Independent Women Can Choose to 'Date Down'

Remember when choosing a mate was easy? You and I weren't alive then, of course, but back in the day -- way back -- when humans were just starting out, our needs were simple. All a man needed was a fertile female; all a woman needed was a genetically fit male who could provide her with resources while she carried out the metabolically expensive task of carrying, birthing, and raising offspring (we've always been the more complicated gender). His politics, his taste in music, his values -- none of those things mattered; everything was streamlined. I'll make babies, you keep me alive. Done deal.

As I'm sure you've noticed, a lot has changed in the last 10,000 years. You know, we talk now; we've industrialized; we use birth control. Human life is a whole new ballgame these days. One clear sign of this change may be the fact that there are more and more couples out there who seem to reverse this deeply ingrained relationship pattern. Think Britney and Kevin, or Ashley Judd and her NASCAR racing hubby Dario Franchitti (for real -- note that this headline actually says, "Ashley Judd's Husband wins blah blah blah..." -- not his own name!). Or, if you like your relationships fictional, Miranda Hobbes and Steve Brady on "Sex and the City," Lloyd Dobler and Diane Court in "Say Anything," Will Hunting in his janitor phase and that Skylar chick played by Minnie Driver in "Good Will Hunting."

It makes sense, of course, that relationships like these are cropping up more and more these days. Women are kicking some serious ass when it comes to education and accomplishment. Women are, for example, outnumbering men on more and more college campuses, and in many schools they outperform men. In time, this pattern may tip scales in the working world and beyond, but even now, we've got the cultural upper hand.

Despite all this great progress, though, old habits die-hard -- our gender's preference for hooked-up men seems to linger: one American study found that women still pay more attention to ambition, education, and earning capacity in a mate than men do (appropriately, men still care primarily about physical signs of fecundity).

Now, this preference isn't necessarily a bad one to hold on to -- in some sense, it now translates into our seeking mates who are our equals, rather than our masters (and as my friend's mother always says, "it's just as easy to love a rich man!"). One might wonder, though, how the dating landscape appears differently without these (potentially) unnecessary blinders -- is it foolish not to restrict one's search to men with status, or are we overlooking great contenders based on an anachronistic partiality? The answer, of course, is that it depends what you're really looking for.

From Gatherers to Hunters
There is a certain dating personality I call the Diamond Hunter. There's probably a streak of it in every woman -- hunting amounts to that quest not for actual jewels and gems (that's Gold Digging) but the more elusive (and rewarding) Diamond in the Rough. You know the men I mean -- that guy who seems ordinary but is secretly superb beneath his rough exterior. We all may harbor secret hope that one may fall into our laps, but the dating records of some women suggest they are on the active lookout for such diamonds.

True Hunters are often smart, successful women. Paige, for example, was working on her third higher degree at the age of 25 when I met her. In the three years we were in school together, she dated a guy who worked in a florist shop and hadn't finished college, an aspiring artist (and, OK, one guy who was in law school, but they broke up, too). Emily, another Hunter, spent her first two years at an Ivy League university dating a construction worker. Even after that relationship fell apart, her tastes strayed toward slacker-types (such as could be found at an institution like ours), and her one relationship with a Mr. Seemingly Perfect (seriously, this kid was exactly the kind of guy that any young 20-something would kill to meet) fell apart because ... they were incompatible. ("I knew he was a good catch," she admits, "but I just don't think we would have worked in the long run.") Jane, meanwhile, another multi-degree-holding wonder woman, left behind an artist cum barrista boyfriend to attend grad school, and a bartender boyfriend after that so she could work for an NGO in Southeast Asia.

Any of these women had easy access to the kinds of guys we are, in some sense, "programmed" to want, but they generally forwent such prospects in favor of guys who were outside of their academic and professional worlds. Paige says guys like that "seem less self-involved than guys who are really ambitious and into their careers and projects. Busy, ambitious guys can have less time for you because they're so caught up in themselves."

It can also be a matter of balance: Paige also observes that the men she prefers "tend to be more laid-back, which is relaxing. Particularly [for] women who spend a lot of time in high-pressure, competitive environments." Emily agrees: "I really appreciated that [my ex] wasn't such a perfectionist as I was; he didn't worry all the time about doing what people expected, or being the best. And that didn't mean he wasn't good at anything; it just meant he didn't worry so much about how others perceived him. That really grounded me...and gave me this totally different perspective."

All three women were careful to emphasize one of Emily's last points -- they don't actively seek men who are unintelligent or lazy; rather, they want men who focus on other things in life than material status and success. It can be a fine line sometimes, but as Paige puts it, in a best-case scenario, "it's not that these men aren't ambitious; rather, they're just men who have made a decision not to worry about conventional male ideals or status. Or so one hopes."

That kind of independent mindset is a big part of the appeal -- perhaps the diamond itself. Emily and Paige both express a shared belief (or hope?) that the relaxed attitude they go for in men belies some deeper sense of self-security. "There's probably a lot of pressure on guys to compete and succeed, and when they succumb to that pressure they are in some sense seeking validation," Paige says. "So maybe guys who don't participate in that are more secure." Emily echoes this: "I guess you never have to worry that a guy like [my ex] is gaining his self-worth from external objects or metrics -- cause by standards like that, he didn't necessarily stand out!" But the very fact that he didn't feel the need to, was precisely what kept her around.

Natural Insecurity
Despite all the potential perks to this new perspective on the pursuit of man, such relationships are not without significant obstacles, as all of my hunters were willing to attest. In broadest terms, the constant challenge boils down to matters of security (which -- let's be honest -is a challenge in any relationship): One hopes to find a man who is comfortable enough with himself and his own values that he has plenty of energy left to support and applaud a girlfriend who is pursuing and achieving radically different kinds of success. In reality, this can often be difficult to sustain.

Jane recalls that her barrista/artist boyfriend "sometimes [seemed to feel] pressure to go out of his way to prove to me that he was smart, too, and I got tired of having to validate him in that respect. After all -- part of the reason I chose him was because he seemed less concerned with proving himself." Within a couple, though, validation of each other can be an important practice, particularly against the backdrop of fundamentally different interests and values. As Maryland-based psychotherapist Rita Preller notes, "one of the biggest needs of a woman who is successful is some acknowledgement and respect for her hard work." Yet in choosing a man precisely because he seems not to value such accomplishments as much, she may find herself in a relationship where such validation is not often forthcoming. She, too, may need to communicate that she doesn't, for example, see him as less of a man for earning less, staying home to raise a family, or not being as educated. Since, as Preller observes, "often the most successful marriages are [between people] with common values [and] common interests," relationships that lack this common ground may require a lot of work before they can get serious.

There is also the touchy matter of money. As a (male) Cosmo advice columnist wrote, "Even with changing gender roles, most guys still want to take care of their woman, not vice versa." He means, of course, "take care of" in a financial sense -- resources, remember? Men hear "support" and think "financial," not, say, "emotional" -- and, as Preller notes, "the bottom line is, whoever earns more money in a relationship has more power." Most men aren't psyched to be second in command.

This sentiment is understandable, particularly of men in this transitional generation, but in the face of our changing culture, it may not survive much longer. Given the fact that 25 percent of women already out-earn their husbands, it's probably only a matter of time before it's a complete toss-up in any given couple as to who has the bigger paycheck. Men who can't handle this may be cultural dinosaurs soon enough. As Preller emphasizes, "power needs to be shared, or else it leads to resentment," and this is something any couple has to work on, regardless of who has more initially. If it takes women earning more to achieve this new balance, then so be it -- we don't mind trying.

Far from Material Girls
So in the end, perhaps the real lesson is that women's increased ability to provide for ourselves has given us the freedom to decide what kind of security we want from a mate. We used to need men to provide support that was strictly physical and material. They had more access to the things we needed, and physical strength to offer besides, in an environment where size and status could mark the difference between predator and prey, winner and loser.

These days, those kinds of security are largely achievable without a man -- women can provide for and protect themselves, and physical strength is in many ways no longer an issue. So why limit ourselves? Next time you notice a cute bartender or a friendly mechanic, just remember: He is not his occupation alone. Who knows? You might find out that he reads Hemingway for fun, or that he volunteers at the children's hospital every week, or that dropped out of business school because working on cars made him happier. And isn't that more interesting than another overpriced dinner with a guy who can't shut up about his stock portfolio?

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