Have We Discovered a Prime Reason Why Some Men Cheat?

A concerning new link between economics and infidelity.

Posted Jun 01, 2015

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According to a new University of Connecticut study, there may be risks to a marriage when a woman is the primary breadwinner—specifically, husbands who make less money than their wives appear to cheat more. Is this a kick in the pants for hard-working women, or what?

In the study, "Her Support, His Support: Money, Masculinity, and Marital Infidelity," published in the June issue of American Sociological Review, sociologist Christin Munsch suggests that young men who are economically dependent on their wives are more likely to have extramarital affairs than those who aren’t. Munsch reviewed data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth collected between 2001 and 2011 on married people ranging in age from 18 to 32 years. The data showed that, on the whole, approximately 15% of the men who were completely financially dependent on their wives had affairs. That’s roughly 3% more than the average married man in the same data set. While it's not an earth-shattering difference statistically, but couple-by-couple it can certainly be marriage-shattering.

Munsch's paper does not draw a bold arrow linking cause to effect. Still, the association between infidelity and economic disparity is pronounced enough that, in a press release issued by the American Sociological Association, she speculated:

2015, Rebecca Coffey
Do men who feel "pink washed" by their wives' earning power try to reclaim their masculinity by catting around?
Source: 2015, Rebecca Coffey

“Extramarital sex allows men undergoing a masculinity threat—that is not being primary breadwinners, as is culturally expected—to engage in behavior culturally associated with masculinity … For men, especially young men, the dominant definition of masculinity is scripted in terms of sexual virility and conquest, particularly with respect to multiple sex partners. Thus, engaging in infidelity may be a way of reestablishing threatened masculinity. Simultaneously, infidelity allows threatened men to distance themselves from, and perhaps punish, their higher earning spouses.” 

Feeling feminized by their inability to pull in a larger income, then, some husbands may try to prove themselves "virile" by sexual conquest.

Ironically, high-earning wives in this survey cheated less often than low-earning ones. According to Munsch's analysis of the data, about 9% of the young wives in the study set had affairs overall, but among wives who earned far more "bread" than their husbands, the prevalence of infidelity was only about 5%.

2015, Rebecca Coffey
Source: 2015, Rebecca Coffey

Rebecca Coffey contributes to Scientific American and Discover magazines and to various radio outlets. She is also the author of a fact-based novel, HYSTERICAL: Anna Freud's Story. It's the heavily-researched (and yet highly comic) fictional autobiography of Sigmund Freud's very real lesbian daughter. 

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