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Asking for trouble

The truth about career women and marriage

By Judith Stadtman Tucker

Strange things happen in the media world in late summer, when vacation departures leave editorial desks and newsrooms understaffed. This might explain the lapse in judgment that led publishers of Forbes Magazine to release an outrageously deceptive "trend" story -- complete with a slide show featuring 50s-flashback man rules for marriage-minded career guys -- on the Forbes.com web site earlier this week (Michael Noer, "Don't Marry Career Women," August 22). The ensuing clamor got even louder when Forbes hastily removed the Noer article and republished it later the same day (sans offensive slide show) as an opinion piece along with a meek rebuttal by Elizabeth Corcoran, the lead writer for Forbes current cover story.

The feminist blogosphere exploded in reaction to the original article, and Salon ran Rebecca Traister's feisty critique of Noer's underlying sexism and sloppy use of social science the following day. For MMO regulars, it's worth noting that Noer's article departs from the usual formula for backlash reporting on gender, work and family -- for example, he never suggests women's biology or psychology makes them better suited for housework and child-rearing than the cutthroat competition of the business world, or that mothers' employment is detrimental to children. Noer's story has more in common with the recent rash of media coverage on masculinity under fire. He zeros in on research and economic theories implicating wives' work in the erosion of husbands' health and happiness to highlight the downside of coupling with women who expect to work full-time, earn good money and are professionally ambitious.

Noer's overriding problem is that try as he might to substantiate this story line, empirical research documenting the career woman effect on married men's wellbeing is generally inconclusive or contradictory. To overcome the limitations of the relevant science, Noer resorts to cherry picking findings from a small sample of published and unpublished studies on women's work and marital quality, producing an article so devoid of journalistic integrity that the only way his editors could save face was to banish it to the commentary section.

Jack Shafer at Slate wonders why women were all riled up by Noer's story, since the resources cited in "Don’t Marry Career Women" are only marginally supportive of Noer's argument or reflect equally poorly on the marriageability of high-achieving men. It's probably because women are utterly fed up with mass-market journalist abusing or selectively reporting social and neurological science to reinforce gender stereotypes, and because Noer assumes that hard-working husbands are entitled to their wives' services as breeders, housemaids and nurses. The narrative and tone of Noer's piece would be objectionable without compounding factors, but his irresponsible use of social science pushes his story past the point where any reasonable human being can avoid getting a bit irritable. For the edification and enjoyment of MMO readers: Don't Marry Career Women: the annotated version.

Don't Marry Career Women
By Michael Noer, Forbes Magazine, 23.aug.06

The annotated version

Guys: A word of advice. Marry pretty women or ugly ones. Short ones or tall ones. Blondes or brunettes. Just, whatever you do, don't marry a woman with a career.

Why? Because if many social scientists are to be believed, you run a higher risk of having a rocky marriage. While everyone knows that marriage can be stressful, recent studies have found professional women are more likely to get divorced, more likely to cheat, less likely to have children, and, if they do have kids, they are more likely to be unhappy about it. A recent study in Social Forces, a research journal, found that women--even those with a "feminist" outlook--are happier when their husband is the primary breadwinner.

Then again, "many social scientists" -- including some of the social scientists Noer cites in this article -- have also published research contradicting Noer's assertion that as an independent factor, women's work contributes to an overall decline in marital quality. But the biggest problem with Noer's lead, as "many social scientists" and conscientious journalists damn well know, is that even the best, most reliable social research is only valuable for identifying trends -- it can't be used to predict individual behaviors or outcomes. So basically, you can safely ignore everything Noer has to say from this point forward.

As for the findings on the relationship between women's happiness in marriage and couples' conformity to the breadwinner/homemaker arrangement, the study in question is considered an "outlier" by the social research community, meaning there are more studies -- including analyses of the exact same data -- that yielded different or conflicting results. Interestingly, the most robust finding of the study ("What's Love Got to Do With It," Bradford Wilcox and Steven Nock, Social Forces, Volume 28, Number 3, March 2006) is that "the most important determinant of women’s marital happiness is the emotional engagement of their husbands," a detail that should surprise no one. It's also important to note that the authors of this work are staunch proponents of traditional marriage; Wilcox is a resident fellow at the Institute for American Values, a culturally-conservative think tank focused on strengthening fathers' role as the head of household, marriage promotion and eliminating no-fault divorce.

Not a happy conclusion, especially given that many men, particularly successful men, are attracted to women with similar goals and aspirations. And why not? After all, your typical career girl is well-educated, ambitious, informed and engaged. All seemingly good things, right? Sure…at least until you get married. Then, to put it bluntly, the more successful she is the more likely she is to grow dissatisfied with you. Sound familiar?

Not really. A new report on the state of marriage in the U.S. (which Noer himself referenced in the slide show accompanying the original version of the article) found the overall risk of divorce is lower for affluent women with higher education who marry later and have children only after marriage -- a fairly typical pattern of marriage and childbearing among the very women Noer tells marrying men to avoid at all costs.

Many factors contribute to a stable marriage, including the marital status of your spouse's parents (folks with divorced parents are significantly more likely to get divorced themselves), age at first marriage, race, religious beliefs and socio-economic status. And, of course, many working women are indeed happily and fruitfully married--it's just that they are less likely to be so than non-working women. And that, statistically speaking, is the rub.

Well, not exactly -- because "statistically speaking," better research doesn't support looking at wives' education, employment and earnings as stand-alone factors in marital quality or stability. In the real world, women's work and work hours are merely one dimension of the complicated emotional and economic matrix of couples' lives. For example, one research team found that, along with other factors, "wives' extended hours of employment, and wives' job demands" were associated with declines in marital quality. But the same study also found that "increases in economic resources, decision-making equality, nontraditional attitudes toward gender, and support for the norm of lifelong marriage were associated with improvements in multiple dimensions of marital quality," and "increases in husbands' share of housework appeared to depress marital quality among husbands but to improve marital quality among wives."

To be clear, we're not talking about a high-school dropout minding a cash register. For our purposes, a "career girl" has a university-level (or higher) education, works more than 35 hours a week outside the home and makes more than $30,000 a year.

If a host of studies are to be believed, marrying these women is asking for trouble.

The studies Noer refers to may indeed be "believable" -- that is, they've been published in peer-reviewed journals or by respected academic centers rather than independent or industry research groups (which are more likely to produce reports tainted by ideological bias or unreliable methodology). The pivotal question is: Do the studies and working papers Noer cites offer unequivocal evidence that marrying a woman who is committed to her career is "asking for trouble"? The answer is... no.

If they quit their jobs and stay home with the kids, they will be unhappy (Journal of Marriage and Family, 2003). They will be unhappy if they make more money than you do (Social Forces, 2006). You will be unhappy if they make more money than you do (Journal of Marriage and Family, 2001). You will be more likely to fall ill (American Journal of Sociology). Even your house will be dirtier (Institute for Social Research).

Why? Well, despite the fact that the link between work, women and divorce rates is complex and controversial, much of the reasoning is based on a lot of economic theory and a bit of common sense.

Translation: "Trust me on this."

Here's my advice to discerning readers: when a writer uses the phrase "a bit of common sense," he or she is usually talking about unreflective reasoning based on dominant cultural narratives (which, incidentally, include things like prevailing economic theories) and/or ingrained gender stereotypes. That's where "common sense" comes from. The next time you see a writer use the terminology "common sense," substitute the words "folklore," "imagined reality" or "purported truth." As for the research Noer cites (rather lackadaisically, it must be said), here are the abstracts of the articles he mentions, with emphasis added to the more relevant (and sometimes contrary)  findings.

In classic economics, a marriage is, at least in part, an exercise in labor specialization. Traditionally men have tended to do "market" or paid work outside the home and women have tended to do "non-market" or household work, including raising children. All of the work must get done by somebody, and this pairing, regardless of who is in the home and who is outside the home, accomplishes that goal. Nobel laureate Gary S. Becker argued that when the labor specialization in a marriage decreases--if, for example, both spouses have careers--the overall value of the marriage is lower for both partners because less of the total needed work is getting done, making life harder for both partners and divorce more likely. And, indeed, empirical studies have concluded just that.

Even Linda Hirshman -- who views marriage as a system of competitive bargaining rather than an agreement to cooperate for mutual gain -- partially rejects Becker's theory of labor specialization and trading in marriage. It's a tidy little model, but Becker's theory may not adequately address the complications of the gendering of social power or the unpredictability of human desire and need. In particular, Becker proposes that marriage partners use a cost-benefit analysis model to determine the allocation of unpaid household labor and market work (in this respect, Becker's theories dovetail nicely with the intellectual framework of Social Darwinism). In Noer's case, Becker's economic theories lend credence to the expectation that wives' work outside the home will decrease the value of marriage for both women and men, but especially for men.

In 2004, John H. Johnson examined data from the Survey of Income and Program Participation and concluded that gender has a significant influence on the relationship between work hours and increases in the probability of divorce. Women's work hours consistently increase divorce, whereas increases in men's work hours often have no statistical effect. "I also find that the incidence in divorce is far higher in couples where both spouses are working than in couples where only one spouse is employed," Johnson says. A few other studies, which have focused on employment (as opposed to working hours) have concluded that working outside the home actually increases marital stability, at least when the marriage is a happy one. But even in these studies, wives' employment does correlate positively to divorce rates, when the marriage is of "low marital quality."

What Noer neglects to mention is that even though Johnson's economic study found a strong correlation between women's hours of work and divorce, there's no evidence that women's increased employment causes divorce (Here are the actual studies, with key findings.)

The other reason a career can hurt a marriage will be obvious to anyone who has seen their mate run off with a co-worker: When your spouse works outside the home, chances increase they'll meet someone they like more than you. 'The work environment provides a host of potential partners,' researcher Adrian J. Blow reported in the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 'and individuals frequently find themselves spending a great deal of time with these individuals.'

There's more: According to a wide-ranging review of the published literature, highly educated people are more likely to have had extra-marital sex (those with graduate degrees are 1.75 more likely to have cheated than those with high school diplomas.) Additionally, individuals who earn more than $30,000 a year are more likely to cheat.

Maybe. Or maybe not. In a companion study published in the same journal issue, the author found that existing research on marital infidelity is methodologically inconsistent and generally unreliable, and urged practitioners to "exercise caution in using this information… as these research findings are not absolute truths; rather, they are tentative ideas about what might be going on in the lives of clients" (emphasis added). For example, several studies reviewed in Blow's meta-analysis suggest married women are less likely to stray than married men, cohabiting women and women in dating relationships. Apparently, Noer did not care to venture into this territory. (The abstracts and links to both studies are here.)

And if the cheating leads to divorce, you're really in trouble. Divorce has been positively correlated with higher rates of alcoholism, clinical depression and suicide. Other studies have associated divorce with increased rates of cancer, stroke, and sexually-transmitted disease. Plus divorce is financially devastating. According to one recent study on "Marriage and Divorce's Impact on Wealth," published in The Journal of Sociology, divorced people see their overall net worth drop an average of 77%.

There's no disputing that divorce is tremendously costly to families -- especially for women and children, but all family members experience a significant reduction in financial well-being after divorce and may not regain their pre-divorce standard of living for years, or ever. But the study Noer mentions seems to indicate that divorced couples lose the economic advantages of marriage -- a finding which is neither controversial nor unexpected, but which gives Noer an opportunity to throw around scary figures like "net worth drop of 77%." As for research relating higher incidence of alcoholism, depression and suicide to divorce, it's a chicken-and-egg kinda thing. Are people predisposed to alcoholism or depression more likely to become divorced, or does being divorced create pathologies in previously unaffected individuals? (As for the STD issue -- well, duh.)

So why not just stay single? Because, academically speaking, a solid marriage has a host of benefits beyond just individual 'happiness.' There are broader social and health implications as well. According to a 2004 paper entitled "What Do Social Scientists Know About the Benefits of Marriage?" marriage is positively associated with 'better outcomes for children under most circumstances,' higher earnings for adult men, and 'being married and being in a satisfying marriage are positively associated with health and negatively associated with mortality." In other words, a good marriage is associated with a higher income, a longer, healthier life and better-adjusted kids.

A word of caution, though: As with any social scientific study, it's important not to confuse correlation with causation. In other words, just because married folks are healthier than single people, it doesn't mean that marriage is causing the health gains. It could just be that healthier people are more likely to be married. (end)

There are so many possible combinations of variables here, it's pointless to try to list them all. For example, healthier people may have healthier lifestyles and may be more attracted to potential marriage partners who share their healthy habits; healthier people are also more likely to have healthy children, which reduces the stress children bring into marriage and gives kids a head start, developmentally speaking; married men may have higher earnings because they tend to be prime age workers and are perceived as more responsible by employers, or they may work harder because having a family is more expensive than staying single; men with higher earnings may be healthier because they are more likely to have employer-provided health insurance; healthy people may have fewer job interruptions and may earn more. And so on. Here's what the discussion paper Noer references has to say on the subject.

Despite Noer's faith in social research as a playbook for men who want to increase their chances of finding marital bliss, he is strangely silent on a recent report that suggests a positive relationship between marriage and men's happiness. Based on interviews with a nationally-representative sample of over 3,000 adults, the Pew Research Center found that whether male or female, married people are more likely to be "very happy" than single people, people with higher incomes are happier than people who earn less, college graduates are happier than those with less education, employed women are slightly happier than non-employed women, and married parents with kids under 18 are just as happy as married couples without kids ("Are We Happy Yet," February 2006). So maybe the next promising young professional who marries a "career woman" will feel neglected and miserable and end up in an expensive divorce, eventually succumbing to a downward spiral of despair, unsafe sex and substance abuse. Or maybe he will reexamine his assumptions about male entitlement, cultivate new relationship skills, learn to love housework and live happily ever after.

Judith Stadtman Tucker
August 25, 2006

Judith Stadtman Tucker is the Editor of the Mothers Movement Online.


Several dozen research articles appeared in the 2001 and 2003 volumes of the Journal of Marriage and Family. Noer is probably referring to one or more of the following studies (emphasis is added):

Journal of Marriage and Family
Volume 63 Page 458 - May 2001
"Changes in Wives' Income:
Effects on Marital Happiness, Psychological Well-Being, and the Risk of Divorce"
Stacy J. Rogers, Danelle D. DeBoer
We investigate the effects of increases in married women's actual income and in their proportion of total family income on marital happiness, psychological well-being, and the likelihood of divorce. We use data from a sample of 1,047 married individuals (not couples) in medium-duration marriages, drawn from a five-wave panel survey begun in 1980 and continuing to 1997. Structural equation modeling is used to assess the impact of increases in married women's absolute and relative income from 1980 to 1988 on the marital happiness and well-being of married men and women in 1988. Event history analysis is used to determine how these changes affect the risk of divorce between 1988 and 1997. We find that increases in married women's absolute and relative income significantly increase their marital happiness and well-being. Increases in married women's absolute income generally have nonsignificant effects for married men. However, married men's well-being is significantly lower when married women's proportional contributions to the total family income are increased. The likelihood of divorce is not significantly affected by increases in married women's income. Nevertheless, increases in married women's income may indirectly lower the risk of divorce by increasing women's marital happiness.

Journal of Marriage and Family
Volume 65 Page 356 -- May 2003
"Costs and Rewards of Children: The Effects of Becoming a Parent on Adults' Lives"
Kei M. Nomaguchi and Melissa A. Milkie

How do new parents differ from their childless counterparts in social and psychological resources, daily strains, and psychological well-being? Using a nationally representative panel of 1,933 adults who were childless at the first interview, we compare 6 indicators of adults' lives for those who became parents and those remaining childless several years later, controlling for earlier states. Becoming a parent is both detrimental and rewarding. With the exception of social integration, which is greater for all groups of new parents compared with their childless counterparts, the effects of parental status on adults' lives vary markedly by gender and marital status. Unmarried parents report lower self-efficacy and higher depression than their childless counterparts. Married mothers' lives are marked by more housework and more marital conflict but less depression than their childless counterparts. Parental status has little influence on the lives of married men.

Journal of Marriage and Family
Volume 65 Page 574 - August 2003
"Parenthood and Marital Satisfaction: A Meta-Analytic Review"
Jean M. Twenge, W. Keith Campbell, Craig A. Foster

This meta-analysis finds that parents report lower marital satisfaction compared with nonparents (d=−.19, r=−.10). There is also a significant negative correlation between marital satisfaction and number of children (d=−.13, r=−.06). The difference in marital satisfaction is most pronounced among mothers of infants (38% of mothers of infants have high marital satisfaction, compared with 62% of childless women). For men, the effect remains similar across ages of children. The effect of parenthood on marital satisfaction is more negative among high socioeconomic groups, younger birth cohorts, and in more recent years. The data suggest that marital satisfaction decreases after the birth of a child due to role conflicts and restriction of freedom.

Noer also references the following research:

"It's about Time and Gender: Spousal Employment and Health"
Ross M. Stolzenberg, American Journal of Sociology, July 2001

This article considers the effect of husbands' and wives' hours of work on each others' health. Theoretical analysis focuses on gendering of health-related behavior, the time needed to promote a spouse's salubrious behavior, and the effects of work hours on the availability of time for nonwork activities. Empirical analyses are based on 1986 and 1989 longitudinal U.S. data. Fewer than 40 hours of work per week by wives has no effect on husbands' health, but more than 40 hours has substantial negative effect. Long work hours by husbands are not detrimental to wives' health. Wives' work hours shows no effect on their own health, but husbands' work hours show strong positive effect on their own health. Methodological issues are considered.

(It's duly noted that the proportion of wives working over 40 hours a week between 1986 and 1989 was probably quite small; the average workweek for women at that time was around 36 hours. Also, for Noer to legitimately use this data without discussing its limitations, the study would have to offer statistical evidence on directionality and causality -- it's possible women worked more because their husbands were sickly or hypochondriacs, but it's unlikely a the data set provided that much detail.)

"Data Quality of Housework Hours in the Panel Study of Income Dynamics:
Who Really Does the Dishes?"

Alexandra C. Achen and Frank P. Stafford, University of Michigan
Working paper, September, 2005

Direct respondent reports of time use are commonly found to exceed estimates from diary based measures. In addition it is common to have proxy reports of time in household chores and market work. Here we show that for core housework, as reported in the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID), married men are likely to report greater weekly hours of core housework for themselves than hours reported for them by their wives. For market work hours in the PSID, based on a comprehensive reconstruction of market work over the calendar year, there is little impact of proxy reports by the spouse. Moreover, the average hours of market work align with external diary estimates. From page 12: "Once labor variables are included for both spouses, the effects observed for wage disappear in all but the impact on women’s weekly housework hours of the wife having a job paying more than $15/hr. Having such a job is predicted to decrease a woman’s weekly housework hours by about 1.9 hours per week. Since there is no corresponding increase in housework hours for men when their wives have such jobs, it does not appear that housework hours are being transferred to men. This may mean that women who work, and especially those who work in high-paying jobs, cut back the amount of time they spend on cooking and cleaning by living with a little more dust and baking fewer homemade cookies, or simply that, because both spouses work, these families are more likely to be able to hire someone to do housework while both spouses maintain careers."

John H. Johnson IV (2004)
"Do Long Work Hours Contribute to Divorce?",
Topics in Economic Analysis & Policy: Vol. 4: No. 1, Article 24.

Despite frequent claims in the popular press that Americans are working longer hours to the detriment of their families, little academic research has directly tested this proposition. I provide new descriptive evidence on the link between work hours of married couples and the likelihood that a couple will get divorced. Using samples of working couples from the Survey of Income and Program Participation, I uncover several key facts: First, the incidence of divorce is much greater when both spouses are working than when only one spouse is employed. Second, the work hours of women are more highly correlated with divorce than are the work hours of men. Finally, despite these robust correlations, it is difficult to attribute a causal effect of work hours to divorce propensity.

(If the data Johnson uses is drawn from the SIPP, it would be nationally representative, not specific to college-educated "career women." The author may indeed have separated the findings by socioeconomic groups, but it's not mentioned in the abstract.)

"Wives’ Employment and Spouses’ Marital Happiness
Assessing the Direction of Influence Using Longitudinal Couple Data"
Journal of Family Issues
, April 2006
Robert Schoen, Stacy J. Rogers, Paul R. Amato

The authors investigate the direction of the relationship between marital happiness and wives’ full-time employment using the 1987 to 1988 and 1992 to 1994 waves of the National Survey of Families and Households. First, the authors predict change in wives’ employment between the two waves using marital happiness and other Time 1 characteristics. The results show that shifting into full-time employment is more likely for unhappily married than for happily married wives. Second, they examine how changes in wives’ employment between Times 1 and 2 influence marital stability and changes in marital happiness. The authors find that contrary to frequently invoked social and economic theories, wives’ full-time employment is associated with greater marital stability. Nonetheless, changes in wives’ employment have no significant effect on how marital quality changes between Times 1 and 2.

"Continuity and Change in Marital Quality Between 1980 and 2000"
Paul R. Amato, David R. Johnson, Alan Booth, Stacy J. Rogers
Journal of Marriage and Family, February 2003

We use data from two national surveys of married individuals -- one from 1980 and the other from 2000 --to understand how three dimensions of marital quality changed during this period. Marital happiness and divorce proneness changed little between 1980 and 2000, but marital interaction declined significantly. A decomposition analysis suggested that offsetting trends affected marital quality. Increases in marital heterogamy, premarital cohabitation, wives' extended hours of employment, and wives' job demands were associated with declines in multiple dimensions of marital quality. In contrast, increases in economic resources, decision-making equality, nontraditional attitudes toward gender, and support for the norm of lifelong marriage were associated with improvements in multiple dimensions of marital quality. Increases in husbands' share of housework appeared to depress marital quality among husbands but to improve marital quality among wives.

"Infidelity In Committed Relationships II: A Substantive Review"
Blow, Adrian J, Hartnett, Kelley
Journal of Marital & Family Therapy; April 2005

This article, a follow-up on our methodological review of infidelity studies, provides a substantive review of the research findings on infidelity in committed relationships. The aim of this article is to present the most conclusive findings available to both researcher and practitioner on the subject of infidelity. We highlight attitudes toward infidelity; prevalence data; types of infidelity; gender dynamics and infidelity; issues in the primary relationship and their relationship to infidelity; race, culture, and infidelity; education, income, employment, and infidelity; justifications for infidelity; individual issues and their relationship to infidelity; same-sex couples and infidelity; attachment and infidelity; opportunity and infidelity; the aftermath and recovery process from infidelity; and clinical practices.


"Infidelity In Committed Relationships I: A Methodological Review"
Blow, Adrian J, Hartnett, Kelley
Journal of Marital & Family Therapy; April 2005

Infidelity is perhaps the most complex issue encountered by couple therapists. Although clinical literature, opinion, and speculation on this topic are abundant, research literature is sparse. What little available research exists is, in most cases, neither robust nor helpful to the practicing therapist. This article provides, in both narrative and table format, a comprehensive methodological review of the available research literature on infidelity from 1980 to present. Topics addressed in the narrative include the lack of a consensus on the definition of infidelity; design challenges, such as retrospective research, confidentiality, measures, and variables; and sampling issues, such as diversity and randomization.

"Marriage and divorce's impact on wealth"
Journal of Sociology, Volume 41, No 4, 2005
Jay L. Zagorsky

What impact do marriage and divorce have on wealth? US data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY79), which tracks individuals in their 20s, 30s and early 40s, show that over time single respondents slowly increase their net worth. Married respondents experience per person net worth increases of 77 percent over single respondents. Additionally, their wealth increases on average 16 percent for each year of marriage. Divorced respondents’ wealth starts falling four years before divorce and they experience an average wealth drop of 77 percent. While in percentage terms divorce hurts women more than men, the absolute difference is relatively small in the US.

"What Do Social Scientists Know About the Benefits of Marriage?
A Review of Quantitative Methodologies"

David C, Rebar
Discussion Paper, No. 998, January 2004

"Marriage is positively associated with a large number of outcomes including improved cognitive, emotional and physical well-being for children, better mental and physical health for adults, and greater earnings and consumption for family members. While the associations between marriage and various measures of well-being have been convincingly established, they do not, by themselves, make a compelling case that marriage has beneficial effects. As with many other types of social science data, the empirical relationships are likely to be confounded by problems of reverse causality and spurious correlation from omitted variables. Because of this, we cannot be sure whether the observed relationships reflect marriage making people better off, better-off people being more likely to marry, or some combination of the two."

The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or policy positions of the MMO or its staff.
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