Sex & Relationships

The Screwed-Up Ideas Underpinning Modern Marriage

We are still burdened with antiquated ideas about what men and women are supposed to look for and expect in a spouse.

This article was originally published atRole/Reboot.

There is a seismic shift afoot that affects all aspects of what it means to be a man or a woman. Census data reveal part of the story: Women have been outpacing men in bachelor’s degrees since 1996 and, for the first time, more women now have advanced degrees than men, too. Women now make up the (slight) majority of the workforce and, in 147 out of 150 of the biggest cities in the U.S., young women’s salaries are higher than those of their male peers (although this applies only to single, childless women under 30 in urban areas—the pay gap which favors men remains elsewhere).The generation coming of age today grew up with the belief that women can do everything men can do. More men than ever before are taking on the primary caregiver role and, in almost one quarter of marriages, the woman makes more money than the man. After years of the fight for equality, true collegiality and partnership between genders appears closer than ever before. 

Yet our attitudes about whom we are supposed to marry has barely changed. We are still burdened with antiquated ideas about what men and women are supposed to look for and expect in a spouse. These traditional and deeply embedded ideas are on a collision course with the facts on the ground.  If straight women continue to seek men with superior education and earnings to “take care of them” (even in situations where, at least financially, women are perfectly able to take care of themselves) and if men continue to only be comfortable in the “superior” position, we can expect to see many more frustrated and lonely mate seekers. 

This dilemma has been written about extensively in recent months and years.  The most recent is an April article in the Daily Caller by Kay Hymowitz. Despite the fast-growing educational disparity which favors women, she suggests that the so-called fairer sex is unlikely to be “willing” to start “marrying down” (her word choices) anytime soon. The whole notion of marrying down is clearly fraught with problems since it only accounts for two measures--educational attainment and income--which aren’t always reliable proxies for intelligence or success in the real world. But Hymowitz’s article really touched a nerve. Unfortunately, amidst all the commentary a painfully obvious point was lost.

It’s only marrying down when women do it.

Despite the existing barriers to gender equality still enshrined in our policies, the biggest obstacle we face, when it comes accepting how demographic shifts are upending traditional gender roles for men and women, is deeply cultural. No one--not men or women--wants to “marry down.”  But in the game of love, it’s a gender-biased label.

Really think about this: Even in 2011, when a wealthy, educated man marries a less wealthy, less educated (and frequently younger) woman, we often assume the couple reflects the natural order of things. If anything, we may question whether the woman in these pairings is a “gold-digger,” but we rarely ask why a man would select a spouse not perceived to be his “equal.” We usually just shrug our shoulders in a fatalistic way: “That’s men!”

Culturally, we understand and accept that men seek female partners for support other than financial when entering into a marriage. Men with wives who possess less education, or who make less money than they do, are presumed to value other qualities like emotional support, domestic compatibility, good parenting potential, and physical chemistry, among many, many others. And that’s fine.

But when we talk about women marrying men who are less wealthy or less educated than they are, something doesn’t sit right. We revert to the language of defeat, or settling, hence the question of whether women will marry down. Suddenly, the traits and criteria men naturally prioritize in wives seem like odd choices for women to value in potential husbands. Even for enlightened thinkers, these roles are deeply socialized and culturally reinforced. In fact, one of the most simultaneously challenging and liberating aspects of gay marriages (or relationships) is that there aren’t strictly prescribed gender roles to fall back on.

Hymowitz has her own theory about why straight women won’t marry down: she says when it comes to marriage, we’re ultimately snobs, and we want to produce smart kids who will thrive in a knowledge-based economy. Of course, as Will Wilkinson points out, the more obvious reason smart, successful women typically want to marry equally educated and financially successful men is simply that they want someone like them; they want someone who “gets” them.

But this is where the new reality of marriage becomes a numbers game: if you look at the data, it would appear that heterosexual women are either going to have to marry less (no judgement there; I’m not here to “sell” marriage) or some are going to have to marry men with less education and income than they have. Already, fewer adults are married and the age of first marriage is climbing for both genders. Now the question is whether women’s criteria for a spouse will shift and expand. Hymowitz thinks no. But I think it will, and it should.

The reality is that 22% of households already have what is often termed “breadwinner wives” (Admittedly, I don’t know about educational attainment in these households). That’s hardly an anomaly. We can go down this path kicking and screaming, bemoaning The End of Men, or hand-wringing over whether manhood can survive the recession. Or, we can stop, take a collective deep breath, and recognize that we have the opportunity to re-imagine what it means to be a “real man” and to liberate men from what--even in 2011--is still a pretty limited view of manhood. Gender equality can no longer be only about addressing women's subordination; it requires recognizing the restrictions this arrangement has placed on men, as well.

Frankly, it’s a confusing time to be a young man. Everyone is telling guys they’re destined to fare worse than their fathers’ generation and their employment and financial prospects are dwindling.  But our culture also pays lip service to the idea that a new man can embrace his emotional side, can be a nurturer, and should be valued for more than his wallet. But that’s often drowned out by calls to “man up” by beer commercials, political candidates, and sports commentators. Who are young men supposed to be?  Don Draper? Phil Dunphy? A stoic sports hero? A slacker in an Apatow film?  It’s no wonder we’re all confused about what we’re supposed to bring to the table in a marriage and what we’re looking for: We’re talking to men and women out of both sides of our mouth.

For women, true marriage equality means getting comfortable marrying up, down, sideways, or diagonal. It’s hard to imagine progressing on this path if women can’t learn to redefine spousal support beyond the financial, like men always have. If women don’t value men who take on more traditionally “feminine” roles, then we’re going to have to stop complaining when men devalue “women’s work.”

At my organization, we think of ourselves as role-rebooters, navigating a world built on outdated assumptions about “traditional” men and women's roles and supporting the new reality of our day-to-day lives. We’re at the beginning of a pretty significant shift in the social, political, and economic dynamics that have dominated marriages for decades. These changes feel tumultuous when you’re on the inside, re-writing the rules, but they will eventually benefit both men and women immensely if we can learn to embrace them. When it comes to modern marriage, it’s time to ditch the antiquated expectations that serve to limit rather than liberate us, and to bravely forge a new path, together.

Nicole Rodgers is the President and co-founder of Role/Reboot, an organization navigating a world built on outdated assumptions about men and women's roles and advocating ways to support the changing reality of our day-to-day lives.