Although conventional wisdom says it’s the breadwinner who’s more likely to step out on a spouse, a new study clearly shows that men and women who make a higher contribution to their household income are more likely to stay faithful. Data from 2,757 married people aged 18 to 32 revealed that the economically dependent spouse—male or female—is more likely to cheat. And the absolute most likely to cheat: men who make less money than their wives, a scenario that’s only becoming more common.
Sixty-five percent of married mothers with children work and contribute to the household income, says a 2013 Pew Research Center report. And of those women, 37% are the breadwinners, bringing home bigger paychecks than their husbands.
As for the infidelity trend, “I was surprised by the results,” says study author Christin L. Munsch, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut. “I thought, why would you bite the hand that feeds you? If your partner makes more money and you have a certain standard of living, why would you want to jeopardize that?”
Why income can affect fidelity
Her theory to explain why economically dependent spouses are more likely to cheat is two pronged. For one, she says people’s natural inclination to compare themselves to their partner can create a rift when paychecks are unequal. “We don’t want to feel like we’re constantly coming out on the losing end—we like a sense of relative equality,” she says.
While the actual cheating percentage in the study isn’t overwhelming—5 percent for economically dependent women and 15 percent for men in a similar financial situation, men tend to stray more often than women, which brings us to the second part of Munsch’s theory: the all-powerful societal construct known as masculinity.
“Masculinity puts men in a particular place—men are supposed to be breadwinners,” she says. “They may think, ‘it’s really important according to everyone that I should be coming out on the winning end,’” and that’s what can lead to cheating.
The study results show, not everyone has an affair when they make less money. It may only be that some people cheat to gain ground on the power playing field. “Most couples are faithful, but for some people, that relative inequality is an uncomfortable place to be,” says Munsch. “The fact that men and women are more likely to do this kind of exit behavior means there’s something else that’s not working,” and that there’s likely a certain type of person who reacts poorly to making less money.
Does this study mean anything for your marriage?
As for married couples outside of the study demographic—meaning older than 32 years of age—the cheating risk can’t be determined, says Munsch. “Without data, we can only guess,” she says. “We might imagine that the [relationship between economic dependence in men and cheating] would be stronger in the older generation, because they adhere more strongly to breadwinner norms. And maybe economically dependent women wouldn’t mind at all. On the other hand, the relationship could be less strong—they’ve been married longer, men are more secure in their masculinity, and more stable in their established relationship.”
But there’s one piece of wisdom that Munsch is sure of after undergoing her research. “There is a certan type of person who’s more likely to cheat,” she says. “If your career is important to you, you want to marry someone who is confident enough in themselves that your success is not going to feel threatening to them.”