Kay: Income and Infidelity

couple-150x150I’ve been visiting my mom in the small Wisconsin town where she lives and I grew up, and every Sunday morning, she and her cronies head over to the coffee shop for breakfast. I have fun listening to them talk about people I don’t know—and people I’ve known forever. Because the coffee shop is the only game in town and lots of people go there on Sunday, sometimes you can see or meet the people you’re gossiping about discussing, which can be both illuminating and embarrassing.

Last Sunday they were talking about a local bar/restaurant establishment that serves dinner four nights a week. They discussed the food, prices, hours, décor, and handicapped access. Then they got down to the serious stuff.

“Are Bob and Sue married?” someone asked. Bob was in my high school class, and I said I thought he and Sue had never married, although they’ve been together for decades.

I was corrected. Nope, Bob and Sue are married. They’d had some problems—Bob had been cheating—but when Sue threatened to leave, Bob realized how the business would fail without her. She was the chef, the decorator, and the accountant. Who could he get to replace her at the wages he was paying? Even assuming he got to keep the business at all. So he stopped cheating. At least according to the scuttlebutt.

Really, I thought. That works? Just threaten to leave, and the problems iron out?

I’m always interested in gossip real-life stories, because while I don’t want to copy any actual lives into my fiction, my characters are definitely informed by the behavior and thoughts of people I know. And it turns out that Bob and Sue’s story is pretty common.

Research on infidelity among young married Americans shows that husbands who contribute 70 percent of the household income are the least likely to cheat on their wives. But the more economically dependent a husband becomes on his wife—the smaller percentage of income he contributes—the odds of him having an affair increase significantly.

That ties in to Bob and Sue, because as co-owners of their business, each probably contributes 50/50—at least theoretically. Some in town might say that Sue contributes 60 to Bob’s 40. So Bob’s less-than-70-percent of financial contribution makes him likely to cheat.

“For both (young) men and women, economic dependency is associated with a higher likelihood of engaging in infidelity,” writes University of Connecticut sociologist Christin Munsch, adding that this dynamic is far stronger among men. Women who are the primary breadwinners are less likely to cheat than women who depend on their husband’s income.

Munsch suggests that higher-earning women don’t cheat because they know the income disparity already strains the marriage, and they don’t want to add the extra strain of infidelity.

“As the range of acceptable roles and responsibilities [for men and women] continues to expand, men may become more comfortable with economic dependence,” Munsch writes, and so feel less need to establish independence and/or masculinity by cheating on their wives.

And how are Bob and Sue doing now?

“Good,” said my breakfast companions. “Now, if they’d just open for lunch.”



8 thoughts on “Kay: Income and Infidelity

  1. Fascinating! Nobody is writing about this, as far as I know. Nobody. “Crass commerce”? Is that the reason why people aren’t writing about it? But the fact is, economics are still an important part of any committed relationship. Women will put up with a lot so they can keep their business partner — even in this day and age when he might not be making that much. And, it seems, the brighter men also realize the economic disadvantages of losing a partner. (Seems some have to be whapped in the face by the threat of divorce, though — and even then, some don’t seem to care and are blindsided when their “forever” marriage ends in court.)

    Another huge thing is childcare. Being a single parent is really, really hard, and both parents will often do a lot so they don’t have to be the only one taking care of the kids, ferrying them to events and making sure they do well.

    For so many romance novels, the only thing at stake is the idea that there is one and only one true love per person. You lose him/her, you get left with second-rate romance — which I don’t really think is true. But if you take away that, what’s left? Young people can find someone new, they are young and attractive and healthy. It might take 10 years, sure, but true love is out there.

    Economics is a whole other thing. I don’t know if it makes good story until it becomes fraught with tension. It seems mercenary for a gal to fall in love with Pemberley milli-seconds before she falls for Darcy (if indeed that is the way it happened). But, combined income and earning potential as a team should be on the top 10 list of considerations for marriage. Not number one, but definitely not number 11.

    • My mom always said it was just as easy to marry a rich man as marry a poor one, although given where we lived at the time, this idea was only hypothetical, since there weren’t any rich men. And she certainly didn’t marry one! And yeah—in Pride and Prejudice, Mrs. Bennett might have been flighty, but she was the one (as compared to Mr. Bennett) who realized the economic potential for her daughters when Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley showed up in the neighborhood.

      • Yeah! And while Mr. Bennett didn’t exactly benefit when his wife lost her charms (although, he did get two intelligent daughters out of the deal), Mrs. Bennett certainly made the most of her marriage. I think she was in a much happier position than if she’d married some stable guy (or even a merchant) for love. Well . . . who knows . . . maybe the merchant who directed her attention toward work and loved her very much would have been fine.

  2. This is fascinating. With the percentage of young women finishing college while the number of jobs that rely on brute strength on the decline, looks like there could be some cheatin’ times ahead.

    • It definitely makes you wonder about how marriage will look in the future. In the days when the only jobs women could get were as teacher, nurse, or secretary, getting married was definitely a solid career option for those who didn’t have talents for those fields. Now that that’s all changed and women don’t have to be as economically dependent on men (despite the income disparity for the genders), one would think the marriage relationship—or the reason to be in a marriage—will change, too. And I suppose that’s been happening to some extent already.

  3. I would be interested to see statistics on which gender cheats more in general. In my head, I’m thinking men cheat more, but I’ve known plenty of women who have as well. And I’m also betting that Bob still cheats – he’s just sneakier about it.

  4. Bob might well still cheat. Only he—and the Other—know for sure! In this study of younger people, I think men did cheat more often in general than women, but the sociologist who did the study limited her subjects to a certain age range, and she interviewed only Americans. So there definitely is room for variations in the outcomes.

  5. The cheating woman’s perspective is also an interesting one, that we don’t usually hear too much about — especially if she is demonized.

    Personally, I have enough on my hands with one relationship — I have no interest in trying to juggle two lovers. (-: Unless writing counts as my second lover. I don’t know how the cheaters and the two-timers do it. Takes more skilz than I have . . . .

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