Marrying Down
Until pretty damn recently, a woman’s face was her fortune . A girl’s best life plan was to trade her intact virgin body for the biggest house and best life-style provider possible. Indeed, the further out of her original social league her eventual husband, the more she was to be congratulated; not for nothing has the hooking of the rolling-in-it Mr Darcy by the impoverished Miss Elizabeth Bennett been such a favourite for centuries.

Well it’s time for some new narratives. A raft of recent studies and research – including one by the IPPR reported in this paper last week – shows that women are now marrying men on the same social level as themselves (it’s called assortative mating and means, for instance, that women graduates marry male graduates).  And, for the first time, more women are marrying chaps from further down the social scale than are marrying ‘up’.

This news has been almost universally greeted as a disaster; even the left of centre IPPR bemoaned the loss of social mobility that “Mad Men marriages” (where women marry the boss) had given to society.  But surely that entirely misses the point. What this is showing is that as women become better educated (there are now more women at university than men) and more financially independent (in their twenties women are now outearning their male peers, in the professions they outnumber them – 60% of newly qualified solicitors, for instance are female, the latest SSunday Times Rich List shows young women dominating the list of performers ) women are able to make different kinds of marital choices. Essentially, rather than make the age-old bargain of swapping a hot young body for a fat gaffe, educated women who make their own money can instead buy their own house with their own mortgage and install in it whatever kind of chap turns them on.  Ladies who wear the financial trousers can marry for love, not a meal ticket – which is why we are seeing more management consultants marrying comedians, media executives marrying jugglers and bankers marrying plumbers. 
There may, of course, be many out there who come out in hives at the very thought of such a scenario, but that doesn’t stop it being increasingly common.  A fascinating new book just published in America called The Richer Sex by Liza Mundy, argues that ‘the big flip’ – where women earn more than men – is imminent (in black and Hispanic communities where women tend to stay in education far longer than men, is it already with us)  with wide-ranging consequences for relations between the sexes. “Today, wives in dual-earner families contribute, on average, 47 percent of family earnings. In 2009, nearly 38 percent of employed wives outearned their husbands,” she writes. Her thesis is that the next generation of women will earn more. This is not just a US phenomenon; all over the world, women are gaining the majority of university degrees, have high levels of ambition and, with  higher levels of education corellating closely to future earning power,  could well out-earn men. It is a phenomenon we are all going to have to get our heads round.

The UK at present lags behind the US – at present we have 1.4 million men who are primary child carers at home in Britain and one in four women outearning their husbands.  But Mundy paints an intriguing picture of women’s economic potential and its knock-on effects for relationships, not all of it rosy. Several studies show that when a wife earns more than a husband divorce rates rise, but often this is because such women finally have the resources to leave – “It’s so much easier to dump him as I’m not dependent financially” as one of the case studies put it. From a female perspective, this is progress; how many women in history have stuck it out in loveless marriages for financial reasons? Cultural background is also often the crucial factor in such unions not working out; in macho or traditional societies where much store is put on the man earning the money, a female earner scenario is bound to be more difficult.

More heartening are the descriptions of their own lives by breadwinner wife/supportive husband couples who paint a harmonious loving picture of  partnerships where both excel in different areas, and husbands enjoy the financial pressure being off, hanging out with kids and even competitive baking.

“There’s a lot to be said for having a supportive husband” one colleague who has recently married “down” confided in me the other day, extolling the virtues of coming home to supper, a hug and a glass of wine rather than an empty flat. “Successful men have known the joys of this arrangement for years, why shouldn’t women?” Conversely, another friend who is married to a super-alpha high-flyer (literally, he is never off a plane) moaned about how her own career had been massively derailed by the demands – and compensations – of his job, which always trumped hers. “I would urge any ambitious young woman to find a spouse who will happily support her and keep the domestic front functional,” she warns. “Being married to an alpha male is death to a female career.” It is hard to imagine how BBC Breakfast presenter Susanna Reid would manage her mega commute from London to Salford, for instance,  without her husband to manage her three kids. Super successful men often have wives who are domestic CEOs – high-flying women are now doing the same.

Of course, the majority of us these days are muddling along in the middle with husbands increasingly reporting the kind of work/life balance stresses that were once the prerogative of women.  When we marry someone like ourselves – as 56% of those born between 1976 and 1981chose to do – then realtionships are more equal and the old divisions are re-drawn. As we fight about whose turn it is to organise the childcare, load the dishwasher, make the supper, or sleep in, such domestic negotiations are the reality of equality. Women who earn – the research shows - have husbands who pick up more domestic slack.

But all of this is a work in progress. As a society we are particularly ambivalent about female breadwinners. Many of the ones I know often keep quiet about their situation or try to camouflage their superior financial status. Some overcompensate, being rather surrendered wife at home to protect male egos, scared their superior fire power in a fight could eviscerate the fragile compromises of their relationships.  One of the optimistic lessons of Mundy’s book, however, is that lady breadwinners should stop fretting and instead congratulate themselves for being at the crest of an ever-building wave of female success. What is frontier territory for big-earning wives at the moment, is going to become ever more common. Rather than feeling flayed by society’s ambivalence about them, they need to walk tall and light the way for the younger women following behind.

This is the first time in history that women have been able to control their biology enough to get educated and choose their own lives and mates from a position of power. The Richer Sex chronicles how achievement and money are increasingly aphrodisiac qualities for men and that marriage rates for high earning females are on the rise (while those of low-earning females are falling). Rather than being intimidated by high-status mates, males are increasingly attracted to wives who offer an alternative to male wage slavery.

Talk of marrying ‘down’ or ‘up’ no longer reflects the changed world around us. We all need to be more imaginative, tolerant and optimistic about what new relationships between the sexes might look like rather than viewing them through an outdated lens. We are only half-way through the sexual revolution – there is far more to come.  


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