The new trophy wife: alpha women are highly sought-after partners at the law firm and at the altar. How does the 21st-century groom feel about that?
Pete Beeman, a 36-year-old sculptor, met Page Fortna, 34, on New Year's Eve 1997, while she was studying for a doctorate in political science. "I was totally impressed that she was getting a Ph.D.," recalls Beeman. She has a powerhouse background that speaks of personal drive and dedication. It was attractive, not in a sexual way, but in a necessary way. I'm not interested in someone who doesn't have as much to offer me as I have to offer her."
Massimo Tassan-Solet met Karin Dauch at an Internet merger party in 2000. She introduced herself to the derivatives trader, now 36, by announcing, "Hi, I'm Karin, and I have to go now." "She was strong and unconventional in her approach, but she did it with humor," recalls Tassan-Solet of Dauch, who at age 29 owns doubleKappa, a Web design and branding company. "I don't look at people as a list of what they've done," says Tassan-Solet. "But what she's done is remarkable."
Beeman and Tassan-Solet aren't the only newlyweds who are proud of their wives' CVs. New trends in the mating game--marrying someone like yourself--plus an unstable economy breathe new life into the term "peer marriage." In previous generations, successful doctors, lawyers and bankers sought wives who looked good, were well-bred and made a mean Stroganoff to boot. Now, more and more alpha males are looking for something else from the A-list: accomplishment.
According to a recent Match.com poll, 48 percent of men (and an equal percentage of women) report dating partners who draw the same income they do. Twenty percent of men report dating women who earn more. Jim Pak, 34, was introduced to Kristin Ketner, 38, a Harvard MBA and a hedge fund manager, through a mutual friend, who warned him not to be intimidated by her credentials. She was a research analyst for Goldman Sachs; he was unemployed and playing a lot of golf. "In certain regards, she outshines me," says Pak of his wife. "She's more accomplished academically. People may be more impressed with her than with me." (Pak is now chief financial officer at an electronic stock
Men's attraction to professionally achieving mates is one piece of a much larger story. "We're experiencing a historic change in the things people want out of marriage, the reasons they enter into it and stay in it," says historian Stephanie Coontz of Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. Men in their 20s and 30s embarking on first marriages are relieved to no longer be the sole breadwinner and decision-maker, a burden many watched their fathers shoulder. "These men are truly redefining masculinity," says Terrence Real, a psychologist and author of How Can I Get Through to You? Closing the Intimacy Gap Between Men and Women. And the pursuit of a high-achiever is not solely the province of youth. Status-conscious tycoons want to have second marriages--and affairs--with alpha women. "Older men now want the most impressive achiever in the office. In the eyes of a man's peers, the woman with the career and degrees counts for more than Miss America," says Frank Pittman, psychiatrist to Atlanta's elite. "Status is attached to a woman who is successful, not to a woman with a perfectly pear-shaped ass."
Common wisdom holds that men are socially programmed and biologically compelled to select women based on beauty and youth, physical traits that signal reproductive health. But many men today date "across" and, increasingly, "up" the axes of education and achievement, with less regard for age, or for the notorious "arm candy" factor.
"There's a higher degree of parity today between marital partners," observes Pak. "Men want a wife who reflects well in every aspect." In some circles, more eyebrows are raised when a guy marries a woman who doesn't match him in education or professional status. Says David, * a single 33-year-old assistant professor at a prestigious university who routinely filters online dating ads using the criterion of education: "If I were with someone who wasn't of comparable intelligence, energy and drive, there'd be those who thought I'd wimped out and chosen a relationship where I could call the shots and be the all-powerful center."
"Showing up with a stacked bubblehead is like conspicuous consumption," agrees Real. "It's embarrassing to flag yourself as not interested in a real relationship."
But is a woman's success sexy?
"Absolutely," says David. "And the absence of an attempt to do something interesting or difficult is a turnoff." Henry Kissinger may have been right: Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.
RISE OF THE POWER BRIDE
When Scott South, a sociologist at the University at Albany, State University of New York, examined the characteristics most desirable to black and white men ages 19 to 35, he found that a woman's ability to hold a steady job mattered more than her age, previous marriages, maternal status, religion or race. Men were more willing to marry women with more, rather than less, education than they themselves had. A wise move, since women today eclipse men in the rates at which they attain bachelor's and master's degrees, and the number of women pursuing higher education continues to steadily climb.
Many of today's grooms believe that through positive or negative example, their own moms set the stage for a high-octane wife. After his parents separated when he was 12, Jim Pak watched his mother raise three kids while pursuing an advanced degree in art history. "That kind of role model helps you not be intimidated by highly motivated, successful women," he says. Others view their mothers' lives as cautionary tales. "My mom was very unhappy that she had little energy for anything other than raising her four kids," says a groom who recently married a woman who works in finance. "I wouldn't want to marry someone who felt that unfulfilled."
"Our generation is highly cognizant of the divorce rate," adds Pak. "We learned from our parents' mistakes."
But it's not always easy. Charting a marital course markedly different from that of one's parents means there's no role model to consult. And today's alpha woman expects more of a domestic partnership--and an emotional connection--than her husband may have seen growing up. "Women are demanding more emotionally because logistically they don't have to get married," says Real. "They want guys to be articulate and open about their feelings." The trouble, finds Real, is that "most men today are not trained to do those things."
A solution to this impasse, says Barry McCarthy, a psychologist in Washington, D.C., who works with many high-achieving couples, is for spouses to communicate their expectations from the get-go: "It's great that the man is no longer the success object and the woman is no longer the sex object. But when people organize their lives differently from their cultures or families of origin, they have to make it work practically and emotionally. You have to negotiate before [marriage] how you're going to deal with the core issues of sex, money and kids."
THE UNROMANTIC BOTTOM LINE
There's another pragmatic reason men prize new high-earning brides. Our romantic ideals are always grounded in economic realities, from the Victorian marriage model to the 1980s masters of the universe for whom a standard-issue trophy wife was a badge of honor. Today's bearish market calls for couples to act as an economic unit. Families with two breadwinners have been in the majority since 1998, and single twentysomethings' and thirtysomethings' desire for a two-income merger has intensified in the shadow of the recession. Women still earn less than men (78 cents to the male dollar) and seriously lag in the highest-paying sectors, like engineering, investment banking and high tech. But wives have been catching up to or surpassing their husbands since the 1980s, particularly among the well-off. (Of wives who earn more than $100,000, one in three is now married to a husband earning less.)
"It used to be that men were a good catch because they were high earners. It now looks like this applies to women, too," says University of Wisconsin economist Maria Cancian, who recently teamed up with Megan Sweeney, a University of California, Los Angeles sociologist, to study the increased importance of wives' wages.