Inequality in Marriage
Recently I met a friendly young woman Mormon woman. She had just gotten off her mission and was doing some child care work full time. She told me about her social life, mentioning that she had a boyfriend who was working on a professional degree from an Ivy League school. I asked her about her own educational plans and discovered that she has not done any college at all. She hopes someday to do some college, but her educational plans seemed a bit murky.
As we talked, I could feel my chest tighten a bit with anxiety for her. This young woman might marry a man with a professional Ivy League degree. And she might not have a single college course to her name when she does so. It might turn out to be a fine marriage. Maybe he’s socially awkward and he’ll adore her outgoing chatty personality. Maybe they’ll balance each other out just great in other ways. And yet I couldn’t help but think of the serious power differentials between them, should they decide to marry soon.
As I walked away from the conversation, I wondered about not only the wisdom of two people marrying when they have such disparate financial and career potential, but also on the morality of it. Is it moral to participate in a sexual relationship (married or not) when one partner has such greater power – social, financial, etc.? Can there be relationships of true equality and true partnership when one partner has had vast opportunities and educational experiences, and one has not?
Several years ago I took a class on sexual ethics, and I was struck when I read Margaret Farley’s ideas about just sexual relationships. Margaret Farley is a Catholic nun and a preeminent ethicist. In laying out the groundwork of a just sexual relationship, she mentioned seven norms, one of which was equality. She said,
“Major inequalities in social and economic status, age and maturity, professional identity, interpretations of gender roles, and so forth, can render sexual relations inappropriate and unethical primarily because they entail power inequalities — and hence, unequal vulnerability, dependence, and limitation of options.”
Notice that Farley says, “can render” not “absolutely will render.” But I think her caution about vast disparity in economic and social status is something worth thinking about. And I can’t get over my feeling of dread that this young woman would be entering this marriage at a significant disadvantage. Her vulnerabilities seem so much starker than his. Will she have enough power in the relationship to demand equitable treatment? Will she have the resources to leave the marriage and provide for herself and her children if it proves untenable?
What are your thoughts about two people marrying with vastly different educational experience and professional potential? Have you seen such marriage work out just fine? How important is somewhat comparable educations when contemplating marriage?