Size does matter after all: Her bigger paycheck may drive him to cheat


Does anybody else remember that classic perfume ad from the late1970s? “I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan. And never, never, never let you forget you’re a man.”

It turns out, the dynamics of gender identity are a bit more complicated than the Mad Men of the 1970s envisioned them. In many cases, women who are bringing home the bacon will need the frying pan for something very different than frying up said bacon in a pan: They’ll need it to clobber their philandering partners.

The message conveyed in a study released Monday is certain to stir anger among women who work hard outside the home to help support their families: If you are the betrayed wife or female partner of a philandering man, it suggests, you may have your paycheck to blame.

Being in a relationship with a female partner who earns more than he does can make a man feel less of a man, Cornell University sociologist Christin Munsch told colleagues Monday in Atlanta, Ga., at the annual confab of the American Sociological Assn. To affirm and restore his battered sense of manhood, a man may feel he needs to go outside the relationship in search of sexual conquest, she said.

She cites research showing that nothing makes a man feel like “the Man” like a sexual conquest. “Sexual encounters, particularly with multiple women, are a defining feature of hegemonic masculinity,” Munsch writes.

Yes, yes, of course, relationship satisfaction matters, as does the religiosity of the man in question. As either increases, the odds of a man engaging in extramarital sex go down, Munsch found. Factors that make a man more likely to stray from a relationship are a low level of education and identifying as African American or Latino (which increased the odds of infidelity in this study by 2.8-fold and 2.6-fold, respectively).

But after you account for these factors, what distinguishes the man who is likely to cheat from the man who is not? It’s his female partner’s bigger paycheck.

Now, this can’t be good because, according to Ellen Galinski of the New York-based Families and Work Institute, 1 in 4 working women now makes at least 10% more than does her husband. In homes with a working woman, her pay accounts for an average of 44% of the household’s income, Galinski says. And her paycheck -- be it bigger or smaller than her husband’s -- has for many families spelled the difference between survival and disaster in these economic times.

Somewhere between 10% and 15% of women and 20% and 25% of men report having had sex with someone other than their spouse. But few studies have explored what may drive someone to cheat, and how those obvious gender differences may color the motives of spouses in deciding whether to remain faithful or have an affair.

But the data on infidelity, Munsch reports, bear out her “social identity theory” of infidelity.

Combing through the responses of a nationally representative sample collected in the 1997 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, the last such survey to have been done, Munsch found that for men who ranked low in terms of their economic dependence on a female partner, the probability of infidelity was relatively low. With every upward click of Munsch’s measure of male economic dependence on a female partner, men were more likely to cheat.

This upward trend was particularly pronounced among Latinos. Munsch suggested that in Latino communities, men’s sense of gender identity is particularly strongly tied to their familial roles as breadwinners.

For women, the relative size of her paycheck matters in regard to fidelity. But the relationship between the two is -- surprise! -- not the same as for men. For women, Munsch found that increasing dependence on a male partner’s paycheck resulted in higher levels of fidelity. And as women’s paychecks went from equalling those of their husbands to exceeding it, they became more likely to cheat.

Munsch suggests that for a woman whose husband or partner brings home a larger paycheck than she does, there is no threat to her female identity. And even if there were, it’s not clear that she would look to restore that identity in the arms of another man. But when her paycheck exceeds his, she is more likely to be in a job in which she has more opportunities to meet other men and more latitude to hide infidelity.

--Melissa Healy / The Los Angeles Times