Do smart women have better marriages?

SARAH MACDONALD
Last updated 10:01 30/07/2014
obama
Reuters

THE FIRST LADY OF SMARTS: Barack certainly doesn't seem to have a problem with his wife Michelle's stunning intellect and effervescent confidence.

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We've all heard the warnings to women who rise too far, too fast.  There's almost gleeful 'don't get too far ahead of yourself girlie' subtext to stories about the price of success, especially in regard to love and marriage. Some stories are just sourced from gossip, others from 'old-fashioned wisdom' and others from sociological studies.

For instance, it's long been accepted that marriages where a woman is more educated than her bloke were more likely to split. Past studies even estimated educational inequality meant an added divorce risk of 27 to 38 percent. But a study just reported in the American Sociological Review has found that risk may be as newly extinct as the black rhino of Africa.

Lead author Christine Schwartz used much more recent data on marriages than other research and discovered the stability of marriages between educational equals has increased. In fact couples who got hitched in the naughties and who shared the same educational level were about 30 percent less likely to divorce than couples with a husband who had more education. She even concluded there are "intriguing hints that couples in which wives have the educational advantage may now be less likely to split than couples in which husbands have more education".

Of course there are many reasons why couples break up. All impossible to measure and compare. But, the authors say this is consistent with a shift away from rigid gender roles toward more flexible, egalitarian partnerships amongst heterosexuals.

In normal language ... modern blokes don't seem threatened by smart chicks anymore.

The study shows how society doesn't evolve in a consistent and even way. Instead, the authors point out that progress towards gender equality is deeply asymmetric - changes amongst men take place more slowly than changes among women. But once a critical mass is reached change accelerates rapidly. The trend for women to be more educated than men has now reached a critical level. (In America 38% women have bachelor degree, and 31% of men, in Australia 57% of university students are women). As relationships with higher-qualified women become more common they are normalised and accepted. It seems young couples now consider an egalitarian marriage the ideal.

The study speaks to public anxiety about the effects of women's success on their chances of getting and staying married. A concern often voiced by social commentators keen to remind women that their rise comes at a cost and that they could pay the price in terms of love and marriage. The subtext is that change is too hard, so be careful where you tread; after all what's it all for if you aren't part of a dynamic duo.

There are plenty of studies that support and feed the fear.

Last year economists at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business concluded money matters in marriage. It found there is still an aversion to a wife earning more than a husband - and that it reduces marriage rates, a woman's participation in the workforce, marriage satisfaction and increases the likelihood of divorce. It seems the data they used is older than that tallied in the education study - perhaps there has also been a shift here, but it may be too recent to show up.

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There are even studies that find a man is more likely to use erectile dysnfuction medication if he earns less than his wife and that (with or without the Viagra) he's five times more likely to cheat. One even found an Academy Award comes with a greater risk of divorce for best actress but not for best actor. Considering the large number of variables and small sample size in that study you just have to laugh. 

There's even research that finds the likelihood of divorce is lower if the wife compensates for her higher salary by doing more housework. Authors conclude higher-earning women are trying to assuage their partner's dented sense of worth by reverting to more traditional male-female roles. The mind boggles. 

The good news is the study on the impact of education includes the most recent and modern marriages.

There are many factors at play in relationships; including the fact that women with greater economic security feel safer to leave a bad marriage.  Also, many highly educated well-paid women may not want to even get married at all. And perhaps I should also state the bleeding obvious fact that the end of a marriage is hardly a sign of failure.

But what is apparent is that gender norms are still changing slower than gender economics. And we are all well educated enough to know the consequences.

- Daily Life

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