By: Kelly Wallace, CNN’s digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life.
Female breadwinners, especially those who didn’t set out to make most of their family’s income, have been found to feel less satisfied about their lives, based on a survey by Working Mother Media.
And now, the findings of a new study about infidelity will probably give these breadwinners more cause for concern.
It’s tough to know precisely how many people cheat in their marriages, because many might not admit it in surveys, but researchers estimate that between 20% to 25% of married men and between 10% and 15% of married women have engaged in an extramarital relationship.
This new study, showcased in the June issue of the American Sociological Review, found that men who are 100% economically dependent on their spouses were most at risk for cheating, three times more at risk than women married to male breadwinners.
While, on average, women who are completely financially dependent on their husbands face about a 5% chance that they will stray, there is about a 15% chance that a man married to a female breadwinner will cheat, the study concluded.
“I think it has to do with our cultural notions of what it means to be a man and what … the social expectations are for masculinity,” the study author, Christin Munsch, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut, told CNN.
Being economically dependent on their wives may threaten their manhood, Munsch said, and having an affair is a way to re-establish their masculinity, even if it’s all done subconsciously.
“There’s plenty of great literature showing how when men in particular undergo gender identity threats, they engage in hypermasculine behaviors,” she said.
“Sex is one of the most sort of gender-typed behaviors. You think of men as … (having) sex on the brain. They can engage in a behavior associated with masculinity.”
The study relied on data from more than 2,750 people who are married, who range in age from 18 to 32 and who were part of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth from 2001 through 2011.
Interestingly, female breadwinners whose husbands were 100% financially dependent on them were the least likely group to cheat. On average, they face about a 1.5% chance that they will cheat in an average year, according to the study.
There’s plenty of data suggesting that these women know they are breaking social norms, feel guilty about it at times and do what they can to bolster their husband’s masculinity, such as doing more of the housework even if they are the ones working full-time, said Munsch.
“He already might feel threatened that I’m the breadwinner, I’m certainly not going to make him clean the toilet, too,” she said, giving voice to the possible thought process of a female breadwinner.
They are going to do what they can to keep a potentially strained relationship intact and would not cheat because that would threaten the relationship, she added.
But, there’s another reason female breadwinners are less likely to cheat, and this comes down to pure logistics. “They kind of don’t have time to cheat. They’re really busy,” Munsch said.
Try working full-time and then doing the housework so your not-working-outside-the-home husband doesn’t feel threatened, and where is the time for an affair?
Time and opportunity don’t seem to be issues for men who are the major breadwinners for their family.
Men whose wives are fully economically dependent on them face about a 4% chance that they will cheat: higher than the risk of cheating for a female breadwinner but dramatically lower than the 15% chance of cheating for men who are economically dependent on their wives, said Munsch.
We often hear about the celebrities, politicians and sports stars, often with wives fully financially dependent on them, who cheat but not the husbands of female breadwinners.
“We don’t ever read about the economically dependent men because … they’re probably not famous.”
Already, in four out of 10 households with children, women are the sole or primary breadwinners, based on a 2013 report by the Pew Research Center.
As more and more women become the sole or primary breadwinners and more men are economically dependent on their wives, will men grow more comfortable with these roles — and women, too?
Judging by Munsch’s latest research, no. She’s interviewing undergraduate men at an unnamed university, where the women outnumber men in classes and get higher grades, about their breadwinning expectations.
When she asks them about their future families, they fully expect they will be the primary earners, she said. Sure, their wives may work, but they believe that her income will be supplemental and that they will be bringing in the lion’s share.
“That is shocking to me that in 2015, in the face of so many women being so incredibly successful … the fact that these young men have grown up in this ‘post-feminist era’ still feel that it’s that important to be a breadwinner really, I think, speaks to how strong this norm is.”
And, as long as men still feel like they’re the ones who should be providing for the family, we may continue to see the husbands of female breadwinners the most at risk — of all groups — to have an affair.