People are more likely to cheat as they become more economically dependent on their spouses, according to a study released recently in the June issue of the American Sociological Review.
Intrigued by the number of people who cheat — an estimated 20 to 25 percent of married men and 10 to 15 percent of married women, despite polls showing 91 percent of American adults consider marital infidelity “morally wrong” — researcher Christin L. Munsch set out to determine whether socioeconomic factors influence cheating.
Her findings indicate they do.
“For men, breadwinning increases infidelity,” writes Munsch, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut. “For women, breadwinning decreases infidelity.”
Munsch analyzed data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth — a nationally representative sample of approximately 9,000 individuals surveyed annually since 1996. She focused on results from 2001 to 2011, when the respondents were between 18 and 32 years old.
The respondents, all married heterosexuals, were asked questions about work status, income, dating and marital history and sexual behavior.
Conventional wisdom, Munsch writes, would indicate that people who are more economically dependent on their partners would be less likely to rock the relationship boat. But she finds the opposite to be the case.
“For both men and women, economic dependency is associated with a higher likelihood of engaging in infidelity,” she writes. “But the influence of dependency on men’s infidelity is greater than the influence of dependency on women’s infidelity. For economically dependent persons, infidelity may be an attempt to restore relationship equity; however, for men, dependence may be particularly threatening. Infidelity may allow economically dependent men to engage in compensatory behavior while simultaneously distancing themselves from breadwinning spouses.”
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We’re trained to view cheating on your partner as a symptom of larger relationship troubles, and in many cases, certainly, it is. But, according to Munsch’s study, it can also be a way to hew to your traditional gender role.
“By remaining faithful,” Munsch writes, “breadwinning women neutralize their gender deviance and keep potentially strained relationships intact.”
Some men, meanwhile, struggle with the notion of earning less than their wives.
“While both men and women likely have an aversion toward economic dependence,” she writes, “men’s aversion is potentially greater given the social expectation that links husbands with breadwinning.”
Munsch cautions that the study’s results shouldn’t be taken as a signal that marriages will become less stable as women’s earnings increase.
“Shifts toward gender equality occur at uneven paces, with heterosexual marriage lagging behind other institutions,” she writes. “As the range of acceptable roles and responsibilities continues to expand, men may become more comfortable with economic dependence and no longer seek alternative exchange partners.”
Ideally, she notes, the findings would inspire a discussion about how to bury outdated gender roles once and for all.
“One of the most important avenues for future research,” she writes, “is the investigation of how spouses come to adopt alternative expectations of themselves and their partners that are no longer based on gender.”