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Safeguarding Against Infidelity

Why Financial Disparity Need Not Matter

I was intrigued to read the recent research by Christin Munsch, from the Department of Sociology at the University of Connecticut, investigating the correlation between infidelity and economic dependency. She found that the more economically dependent men and women are on their spouses, the more likely they are to be sexually unfaithful. This correlation was especially strong for men whose wives were the primary breadwinner.

Lasse Kristensen/Graphic Leftovers
Source: Lasse Kristensen/Graphic Leftovers

Of course, I immediately considered this from the perspective of secure functioning. I suspect if we dig more deeply, we might discover other influences on these results.

Consider two couples, both in their late thirties. Tom’s wife, Elaine, a school principal, has supported him for seven years. Tom has had a few short-term jobs, but mostly he hangs around the house. Several years ago, he vowed to write a novel, but he has since abandoned that idea. Talking with this couple, it's apparent that Tom is on the verge of straying from the marriage, if he hasn’t already. Elaine repeatedly expresses concern about his fidelity, though he denies he has cheated on her. She is after him to find a job or volunteer for a cause he cares about. This is an issue they fight over virtually every night.

Ian’s wife Janet is a lawyer. She took time off for the birth of their twins, six years ago, but resumed work as soon as possible. Ian quit his job as an architect to care for the babies. It was his choice, and Janet fully supported him. He intended to work again when the girls reached preschool. However, Janet’s income covers their expenses, and Ian wants to be around for the girls after school, so he decided to remain an at-home dad. He recently built a playhouse and is now putting in an organic garden. Infidelity is of zero concern to Janet or Ian. They do have occasional disagreements over parenting, such as whether the girls should attend a private or public school.

At first glance, these couples both appear to fall into the highest-risk category for infidelity, based on Munsch’s research. In my opinion, only the first is at high risk. Why? I think another variable trumps financial dependency, and that is secure functioning. In this case, the important aspect of secure functioning is the sense of mutuality. Tom and Elaine lack security in their relationship. She feels he is not pulling his weight, and he feels guilty about that—perhaps not enough to get a job, but enough to be tempted to cheat. An affair, he rationalizes, might restore his manhood and compensate for the security he lacks. He fantasizes about that a lot, but he and Janet do not have the kind of open communication that would allow him to safely share his feelings.

Ian and Janet, on the other hand, have a secure-functioning relationship in which each contributes to their joint welfare. Ian feels he does as much to support the family as Janet does, and she frequently lets him know that is her feeling, as well. Neither views income as the most important contribution, and neither is afraid of being dependent on the other. Instead, they focus on the many ways they can and do depend on each other. They enjoy openness and mutuality in their communications. Even if they disagree about the choice of schools, both know they will make that decision together, after sharing their thoughts and listening to each other. Infidelity is not an issue because they have no need to look outside their union for security or satisfaction.

In fact, Munsch concludes more research is needed to clarify if men who consciously choose to be primary caregivers respond differently than men who do not, and to determine the influence of couples’ preferences for traditional versus equalitarian gender roles. In short, to see how mutuality plays into the equation. If I were to guess, I would say that to cheat or not to cheat is likely a dilemma mostly for partners who have not yet learned to create a secure-functioning relationship.


American Sociological Association. (2015, June 1). People more likely to cheat as they become more economically dependent on their spouses. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from

Munsch, C. L. (2015). Her support, his support: Money, masculinity, and marital infidelity. American Sociological Review, 80, 469-495. doi:10.1177/0003122415579989

Tatkin, S. (2012). Wired for love: How understanding your partner's brain can help you defuse conflicts and spark intimacy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT, is the author of Wired for Love and Your Brain on Love, and coauthor of Love and War in Intimate Relationships. He has a clinical practice in Southern CA, teaches at Kaiser Permanente, and is an assistant clinical professor at UCLA. Tatkin developed a Psychobiological Approach to Couple Therapy® (PACT) and together with his wife, Tracey Boldemann-Tatkin, founded the PACT Institute.

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