Your social status could be more important in your marriage than you think, study suggests

Two professors have done a study on the effects on relationships when women have higher-status jobs.

Changing roles for women have changed their expectations of the men in their lives

A study co-authored by a professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland highlights the stress created in a marriage when the woman has higher career status than her husband. (CBC)

Have you ever heard of the so-called "Oscar Curse"?

That's when the winner of the Best Actress award files for divorce after winning the gold statue. Among its supposed victims are some of Hollywood's biggest stars — Sandra Bullock, Halle Berry and Kate Winslet, to name a few. 

Now the concept of the Oscar Curse features in a study co-written by a professor at Memorial University about the partner relationships of women who have high status. It looked at something dubbed "status leakage," which happens when a woman is in a position of power and status and resents her husband's lower status. 

The study, When She Brings Home the Status: Wives' Status, Status Leakage and Marital Instability, was done by Alyson Byrne, a professor at Memorial University's School of Business, and Julian Barling, Smith School of Business, Queen's University.

Alyson Byrne says that while her study shows the resentment some women have for the men in their lives, it's not all doom and gloom for relationships. (Glenn Payette/CBC )

The methodology of the study was focused on interviews with 209 women in high status positions. 

"What we found was women whose husbands did not have the same status levels as theirs … were embarrassed and resentful for it. They were also less happy in their marriage."

"They were feeling greater levels of conflict in their marriage."

Byrne said some of the women were taking things further.

"They talked to their friends about potentially leaving their spouse," she said. "They had consulted a lawyer."

What does 'higher status' mean, anyway?

Byrne and Barling surveyed women in executive positions, CEOs, and university dean-level positions in married or common-law heterosexual relationships.

Byrne said you can also put doctors, lawyers, principals, even teachers on that list, depending on the status of the men they married.

She says the concept of "higher status" is relative.

An example of changing times and status for women. All of the women in this picture from provincial court in St. John's are lawyers. (Glenn Payette/CBC)

For example, if a female teacher with more education marries a man who stocks shelves for a living, her status would be higher, and over time, she might become resentful.

"We asked them things like, 'If you went to the company Christmas party, are you embarrassed to bring your spouse? Do you wish your partner had a higher level of job status?'" said Byrne.

"We did follow up with these women three years after we had first collected their data, and found that the desire to leave the marriage and the dissatisfaction with the marriage was still present, three years later."

According to census numbers, 60 per cent of graduates from universities in Canada between the ages of 25-29 are women. (Glenn Payette/CBC News)

Byrne said that some of the women surveyed had left their marriages, while others stayed.

"There's a whole host of reasons why people leave a marriage. There are so many reasons why people stay in marriages, even unhappy ones," she said.

"It could be for the kids. It could be for religious purposes. It could be for financial barriers."

'Those couples tend to be OK'

But Byrne said just because a woman has a better job and greater status than her husband, it doesn't have to be a miserable marriage.

"I don't want people to think, 'I earn more than my husband, our marriage is doomed,'" she said. "That's not the case at all."

"We found that when husbands provided their spouses with tangible support — child care, domestic work, elder support, it signals to the wives, 'I'm supported at home.'"

"Those couples tend to be OK," she said. 

It's a simple reality that more women than men are graduating from university in Canada these days.

"We are socialized to think that men are the higher breadwinners," Byrne said. "But be realistic about the changing roles in society."

"Women are entering education at higher levels: MBAs, law school, medicine, and we don't want that to stop."

PhD student Melanie Hurley says she would be in a relationship with a man of lower status, but he'd have to pull his weight around the house. (Glenn Payette/CBC)

Melanie Hurley is one of them. Now working on her PhD in English at Memorial University, Hurley said she would marry a man with a lower status, but her expectations fit with what Byrne and Barling found in their study.

"If I was the person making more money, or the major breadwinner, I would want some sort of parity in terms of housework or child rearing," said Hurley.

"There are only so many hours in the day, so you certainly need help with other aspects of your life."

Ditto said marine biology major MacGregor Parent. "I wouldn't expect a university degree, but they would have to show me that they care [by doing] housework."

Also at MUN, research assistant in oceanography Sandra Ketelhake, who has a master of arts degree, says a relationship with a man of lower status can last if they are of similar intellect and can keep the lines of communication open.

"It's more about the things you can talk about, you are thinking about … things that are important to both of us," says Ketelhake.

Talk, talk, talk

Study co-author Byrne said if two people are getting into a long-term relationship, and she has the higher status, talking things through is key. 

"I know it's not exactly exciting in the beginning of a relationship, when everything is romantic and new, to talk about one's career, but I think it's really important. So, have these conversations early and frequently."

"You don't want to find yourself 20 years down the road wishing you had talked about these things beforehand and find yourself in an unhappy relationship."

Byrne said society has to stop stigmatizing the role of a male supportive spouse.

"A dad who takes parental leave is a really a great thing, as opposed to a negative thing."

"Have conversations with your kids at home. Talk about how it's completely normal for mom and dad to both do housework, and completely normal for mom and dad both to have jobs and love their jobs."

Byrne says with such a shift people will have better odds of having more equality in both the workplace as well as at home in the future.

About the Author

Glenn Payette


A veteran journalist with more than 30 years' experience, Glenn Payette is a videojournalist with CBC News in St. John's.