Is an advanced degree hazardous to your…marriage?

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Laurie Ruettimann called attention to a recent Wall Street Journal/ article that reported on a study finding that women with advanced degrees were more likely to get divorced then men with comparable educational levels. The rates are highest among MBA’s, but doctors and lawyers were equally susceptible. The study also noted that female professionals were two to three more times more likely than males to be unmarried and not have families.

It’s another one of those things that makes me wonder what year/decade/century we’re living in. Weren’t things supposed to have changed by now?

In her own response to the report, Heather Mundell made a point of something I’ve been known to say myself on the subject of “having it all” – “(D)ecide what you really, really want, because you may not be getting it all, not all at one time anyway.”

It’s an interesting finding, even without digging too deeply into the sociological implications. One question it raises for me is how the educational and earnings levels of the divorced women surveyed compared to those of their (ex-)partners – higher, lower, or in the same range? If they were mostly higher, that makes me wonder about some other recent reports about men’s comfort level with women out-earning them – and about women’s comfort level with doing it. It’s still relatively new, and a shift in the established order. On the other hand, the unmarried, childless “career woman” is a fairly well-established figure, sad to say.

I really wonder how big a role a significant disparity in education and income plays in this. I haven’t ever been the more-educated, higher-earning partner in a relationship, but I know that the degree-level difference between my first husband and me (he’s a Ph.D., now a Ph.D./M.D., and I stopped with a B.S.) was a source of insecurity for me. That evolved over time, though, since we’d met in high school and were peers for our first few years together; I didn’t really feel uneasy about it until he completed grad school, and then it became an ongoing struggle. That sort of insecurity can definitely strain a relationship, especially considering that it may well be one-sided; the more-educated, higher-earning partner may not even see a problem.

Then again, the more-educated, higher-earning partner may feel stress and resentment at carrying more of the financial-support responsibility. The couples who have agreed for one partner to “opt out” career-wise to stay at home with young children are another twist on this situation.

My experience in my first marriage makes me feel that one factor in a couple’s compatibility is comparable educational and income levels – at least, it’s a fairly significant one for me, and we do have it in my second marriage. As far as this study goes, I really hope there’s more to it than what’s been reported, because these conclusions strike me as fairly simplistic and just a bit sad. What do you think?

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  1. My wife and I have the same level of education, but she does earn more than I do. It’s not a problem for me. Or her, for that matter. It might be different if she was a doctor or some other higher level degree and earned triple what I do. It’s hard to say. I think a lot of men would not be so secure about it. I’m not saying I’m special l, but I know a lot of guys I work with would not like it.

  2. Mike – My husband has told me that he would have no problem at all if I made more money than he does, and I believe him. Then again, what he’s really like is a winning lottery ticket, so neither of us would be concerned about how much money we earned. 🙂

    But you’re quite right that a lot of guys wouldn’t be nearly as secure with that as you and Tall Paul are.

  3. I have all sorts of ideas about this! Studies like this have been going around for a long time. Back when I was getting divorced, I bitterly decided that the more educated a woman was the more likely it was that she was smart enough not to be with some crappy man. I stopped thinking all men were crappy about 2 minutes after getting divorced; I think this phenomenon of thinking all men are one way or all women are another way comes from people not wanting to feel like they’re the only one with relationship/communication problems. So they say men are from mars etc. Anyway. Back to my point. At the time, I mentioned reading about one of these studies to my divorce lawyer, just trying to make conversation, and he got extremely defensive and reminded me that HIS wife had a master’s degree. Ha ha. Anyway, I’m married again, and I now have a higher degree than my husband, though he’ll end up with a higher degree than I have, I think. And we’re quite happy, some say disgustingly so. So I think that the real reason women are more likely to divorce if they have a higher degree or income is that they can afford to leave if they’re unhappy. It’s not that more of them are unhappy, as I once thought. Just, the poorer ones with fewer career choices, well, they don’t have as many options.

  4. Dewey – I actually like your observation, bitter or not, about an educated woman knowing she was smart enough not to be with “some crappy man.” But I think that your point about more education/income providing more options for women, including the ability to leave an unhappy relationship and support themselves, is probably very much on target.

  5. In my current relationship, I’m definitely the “more educated.” Lee didn’t do college at all … he was raising his children while I was sitting in lit classes and learning how to drink beer : ). And there is a difference in our incomes. The only time I think this bothers him is when we end up with a group of my friends from college … most of my old crew went much further than me in terms of what they earn and sometimes I think that’s a bit overwhelming to him. One on one, it really doesn’t effect us at all. I remind him that there are a million things I can’t do that he does easily, regardless of my years in school, and that in general his common sense, mechanical aptitude and street smarts way outweigh mine. We see it as strengthening each other through our differences rather than one person having or being more than the other.

    And I too think that the higher divorce rates among more educated women have as much to do with their circumstances as they do with insecurity. A woman with her own high earning potential and career often has more of an identity that isn’t associated with her roles of wife, mother, family member. She’s confident that she can make it on her own, whereas those in other situations may not perceive themselves that way even if they could. So she puts up with less crap. In some cases, this means she gets away from a no-win situation as she should, where another woman may stick it out and suffer. In other situations, it probably means the couple gives up too easily, and walks away from a relationship that could have been saved with better understanding and communication.

  6. Pam – Your point about “sometimes the couple gives up too easily” hit home with me, since I think in some respects it applies to my first marriage; at least, I’m pretty sure there are people we know who perceive our breakup that way. But since we also had the complication of infidelity involved, it’s not so cut and dried. In any case, my ability to support myself wasn’t a limiting factor one way or another.

    You’re also on target about a college education vs. the college “experience” (learning how to drink beer, etc. :-D), and the fact that intelligence comes in various forms.

  7. Pam’s response reminded me that I grew up in a household where my mother was more educated and earned more money than my father–at least once she went back to work. Before that time, she was a stay at home mother (who still had a higher education in terms of college–just didn’t have an income). My dad was much more experienced in life though–he was a career military man and only went to back for his AA degree after retiring from the service. My dad always felt less than in comparison to my mother when I was in my teen years, after my mom went back to work. He didn’t fit in with her school teacher friends and to this day he puts himself down regularly–his wife and children are all smarter than he is, more educated. That isn’t true–us being smarter. No amount of reassurances has ever made a dent in his insecurities.

    Technically, I am more highly educated than my husband–although the difference is so minor. I have a master’s degree and he has a bachelor’s, having dropped out 3/4 of his way through graduate school on his way to getting a master’s degree. So really, we’re about equal in that regard, despite what our diplomas say. I do make quite a bit more money than my husband does, however. Always have. It doesn’t bother us though. We are equals in all ways in our hearts and minds–except maybe when it comes to the housework. LOL

  8. Literary Feline – Tall Paul likes to say he got the “8-year art degree.” He has a BFA, but he took practically every art course the college offered, so it took him awhile to finish :-). If I didn’t work in nonprofit, we’d probably make about the same money or I would out-earn him – and neither of us would be bothered by that.