Suzanne Venker: My message for women -- 'Marrying down' is nothing to celebrate

Remember the days when mothers told their daughters not to overshadow boys with their intelligence and to instead act, well, a little less smart? Such advice has become antiquated.

A record 25 percent of husbands are now marrying wives who have more education than the man of the house. 

As someone who comes from a long line of educated women, I can neither relate to nor support the idea of women playing dumb in the presence of men. Such behavior would attract the wrong type of guy. Good men like smart women.

Nevertheless, the new reality of many women outpacing men educationally and sometimes financially has serious implications for marriage.

The new reality of many women outpacing men educationally and sometimes financially has serious implications for marriage.

Though we don’t hear much about it, hypergamy – the preference of most women to marry “up” – is still alive and well, as America’s single men can attest. Women have always preferred to marry men of a higher rank, or men who make more money (or have the capacity to make more money due to their career choices).

Hypergamy doesn’t exist because women are greedy. (Well, some are, I suppose; but that’s a side issue.) It exists because pregnancy, childbirth and the needs of babies invariably make women vulnerable.

It’s well-documented that most women leave the workforce for a period of time after they have children and thus need a husband on whom they can rely for a period of time. If a woman has married “down,” she will be less likely to have this as an option. It’s a predicament that can, and often does, foster resentment. At the very least, it creates financial strain that can weaken the marriage.

Another problem with women marrying down is that the sociological data on divorce rates among this group are grim. One reason is that at some point down the line, many of these wives lose respect for or become dissatisfied with their low-achieving husbands. This is either because the two don’t share the same drive, or because the man’s inability to earn enough money puts undue pressure on the wife to produce.

In 2013 researchers from Washington University in St. Louis studied data from 200,000 married couples in Denmark. They found that when women earned more than their husbands, they were more likely to use anti-anxiety medications and more likely to suffer from insomnia. One might conclude from this study that women, as a rule, aren’t wired to be providers.

Husbands, on the other hand, are emboldened when they take on this role. Men are made to provide and protect for their families. When they’re stripped of this power, it isn’t pretty. As just one example, a 2010 Cornell University study found that a man is more likely to cheat on his partner if he’s more financially dependent on her.

Being more educated or making more money than one’s husband may not seem like a big deal before the kids come along. But for many women, once they become mothers their careers become less important – or at the very least lack the weight and urgency they used to.

Just the opposite is true for men. Their careers become more important once they become fathers.

This is why swimming with, not against, this evolutionary tide is smart. When we fight it, things go awry.

That’s what happened to Caryn, a woman who wrote to me and said it was never her intention to become the family breadwinner. But she has a college degree, and her husband does not – so it just “sort of happened.” Caryn has always worked, while her husband’s employment has been sporadic at best.

This dynamic didn’t seem to matter prior to kids, said Caryn, since “our expenses were low and our savings high.” But once children arrived, it all changed.

“I didn’t think (my husband’s lack of ambition) would translate to a lifelong sense of complacency living paycheck to paycheck,” Caryn said. “But alas, it has.”

Caryn added: “Where I went wrong was to assume I wouldn’t want or need a breadwinner husband. Thus, I dismissed clear signs that the man I loved wouldn’t become one. And that has everything to do with living in a culture that claims men and women are ‘equal,’ as in the same. I know now that they are not. Yes, the life I have today is a product of my choices. But culture matters.”

Indeed it does. Pretending that women surpassing men educationally and financially is a good thing – because we’re enlightened now and believe in equality – is foolish. Every married couple feels “equal,” or the same, until the kids arrive. It is afterward that our differences become glaring.

And the more we ignore them, the more precarious our marriages will be.

Suzanne Venker is the author of five books on marriage, feminism and gender politics. Her latest book is "The Alpha Female’s Guide to Men & Marriage: HOW LOVE WORKS." Find her on Twitter@SuzanneVenker.