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What a study about cheating husbands can teach us about masculinity

It’s time we reassess masculinity.


Cynthia McKelvey


Last week, a study of marriage, income, and infidelity came out in the American Sociological Review that triggered a lot media coverage. Survey data of nearly 3,000 married men and women showed that men who make less than their female spouses are more likely to cheat than if they make the same or more than their spouse. In fact, men are 10 percent more likely than women to cheat if they’re totally financially dependent on their spouses. (Women showed the same trend, but to a much lesser degree.) 


Author Christin Munsch explained that this trend is due to the fact that men feel their masculinity is threatened when their partner is the breadwinner. To re-assert their masculinity and independence, some men seek extramarital relationships. Munsch also controlled for a variety of factors, including number of hours worked and marital satisfaction, so her data strongly suggests that gender is the driving force of this pattern. 

As is the case with every study, it’s important to note that correlation does not equal causation, so the study’s results should be taken with a grain of salt. That said, there’s clearly something going on with men who feel threatened by their partners out-earning them. Indeed, Munsch told the Guardian that she was inspired to pursue the study in part thanks to her friend, who told her he cheated on his wife because he felt emasculated by his unemployment status.

This might not come as much of a surprise to anyone. While things are still far from perfect in terms of gender equality, the feminist movement has made it more culturally acceptable for women to pursue careers, stay at home and raise kids, or do both (or neither). There’s no denying that women have come a long way in the workforce.

But for men, not much has changed. Society may be run by men, but the average Joe will never be a CEO or politician. Yet those men still feel pressure to be the providers and the breadwinners of their families, even as their female peers are out-performing them academically and more and more women are assuming the primary breadwinner role in their families.

The advances women have made in the past few decades certainly shouldn’t herald the end of men—nor, for that matter, should it signal the end of monogamous heterosexual relationships. Men will obviously never become obsolete, but if nothing else, the American Sociological Review proves that they are undergoing something of an identity crisis. 

Photo via Redwood Photography/Flickr (CC BY ND 2.0)

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