Marrying Up, Down And In Every Which Direction

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A few centuries down the line, Jane Austen’s dictum that a single man in possession of an income would be on the lookout for a wife, is getting a makeover and how. Contrary to the earlier norm where the man was considered the primary bread winner, and the woman in the marriage merely brought in the jam to the table, a substantial percentage of women are becoming the primary bread winners. And what is more interesting is that women are increasingly marrying down, in both education and income. Naturally, the number of men marrying up has gone up.

More men marrying up

According to research from the University of Kansas, as women are increasingly becoming higher educated over the decades, the chances of men marrying up has increased significantly. Paradoxically, chances of women marrying up have decreased significantly. This goes against the grain of what has been held sacrosanct over centuries, that marriage must either happen between equals in social status or that a woman should marry up but not vice-versa.

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While traditionally, it was the women who were marrying up, that was because they weren’t encouraged to get highly educated and be career professionals. University of Kansas’ research between 1990 and 2011 shows women’s personal earnings have grown much faster than men’s earnings have in the same period. To quote the study’s lead author, ChangHwan Kim, from an article, “This could explain why it seems men don’t complain a lot about this. It seems fine for men because their wife is now bringing more income to the household.”

Shift in financial equation

This shift in the financial equation within a marriage is interesting. Also interesting is that this is fast getting to be a sizeable percentage of marriages in the US. What about us in India? Haven’t we all grown up with the neighbourhood gossips tut-tutting when a bright young girl goes on to get multiple qualifications and super achieving in her career, because, “Where will you find a boy who is more qualified than she is?”

The parameter has yet to change here, the man in the marriage is still expected to be higher in both education and income to maintain the status quo in the partnership. Women, who are now on par with their spouses, in both income and education negotiate and renegotiate social boundaries and gender roles are now growing increasingly elastic.

In marriages where the man is on a lower rung on the pay and education scale to the wife, it could be tap dancing in a minefield of fragile male egos raised on the lifeblood of patriarchy

But what is interesting is that women are now no longer looking at the man bringing home the bacon. They can bring their own, thank you very much and the jam with it, if need be. A steady income, while always welcome, is no longer a perquisite in a woman’s decision to choose a life partner. Gender dynamics in the past century has evolved perhaps the most rapidly ever, and marriage equality has, through education, awareness, the feminist movement and venturing of women out into the workforce, become more of a reality than tokenism. Men are also definitely benefiting from the women being more professionally accomplished and bringing in a higher income. For one, it takes the load off their shoulders, the toxic masculinity load which has ‘provider’ written in lights on it. It also frees up men to take on more of being the ‘nurturer’, a role that has been systemically denied to them down the ages.

Changing trend

In contrast to current trends, in 1960 in the US, women married down just 7.1 per cent and married up twice as much. A majority of marriages (78%) were between partners with equal education. In 2015, this dropped to 50 per cent. In the 1990s, women began to outperform men in education. Washington-based Pew research centre found that even though women might be higher educated than their husbands, it wasn’t necessary that they would be the primary wage earners. Only in 24.8 per cent of marriages the women earned more than the men. But this is definitely a sizeable percentage.

Interestingly, even when women are highly educated, they seemed to desire husbands who are the primary earners, the research found. Hypergamy, as this is called, the choice of most women to marry ‘up’ is still strong. Even if a man is not better qualified, he must have the potential to earn more than the woman in a hypergamous marriage

The traditional view of husband material as one who holds down a steady job and is able to provide for the family still holds good. The majoritarian view of ideal ‘husband’ material is still the one who is the ‘breadwinner,’ although this antiquated notion of marriage is sifting rapidly as this recent study showed. There is a biological reason hypergamy exists. Pregnancy and childbirth keep women physically tied to the home, and also especially through the early years of child care. A woman takes time out for childbirth and child rearing, they need a spouse who can support them financially at this time.

Less earning husbands looked down upon

Husbands who earn substantially less than their wives are not looked on too kindly by society. There is an unspoken social censure that they face as any househusband will tell you. Also, women who are financially independent are more likely to choose not getting married at all. Having said that, in the past, women were more likely to not get married rather than marry someone with lower educational qualifications than them, but that’s changed now.

The proverbial pants in a relationship are now being worn by both partners as income also gives the woman a say in most decisions regarding the family and home. But perhaps the most important determiner in how important education is in a marriage is this — how well children do in life depends not on their father’s education, but their mother’s. It is this that should encourage every woman to study as much as she can, not marrying up, down or sideways. And that, in the long run, is the bottom line.

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