Did you hear the news that men are happier with smarter wives? That’s how the media has summed up a recent study on marital dissolution rates and education levels.
In The Reversal of the Gender Gap in Education and Trends in Marital Dissolution (August 2014), sociologist Christine R. Schwartz of the University of Wisconsin and analyst Hongyun Han of Northwestern explore marital trends in the United States. Delving into data on American marriages between 1950 and 2004,* Schwartz and Han learn that (1) an increasing number of marriages include a wife who is more highly educated than her husband; (2) these marriages are no longer more likely to end in divorce than marriages in which husbands are more highly educated than their wives; and (3) equally educated spouses are more likely to stay together than spouses in marriages in which the husband is more highly educated than his wife. In the past, marriages with a more highly educated husband were the most stable.**
The researchers suggest that these trends are tied to shifts in cultural norms as we’ve moved away from the husband-as-primary-breadwinner model and toward a more egalitarian model, in which husbands and wives both have responsibilites inside and outside of the home (not that it’s perfect: working women still do the lionshare of the housework!).
I learned of this gender gap study from my husband, who was irritated by The Telegraph’s garbled paraphrase of Jane Austen’s opening line of Pride & Prejudice.***
We all remember that line from Austen’s most beloved novel, right?
As the tongue-in-cheek aphorism goes: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man, in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
The Telegraph opens its article on “Men Are Happier With a Smarter Wife” (with a picture of Colin Firth as Darcy) by inverting Austen’s line, making it:
It was once a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune had everything a would-be wife could ever want.
But now it appears that it is men who ascribe to Jane Austen’s maxim – and they are the ones quite happy for the woman to be the breadwinner.
Well, it’s fair to say that in Jane Austen’s time, it was common for a woman with no fortune to be in want of a man in possession of one. Take Charlotte Lucas, for example, who thought highly of neither “men or matrimony,” yet still believed that marriage “was the only provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want.” But then we have Elizabeth Bennett, our protagonist, for whom Darcy’s large fortune was not enough to overcome his disgusting pride, making it quite a stretch to claim that Jane Austen believed “a single man in possession of a good fortune had everything a would-be wife could ever want.”
It’s an even bigger stretch to say that, as a result of this gender gap study, “now it appears that it is men who ascribe to Jane Austen’s maxim… they are the ones quite happy for the woman to be the breadwinner.”
Yes, the study’s findings are consistent with a shift away from the “traditional ‘breadwinner-homemaker’ model of marriage” —it’s true that an increasing number of women are entering the workforce—but there’s nothing in the study that suggests that men are “quite happy for the woman to be the breadwinner (emphasis added).” The researchers took only a preliminary look at the relative earnings of spouses, leaving “a complete analysis of the relationship between spouses’ relative education, earnings, and divorce to future research.”**** So, this study doesn’t shed much light on whether relationships in which a wife earns more money than her husband is more likely to divorce.
It’s important to remember that higher educational achievement isn’t necessarily correlated with higher earning capacity, particularly for women. Thanks to sex discrimination in the workplace, we still have a sex-segregated workforce (in which there are female-dominated jobs with lower pay) and a pay gap that results in women earning less than men for the same work. In addition, it’s also possible that women with higher levels of education are more likely to stay in unhappy marriages because their educational debt limits their ability to achieve financial independence.
So, while it might be true that more couples in which the wife is more highly educated are staying together, it may also be true that those that are staying together are the ones in which the wife doesn’t actually earn more than her husband.
Despite the fact that mothers are generally more educated than their husbands today, a majority of fathers still earn more than their wives. The share of couples in which the husband’s income exceeds the wife’s was about 75% in 2011. This in part reflects different employment rates between married parents: about 65% of married mothers were employed in 2011, compared with about 90% of fathers. But it also reflects different earning patterns among men and women. Even in dual income families in which both fathers and mothers are working, 70% of these families consist of fathers who earn more than mothers. [See the Complete Report for this quote]
The Pew report also suggests that while attitudes about the makeup of the American family are changing, the pace of change is slow, with half of those who responded to the survey saying that “children are better off if a mother is home and doesn’t hold a job, while just 8% say the same about a father.”
Thus, the “universally acknowledged truths” of Jane Austen’s time—whether or not Austen or her heroines actually ascribed to them—remain entrenched today.
*This study focuses on opposite-sex couples. Few states recognized same-sex marriage by 2004.
**“Stable” defined only as less likely to end in divorce, which doesn’t necessarily mean these are happy families. As the researchers aptly note: “In the 1950s, couples who entered relationships in which wives had more education than their husbands may have been more likely to hold non-traditional beliefs associated with a greater risk of divorce.” One such “non-traditional belief” might be “it’s okay to divorce your husband if he’s abusive.”
***As for Mr. A.M.B., I hope that our similar educational achievements bode well for our marital stability. However, I think an even better sign for our future is that we both love Jane Austen. So far, my husband has read Pride & Prejudice, Sense & Sensibility, and Persuasion. See these posts for his thoughts on these novels: (1) More Reasons Why Pride & Prejudice Isn’t Just For Girls Who Want a Boyfriend; (2) Jane Austen Isn’t Just For Mothers and Daughters (So Says My Husband); (3) Persuasion: Is It Better With Age?
**** The researchers claim in a single paragraph to have found “relative earnings and education operative relatively independently when it comes to trends in the risk of divorce,” but they don’t reveal any of their data or the math they used, instead dismissing the issue with a single vague chart (“Panel D” in “Figure 2”) that apparently blends together all of the economic factors at once.