THE BLOG
06/02/2014 05:13 pm ET | Updated Aug 02, 2014

The Upside of 'Marrying Down'

Nerida McMurray Photography via Getty Images

Today, a successful single woman who falls for a man making less money than she does, or with less lofty career ambitions, may face some not-so-subtle disapproval from friends and family. One client of mine reported being told: "I'm surprised you haven't found someone who is more your equal." Or simply, "I think you can do better." Another felt insulted when a trusted friend asked: "Are you sure you wouldn't be happier with a man who is making more money than you?"

These women were in love with solid, supportive guys who share their values, men who are not driven by money. They dreaded the concerned whispers from friends or family who persisted in believing that these bright women were "marrying down."

As a couples therapist, the notion of marrying up vs. marrying down strikes me as impossibly antiquated -- something right out of "Downton Abbey," where suitable marriages were entirely a matter of matching people according to social class and fortune (hence the panic when Lord Grantham's youngest daughter marries their Irish chauffeur!).

The notion that women should "marry up" endured well past the heyday of the English gentry. The most sucessful breadwinners were considered the most desirable mates, so an "Alpha" male who was a good provider was a "catch." Well into the 20th century, relatively few high-paying jobs were available to women, so for the most part, women went to college to get their M.R.S., or maybe to land the kind of post-graduation employment that would put them in proximity to the right professional men.

In 2014, more women than men are graduating from college and graduate school. Pew Research, which has been compiling data on the topic over the past 50 years, reports that for the first time, "the share of couples in which the wife is the one 'marrying down' educationally is higher than those in which the husband has more education." The report also notes that "in 2012, 27 percent of newlywed women married a spouse whose education level was lower than theirs. By contrast, only 15 percent of newlywed men married a spouse with less education."

While it doesn't necessarily follow that more education leads to greater earning power, in 97 percent of cities in the U.S., college-educated women under 30 make as much money as men in the highly paying professions of finance, medicine, and law. Across all social classes, women now contribute 45 percent of household income. And most remarkably, in 25 percent of marriages, women are the breadwinners, and this percentage has risen rapidly year after year. With the changing social and economic landscape, educated women are facing a new challenge when it comes to selecting suitable partners.

For most strong, successful women, the Alpha male of old is not the best match. I have seen in my practice what happens when two dominant personalities engage in power struggles. The Alpha male will assume that his priorities should dominate, while the Alpha woman will not want to back down. These are the most difficult duos to treat because their personalities are too similar.

Over the past 30 years, says Stephanie Coontz, director of public education at the Council on Contemporary Families at the University of Chicago, "egalitarian values have become increasingly important to relationship success." Confident, dominant women need smart, collaborative partners more than they need breadwinners. They need men who are not threatened by their strength and will support their goals. These men are secure enough in their own skin to follow as well as lead. They value partnership, parenting, and pulling their own weight. They work, but are not workaholics. Problem is, society -- like those whispering family and friends I mentioned earlier--sometimes devalues such men because they don't adhere to traditional standards of masculinity... even though those standards should no longer apply in today's world.

"Marrying down" implies a whole host of prejudices along those lines. Telling women "you can do better"begs the question: By whose standards? I was recently at a dinner party and heard a father rip into a prospective son-in-law because he was an antique furniture restorer. The fact that his daugther's boyfriend was highly educated and deeply knowledgeable about 17th and 18th century art meant little to this man. He wanted his daughter to marry a rich, powerful man, preferably a Wall Streeter. Those of us who witnessed this exchange all vociferously challenged him. The young man and the daughter were perfectly matched in intellect and values, and she was a professional with her own career.

We all look for approval from our peers and family. In these situations only the most secure women can retort: "I think he is great for me. I need someone like him." I always advise women who are facing the negativity of outdated values to be true to themselves. What high-achieving women need is a man strong enough to support their achievements, contribute to the household in services and/or money, and be a loving partner. Strong women will reap the benefit of this kind of respectful, responsible Beta man; he will be more flexible, more nurturing, and more willing to share the reponsibilities of children and balancing work with family life.

Attitudes are slowly changing: According to Pew, only 28 percent of respondents agreed that it is "generally better for a marriage if the husband earns more than the wife." But there's still a long way to go: Economists at the University of Chicago School of Business found that women are leery of making more than their husbands do, and may even choose to stay out of the workplace if they think there's a danger of earning more than their husbands.

Old ideas die hard. But today's romances more and more reflect that smart women and men are neither marrying up or marrying down -- we're just marrying the right person.

This piece was originally published in the Wall Street Journal on April 18th, 2014. All rights reserved.

By Sonya Rhodes, PhD, and Susan Schneider, authors of The Alpha Woman Meets Her Match: How Today's Strong Women Can Find Love and Happiness Without Settling (William Morrow, April 2014). Don't miss a new lecture and workshop series hosted by Dr. Rhodes, Relationship Rules for the Alpha Woman: A New Monthly Seminar on Career and Commitment. To sign up, just email askdrrhodes@gmail.com . New York City. Time and date TBA.