younger men, then financial and social status make these same women desirable to older men seeking a mistress or second wife. "Men have always chosen women who make them feel heroic," states Pittman. "It used to be sufficient to be the hero in your wife's and children's eyes. But when narcissistic men feel they've undermarried and their kids are grown, the real audience becomes your peers, the guys who are eating their hearts out because you've just married a former stripper turned circuit court judge."

Powerful men seek powerful wives, and in an era in which power is increasingly equated with intellectual capital, that translates into wives who match or perhaps even exceed their husbands in educational and professional status. (Think Candace Carpenter, founder of iVillage and second wife of Random House president and CEO Peter Olson.)

If men in first marriages are relieved to be outearned by spouse or partner, some older men are positively "proud" of this fact, finds Pittman, who also notes a spike in the number of thirtysomething and fortysomething men pursuing older, successful women. But when it comes to second wives, some things never change. Whether she's a 27-year-old secretary or a 47-year-old corporate vice president, the second wife will likely not be as beneficial a partner as was the first, says Pittman. "The woman who has seen a man get started and develop is more useful than the woman for whom he always has to perform, who may bring out the worst in him."

Alpha-alpha first and second marriages make sense against the backdrop of a shifting pecking order in the nation's governing class. As author David Brooks noted, changes in the prestige factor among couples whose wedding announcements make The New York Times bear this out. "Pedigreed elite used to be based on noble birth and breeding," writes Brooks in Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There. "Now it's genius that enables you to join the elect."

A Confidence Gap

If high-aiming women are more marriage-eligible than ever, why don't they seem to know it? When a poll asked marriage-minded men whether they were reluctant to seek out career women as partners, 62 percent said no. But 74 percent of the women surveyed think men are intimidated by women with high-powered careers. "Women have an asset they perceive as a liability," says Pepper Schwartz, author of Love Between Equals: How Peer Marriage Really Works and professor of sociology at the University of Washington. "Young men see these women growing up: She's your doctor, your teacher, your professor. These models can be quite erotic."

So why, then, the confidence gap? Men may be more intimidated by high-powered women than they're willing to admit. And high-achieving women, who tend to marry later, are used to being told that success causes their marrying and childbearing stock to plummet. Sylvia Ann Hewlett, author of Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children, made headlines in 2002 by recycling the claim that the more a woman achieves in the workplace, the less likely she is to marry or to have kids. The book triggered a panic reminiscent of Newsweek's highly publicized 1986 report that a 40-year-old woman was more likely to be attacked by terrorists than to marry. That "finding" turned out to be a tale as tall as the heels on single icon Carrie Bradshaw's Manolo Blahniks, and Hewlett's conclusions, based on a small sample of highly elite women, are equally suspect when applied to professionally ambitious women at large.

When Heather Boushey of the Center for Economic Policy Research in Washington, D.C., crunched numbers on 33.6 million American women (gleaned from the 2000 and 2001 Current Population Survey), she found that women between the ages of 28 and 35 who work full time and earn more than $55,000 per year or have a graduate or professional degree are just as likely to be successfully married as other women who work full time. They're just finding love slightly later. While American women marry on average at age 25, college graduates marry at 27. Those with masters or professional degrees wed on average at age 30.

Pop-psych punditry about fragile male egos may cloud the real problem inherent in many alpha-alpha marriages. Psychologists agree that difficulties most often arise not because a man feels emasculated by his wife's star power ("No one can emasculate you except you," avows Pak), but because the woman grows disappointed with her partner.

"If a woman is powerful, smart and ambitious, her expectations for her husband, and for the relationship, rise," says Nando Pelusi, a New York City psychologist who has counseled plenty of alpha-alpha pairings. McCarthy says it's the primary reason that middle-class marriages fail in the first five years: The woman feels her spouse is not keeping his end of the pact.

And when women feel that their husbands aren't reaching their earning or emoting potential, men may decide they've gotten more than they bargained for. "Men truly want brighter, more articulate, aggressive women. They want to be seen in the world with them. But they also want these women to leave some of it at the doorstep," says Real. "These guys love their wives. They just haven't figured out what to do when that strength is channeled toward them."

Real is quick to add that most wouldn't have it any other way. "I must have said it a thousand times," he quips: "'Mr. Jones, you wouldn't be happy with the kind of woman who would put up with you.'"

True to form, most alpha males take pride in the bumps. "If I can sustain a relationship with a real, serious, powerful, happening gal, it means that I'm more real, serious and happening," says Beeman.

"Being involved with these women is like driving a Ferrari," says Pelusi. "It can be uncomfortable and dangerous, but it's ultimately more rewarding than owning a Ford Taurus, which is safe but boring."