Modern marriages making room for more-educated wives

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 Education and divorce

Education and divorce (Peter Dazeley, Photographer's Choice)

Wives with more education than their husbands no longer have a higher risk for divorce. Yippee! But, wait, they used to?

For couples married between 1950 and 1979, if a wife had a higher level of education than her husband, their marriage was one-third more likely to end in divorce than a marriage in which couples had equal education levels or the husband had more education.

"That started changing in the '80s and early '90s," says Christine R. Schwartz, associate professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and lead author of an American Sociological Review study released Sunday.

In the United States, it wasn't until the early '90s that wives' education levels, on the whole, began to exceed their husbands', according to the study. That's consistent with what was happening in the general population: Women began graduating from college at higher rates than men in the mid-'80s — and have continued to do so.

Given those statistics, Schwartz set out to determine whether men and women today are entering marriages that are increasingly more likely to end in divorce.

They're not.

"Marriages in which wives have the education advantage were once more likely to dissolve, but this association has disappeared in more recent marriage cohorts," write Schwartz and co-author Hongyun Han, a research data analyst at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine.

It's difficult to pinpoint why, exactly. But Schwartz has a few theories.

"There's the selection argument," she says. "The type of people willing to enter into those types of arrangements might view marriage as more egalitarian, and research shows men with more egalitarian values have marriages that are less likely to be unstable."

And status, particularly as defined by education level, may matter less to couples than it used to, she speculates.

"It used to really matter that men were the providers and the head of the household and anything that threatened that status — including a wife's education — could lead to marital instability," she says. "It could be that how people are supposed to behave in marriages, based on their gender, has changed."

And it could be, of course, that a more-educated wife married to a less-educated husband is just so darn normal now.

"The most common arrangement today is still husbands and wives sharing the same education level," Schwartz says. "But when the levels are not equal, it's more common for wives to have more education than their husbands than the reverse."

Regardless of the factors leading to the shift, Schwartz sees it as good news for gender equality.

"A lot of evidence has been amassed about markers of gender equality stalling in the '90s — women and wives' labor-force participation, the gender pay gap, the progress of integrating women into traditionally male high-status occupations," Schwartz says. "This is a kind of counterpoint to those arguments that the gender revolution has stalled."

Particularly, she says, if these longer-lasting unions are more equal partnerships — a topic Schwartz would like to research down the road.

"You could look at time-use studies and see whether the marriages really look a lot more egalitarian in terms of housework," she says. "There are a lot of implications for these marriage outcomes in terms of balance of power and what happens within those relationships."

hstevens@tribune.com

Twitter @heidistevens13

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