When Women Marry Beneath Themselves

Throughout history there have been many famous women whose husbands were either complete unknowns, or at least stayed well in the background. This of course was more often than not the exception rather than the rule. Conventional wisdom has usually dictated that a woman will either marry a man having a similar social status, or is better educated, wealthy, or famous. Conventional wisdom has also usually indicated that a woman would never willingly marry beneath herself, if for no other reason than her parents wouldn’t tolerate it. In Wuthering Heights, the young and beautiful Catherine Earnshaw is torn between her love for the lowly, and some would say half-insane Heathcliff, and her love for Squire Edgar. She eventually married “up”, but it could well have gone the other way. Heathcliff was no prize however.


One of my personal recollections is about a marriage that took place many years ago. The wife was the United States Ambassador to a European country. We never knew what her husband did for a living. He mostly stayed in the background, except for attending a reception now and then, and seemed to spend most of his time riding a bicycle and sightseeing. Yet, it was by all accounts a very happy marriage. Maybe we was wealthy, but no one really knew. On the surface, it seemed like a mismatch, but it wasn’t.

And then we had Ozzie and Harriet. It would be tempting to say that Harriet was the one that married down. Ozzie was in theory the head of the household, but it was Harriet that seemed to always be busy doing something worthwhile, while Ozzie stood around in his sweater, mouthing non-too-profound bits of wisdom. We weren’t even sure what Ozzie did for a living, if he did anything. In real life though, the two were apparently happily married, and essentially equals.

That was back at a time when a woman’s place was believed to be in the home, when a young man went to college to get a degree, and young woman went to college to get a young man, or so it seemed. It was a time when a real man liked to say “No wife of mine is ever going to have to work.”

Times have changed. Look at a few photographs of students walking about on a typical college campus, and most of them are young women. Most of those graduating are as well. Some men may not like the idea of marrying a woman that is better educated than he is. If that’s the case, he’d better go back to school.

What does a woman, who is rich and/or famous, see in a man who is not? One successful career woman summed it up rather nicely. She said what she liked best about her husband was that he was comfortable in his own skin. He didn’t lack initiative, nor was he jealous, he just knew who he was, and he was fine with it.

The fact is, nearly a quarter of the women in the United States’ workforce earn more than their husbands do. An even greater percentage of women earn more than men do. It’s not a matter of equal pay for equal work, women still lag behind there. It’s because women are not only catching up with, but getting ahead of men, when it comes to getting an education. As every year goes by, it’s becoming a bit harder to a woman to marry up slightly, and a bit more common for her to marry down slightly.

The good news (for men anyway) is that when a woman earns more than her husband, it generally isn’t by a whopping amount, but only by a few percentage points. Female CEO’s are still very much in the minority, accounting for about 1% of the Fortune 500 CEO positions. It’s also good news, because when the paychecks are about equal, the man no longer has to be the main breadwinner, and quite frankly, some men get tired of being in that role. A two-income household is usually one that is better off, and if one spouse make a bit more than the other, it’s rarely a big deal. There are in fact, a good number of men out there who would prefer to have a job they found to be more rewarding and enjoyable, even if the pay were less.

We’re probably straying off the subject, since when a woman is making 5%-10% more than her husband, she hasn’t exactly married down. A CEO marrying an unskilled laborer? Yes.

For those who are in the process of selecting a mate, there is definitely a trend going on. We don’t notice it on a day-by-day basis, and not even from one year to the next, but going from generation to generation, or even from decade to decade, it’s quite apparent. More and more women are faced with the prospect of marrying down, and more and more men are feeling the pressure of trying to marry up, largely because of their differences in education.

The answer to both parties of course lies in attempting to find out who their potential mate really is, and not now beautiful or handsome that person is, something anyone can see, or how rich or how well educated a person is, which may or may not be quite so visible. As the lady said earlier, she’s happy having a man who is comfortable in his own skin, and that’s something that’s very important, as it has little to do with up or down.

That brings up the subject of the trophy wife. Who is marrying up and who is marrying down? The woman is young and beautiful, even stunning to look at. The man is rich, famous, old, fat and bald, and regards his wife as a status symbol. He is also the sugar daddy. Who’s the smarter of the two? Good question. Maybe we ought to change the definition of a trophy wife to the woman who is well educated, ambitions, an achiever capable of earning a good wage, and who would be a great cook if her equally talented and achieving husband would let her in the kitchen.