Together Forever: Does Income Dictate Romantic Potential?

Fewer people marry due to the shortage of economically stable partners.

Posted Sep 09, 2019

A new study from Cornell University indicates that women have become less likely to marry due to the challenges in finding a partner economically adequate to fill the role of spouse and partner (Lichter, Price, & Swigert, 2019).

Does this seem like an unfair perspective on today's unprecedentedly low marriage rate, or does it reflect your own experiences as a prospective bride or groom, regardless of the gender of your potential betrothed?

Once upon a time, it was the norm to fill romance novels and other entertainment media with stories of economically disadvantaged women looking to find a mate financially able to provide for her in ways that she couldn’t on her own. Today, is it just as likely for a man to try to find a spouse who can boost his own economic status? Perhaps.

While the future of marriage seems to be less predictable than it was a generation ago, the changing economic, educational, and professional status of women may be another piece of the puzzle of a changing sociocultural landscape. For the first time in history, there are more college-educated women than men in the American workforce.

It’s not just education that affects income, however: As technology and automation have advanced, many jobs typically held by men have been made obsolete. Women, though, have typically held jobs in service-related fields, which are less likely to be erased by automation. Teaching, nursing, and other fields still benefit businesses relying on interactions that require personal service and warmth.

Thus, the economic status of those who fill traditionally male-dominated jobs has taken a hit, creating an even larger pool of less financially powerful potential mates who may need to “marry up” to climb back up to the level of economic stability they once held in positions that had been plentiful and fairly lucrative.

Do Men Now “Marry Up”?

In terms of men’s options, it seems that marrying up is historically a path that was taken when a family’s fortune had been lost and a family’s name needed a financial boost to push it back up to its former status. Love and good breeding were not as important in this type of match as a shrewd business mentality and a fat bank account.

Today, however, as education is the path to professional and economic success for many, men who inadvertently “marry up” out of love, not need, will also reap a financial bump from the alliance, thus increasing their status through the union. This is an unexpected benefit for the spouses of a better-educated partner—which might, in another era, be seen as a cost to the better-situated partner.

Does a Shrinking Marriage Rate Bode Well for Well-Being?

There will probably always be “chicken and egg” arguments regarding whether marriage brings happiness, or if it’s just that happy people are more likely to find partners. If you enjoy your life living free and single, then that’s what works for you. If you like to have a buddy along for the adventures, then you may prefer to be in a long-term monogamous relationship.

What’s most important is figuring out what makes your gears hum, not doing what others (even family and friends) think you should do. Find a tribe that loves you as you are, solo or in tandem with a significant other. Do the things you enjoy doing and aspire for financial independence so that you don’t need a second income to afford the pleasures you pursue or the obligations you accrue in life.


Lichter, Daniel T., Price, J. P., & Swigert, J. M. (2019). Demographic mismatches in the marriage market.  Journal of Marriage and Family, 81, forthcoming.