The Marital Lives of High-Status Women
High-status women are said to have no luck in love. This belief even has its own pop culture reference, the “Oscar love curse”, that refers to the streak of divorces suffered by female Academy Award winners. It’s true: Best Actress winners are 1.68 times more likely than nominees to file for divorce after winning an Oscar, a phenomenon that doesn’t hold for Best Actor winners.
Researchers have examined the effect of women’s high-status position on men’s feelings toward marriage. So far, the findings haven’t been especially encouraging. The mere thought of their wives earning more than them can increase husbands’ desire to see a male president in power. In households where wives are primary providers, men tend to do less housework than they otherwise would, perhaps in a bid to reassert their masculinity.
Some of this phenomenon can be explained by how husbands view their wives’ success. But how do women, who are primary breadwinners in nearly one-third of dual-income households, feel about bringing home the bacon? And how do those feelings shape their romantic relationships?
Those questions were the focus of a study on 209 females in high status positions led by Alyson Byrne of Memorial University and Julian Barling of Smith School of Business (the two were collaborators at Smith, where Byrne did her PhD studies). Byrne and Barling also surveyed 53 heterosexual couples who were willing to answer questions about their less traditional relationships.
They found that the Oscar curse does indeed affect higher-status women outside of Hollywood. In fact, the indirect impact of women’s roles on their marriages was significant and continued over a three-year period. But the marital instability driven by women’s higher-status roles, Byrne and Barling found, was mostly due to an effect they called “wives' status leakage.” They define this as “the thoughts and feelings that emerge when high job status wives holding higher job status than their husbands respond negatively to their husbands’ lower job status.”
In business, status leakage refers to the effect a merger can have on two firms joining forces: the higher-status organization can “leak” status to the lower-status firm — or the opposite can happen, knocking the respected firm’s status down a notch or two. As it turns out, the same effect can be seen in relationships in which couples’ earnings do not follow gender-normative patterns, with women potentially feeling as if they’ve lost some of their hard-won status by being in a relationship with a less accomplished man.
That feeling is understandable. Women who break traditional gender norms and “marry down” are often judged as socially deficient and unlikeable — meaning their husbands’ relatively lower status can come at a personal cost to their own. The anxiety that results can eat away at a relationship.
“Women can feel embarrassment and resentment towards their partners for not upholding their end of a ‘power couple’ dynamic”
“There’s a whole host of studies that suggest when people lose status or even have thoughts about losing status, they go through all kinds of anxiety and emotions, including fear and concern,” Byrne says.
Women often feel embarrassment, resentment, and frustration towards their partners for not upholding their end of a “power couple” dynamic, and those feelings spill over to affect the quality of their relationship. Since no one lives in a bubble, the dissatisfaction crosses over to their husbands as well, and before long couples find themselves facing marital instability.
Husband Support is a Game Changer
To be clear, none of the women that Byrne and Barling surveyed had extremely high levels of status leakage. “It’s not like they’re disgusted with their partners or anything that extreme,” Byrne says. “It’s low-level, baseline feelings and emotions. But those who even experienced some status leakage tended to see this result in marital instability.”
Between husbands’ threatened masculinity and wives’ status leakage, this can all seem like bad news for women in high-status roles. Byrne and Barling found, however, that one type of spousal support managed to moderate the indirect effects of wives’ status leakage. When husbands provided wives with instrumental support — helping with day-to-day tasks, childcare, or domestic duties — it essentially eliminated the effect of status leakage on marital instability.
“It's almost as if it's a negotiation,” Byrne says. “A husband’s tangible support signals that a wife’s career is going to take precedent. Her career gets to come first, and he’s okay with that. Perhaps it doesn't reflect traditional gender roles, but for those families, it seems to work and override the emotions that might be prevalent in the wife's status leakage.”
Higher-status women frequently do not receive the same marital benefits as higher-status men do in similar familial arrangements
That need for support is especially important considering that higher-status women frequently do not receive the same marital benefits as higher-status men do in similar familial arrangements. Despite being breadwinners, high-status wives often still take on the majority of household duties, which can break down the fair exchange that takes place in stable marriages. When a lower-status husband takes on domestic roles, it signals to his wife that her career takes precedent and frees up her time to pursue those aspirations.
The research by Byrne and Barling also supports the idea that some men no longer seem as intimidated by the thought of their wives earning more than them.
“Husbands are possibly not as threatened by that loss of masculinity as we once thought they were,” says Byrne. “They're looking at their wives' success as being a really joint and shared success rather than an, ‘Oh wow, I'm not much of a man anymore.’ I think they're looking at it as a joint achievement.”
Other research supports that progressive trend. One study by Fairleigh Dickinson University researchers showed that, when faced with gender role threat, some groups of men actually show more partisan, liberal views.
How Organizations Can Help
These interactions may all take place within a marriage, but Byrne believes organizations can play a role in changing these societal norms — and, more importantly, that they should. “Organizations and society benefit in terms of diversity and success when more women are acting in leadership roles,” Byrne says.
Both women and employers, however, need to be aware of the marital cost that can accompany those senior roles and take active steps to counteract them. Otherwise, women may choose to opt out of higher-status roles or risk that their engagement at work suffers due to trouble at home.
Byrne believes business schools and organizations have a responsibility to present this kind of information to women seeking high-status roles — not to discourage them but to raise awareness and show how to navigate these interpersonal challenges.
The research also points to a critical need for organizations to expand their family-friendly policies to fathers, not just mothers, to facilitate family dynamics in which a husband may be the primary caretaker.
By educating employees on the Oscar love curse, organizations can encourage couples to have critical conversations about how they will divide work and family life. Those negotiations, Byrne says, are crucial.
“Can two partners be equally ambitious and successful, and have the family life that they want?” she asks. “We’re not sure, but you have to have those conversations early on to ensure no one gets upset or surprised further down the road. Those conversations need to be honest and realistic, and they need to be revisited periodically.”
Byrne and Barling question whether it is time to change the gendered way in which we view the Oscar curse. They speculate that what might be happening is that women who achieve sufficient status might finally be able to make decisions about staying or leaving a relationship less constrained by financial insecurities. If that is the case, perhaps we need to reframe this as the “Oscar gift”?
— Kenza Moller