Can You Still 'Marry Up'? Men Now Have More Chances to Find Smarter, Richer Partners

Women are now achieving a higher level of education than men, which is changing how many people select their mate. Men today have far more chances than women to “marry up." Yuriko Nakao/REUTERS

Women in the U.S. today are far more educated and financially stable, compared to decades ago. This change has allowed for a higher level of independence and upward mobility, but some new research suggests it's also leading to a shift in traditional marital conventions.

A new study published this week suggests men have far more chances than women of "marrying up"—an old term referring to a partnership in which one marries someone of a higher social class to improve social status—which means men in this country are reaping the economic benefits of women's progress. Women are now achieving a higher level of education than men, which is changing how many people select their mate.

For the study, published in the journal Demography, the authors analyzed U.S. Census data from 1990 and 2000. They also looked at the 2009 to 2011 American Community Survey, an analytical report prepared by the Census Bureau. Specifically, the authors looked at records for people aged 35 to 44, what they defined as "prime working age."

After adjusting for household size, the researchers measured how socioeconomic status matched up with the education levels of both spouses. They found that the number of women with advanced degrees now exceeds the number of men who reach that same level of education.

Some may argue this shift puts women at a disadvantage. Women may be earning more money but as a result of marrying less educated and financially stable men, their financial stability has decreased. The study's findings indicate that married women are covering a larger proportion of their family's cost of living. According to the researchers, women's financial advantage declines by 13 percentage points if they're sharing the bounty with a spouse who is less educated and has a lower income.

"When women become the main breadwinner for their household, their economic well-being will be lowered because the contribution from their husbands is significantly reduced," says sociologist Chang Hwan Kim of the University of Kansas, lead author of the study. He suggests the trend makes marriage more appealing to men, though it's hard to know for sure. Additionally, Kim says, the shift reflects society's changing view of the purpose of marriage, which is no longer seen as simply an institutional mandate.

The trend is certain to change the help couples seek from relationship experts such as Gilda Carle, a relationship coach and author of numerous books, including Don't Lie on Your Back for a Guy Who Doesn't Have Yours and One-Up Strategies Business Schools Don't Teach. Carle says she's already seeing the impact of these societal changes when working with women who are marrying or filing for divorce. Carle now recommends women protect their nest egg with a prenuptial agreement, just as men have been inclined to do for decades.

"Today, many men understand the cost of living is just so high and want to get in on some of the female earning potential," she says.

However, she adds, not all men accept this shift in relationship dynamics. Once Carle asked a group of male graduate students how they would feel if their girlfriend or wife made more money than they did. "Most of them said 'no way,'" says Carle. She suggests that relinquishing power is something only more progressive men are comfortable with. "The men who are evolved don't mind it one bit."

The bigger problem is that high-earning women may be more likely to struggle with work-life balance. Despite being breadwinners spending hours at the workplace, many women still remain "executives" at home, taking the lead on conventional marriage responsibilities such child rearing and running daily life in the household.

Carle says these numerous demands can be too much for one person to handle, and she's seen many marriages end for that reason alone. "She's going out and making a six-figure income, and the guy finds it very attractive until she is just so frazzled," says Carle. "Cut back on that to raise a family, and their spouse may find her less attractive."

Kim says future research should look at how these power dynamics shape up in the home when women are the main source of a family's income. "Unless we abandon marriage as a social institution completely, it is inevitable for many women to marry down," he says.