Economist Marina Adshade is the author of The Love Market: What You Need To Know About How We Date, Mate And Marry. She teaches at the University of British Columbia's Vancouver School of Economics.
Here's my advice to scholars: If you want your research to get widespread media attention, promote the idea that female equality is destroying traditional marriage. It's okay if your evidence is flimsy. Or if it applies only to a particular segment of the population. In fact, your research does not even have to actually support that belief. As long as you can describe it that way, it will be an overnight sensation.
Take, for example, the research we have been hearing about recently by sociologist Christin Munsch that suggests that husbands who are financially dependent on their wives are three times more likely to be unfaithful than wives who are financially dependent on their husbands.
Dr. Munsch has been reported as saying this increased tendency of financially dependent men to stray "has to do with our cultural notions of what it means to be a man and what … the social expectations are for masculinity."
This may or may not be true. I am an economist, and not a sociologist, so I am less familiar with the notion that the male ego is a fragile flower that withers and dies because a woman is paying his rent.
I do know, however, that that theory is not proved in this paper and that there are other very reasonable explanations for the correlation between male infidelity and financial dependency that have nothing to do with the castrating effects of working women.
The individuals in the Munsch study represent a very specific group of Americans – men and women who all married at an age that is considered below average for Canadians (the average age in her sample is 26). That matters because people who marry young are the most likely to divorce and, even more important for this story, are overwhelmingly low-income.
Consider two scenarios.
The first is the arrangement in which the wife is not working and the husband is earning the entire family income. Why do we think she is not working and how do we think she spends her days? More than 60 per cent of the women in this sample have children under the age of 5, so it is not hard to imagine that these women are taking care of their children; they are dependent on their spouses because these couples have decided that the wife should be a stay-at-home mom.
The second scenario is the one in which the husband is not working and the wife is earning the entire family income. Why do we think he is not working and how do we think he spends his days? Chances are that even if these couples have children, the husband is not staying home to care for them.
According to the Pew Research Center, only 21 per cent of fully dependent men with children under the age of 18 are at home to care for the children – the majority are home because they are unemployed.
That is generally true, but it is even more likely for this group and in this time period. Much of the job losses in the last recession were by young men, especially those who worked in construction and manufacturing; the unemployment rate for men between the ages of 20 and 24 peaked at almost 19 per cent at the beginning of 2010. Female unemployment in this age group was also high, but much lower, at 13 per cent.
Remember as well that this data set consisted mostly of low-income couples. The average annual income of a woman in this sample is only $18,000. These women are not neglecting their husbands while they put in long hours at the office establishing their career – these are women manning the cash registers at Wal-Mart so that they can pay the household bills. At those low-income levels, it seems extremely unlikely that the couples have collectively decided that the man should stay home while the woman works full-time.
Why are dependent men more likely to cheat on their spouse than dependent women? Probably because taking care of young children all day does not leave women much time to fool around. However, men who are home because they are unemployed have many more opportunities to cheat simply because they have more free time.
Then again, "Men Cheat When Bored" doesn't really seem like a catchy headline. It's so much more interesting to blame their ambitious wives.