This is a doozie of an article that I just read in The Atlantic. We all like chatting about this stuff: the disconnect between men and women today and the peculiar place both single men and women in their 30s are in. It’s such a HUGE issue and we all try to grapple with the reasons, the ways forwards etc. Wondered why it’s such a barbeque stopper? Read on…
The Atlantic article by Kate Bolick is worth a read in full, but I thought I’d pull out some points that sparked debates in my own head. Take a deep breath:
What’s happening now on the relationship landscape is monumental, just to be sure:
“The transformation is momentous—immensely liberating and immensely scary. When it comes to what people actually want and expect from marriage and relationships, and how they organize their sexual and romantic lives, all the old ways have broken down.”
Bolick outlines in great detail how women’s wages are increasing more than men’s (in the US), are more educated etc than men, and cites the various reports on “the end of men” (which is a bigger issue in the US where the GFC hit male professions mostly):
If, in all sectors of society, women are on the ascent, and if gender parity is actually within reach, this means that a marriage regime based on men’s overwhelming economic dominance may be passing into extinction.
Or to quote Gloria Steinham: “We’re becoming the men we wanted to marry.” I see this everywhere. But I don’t know that it’s doing us any favours – it’s defeminising women and emasculating men and confusing the whole equation. But Bolick provides this:
Now that women are financially independent, and marriage is an option rather than a necessity, we are free to pursue what the British sociologist Anthony Giddens termed the “pure relationship,” in which intimacy is sought in and of itself and not solely for reproduction.
Now that we can pursue our own status and security, and are therefore liberated from needing men the way we once did, we are free to like them more, or at least more idiosyncratically, which is how love ought to be, isn’t it?
One would think so, but….Behold “the new scarcity”:
American women as a whole have never been confronted with such a radically shrinking pool of what are traditionally considered to be “marriageable” men—those who are better educated and earn more than they do. So women are now contending with what we might call the new scarcity. Even as women have seen their range of options broaden in recent years—for instance, expanding the kind of men it’s culturally acceptable to be with, and making it okay not to marry at all—the new scarcity disrupts what economists call the “marriage market” in a way that in fact narrows the available choices, making a good man harder to find than ever.
And this, explaining what is going on right now. We all know it does…the way single blokes in their 30s, with so many options, are able to play a certain game…
In their 1983 book, Too Many Women? The Sex Ratio Question, two psychologists developed what has become known as the Guttentag-Secord theory, which holds that members of the gender in shorter supply are less dependent on their partners, because they have a greater number of alternative relationships available to them; that is, they have greater “dyadic power” than members of the sex in oversupply. How this plays out, however, varies drastically between genders.
In societies where men heavily outnumber women—in what’s known as a “high-sex-ratio society”—women are valued and treated with deference and respect and use their high dyadic power to create loving, committed bonds with their partners and raise families. Rates of illegitimacy and divorce are low. Women’s traditional roles as mothers and homemakers are held in high esteem. In such situations, however, men also use the power of their greater numbers to limit women’s economic and political strength, and female literacy and labor-force participation drop.
One might hope that in low-sex-ratio societies—where women outnumber men—women would have the social and sexual advantage. (After all, didn’t the mythical all-female nation of Amazons capture men and keep them as their sex slaves?) But that’s not what happens: instead, when confronted with a surplus of women, men become promiscuous and unwilling to commit to a monogamous relationship.
Because men take advantage of the variety of potential partners available to them, women’s traditional roles are not valued, and because these women can’t rely on their partners to stick around, more turn to extrafamilial ambitions like education and career.
She cites some interesting shifts already happening, ie women marrying younger blokes. I think this is really very liberating – busting the rules and morays to get to love and connection. I like this factoid:
The same goes for couples where the woman is taller. Dalton Conley, the dean for the social sciences at New York University, recently analyzed data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics and found a 40 percent increase, between 1986 and 2003, in men who are shorter than their wives. (Most research confirms casual observation: when it comes to judging a prospective mate on the basis of looks, women are the more lenient gender.)
And, this familiar idea that happens with blokes: “marriage o’clock”.
….when a man hits 35 and suddenly, desperately, wants a wife. I’ll never forget the post-first-date e-mail message reading: “I wanted to marry you last night, just listening to you.” Nor the 40-ish journalist who, on our second date, driving down a long country road, gripped the steering wheel and asked, “Are you The One? Are you The One?” (Can you imagine a woman getting away with this kind of behavior?) Like zealous lepidopterists, they swoop down with their butterfly nets, fingers aimed for the thorax, certain that just because they are ready for marriage and children, I must be, too.
I totally get this take on the benefit of being in a relationship – it’s kind of my one lament that I voice:
At times I’ve envied my married friends for being able to rely on a spouse to help make difficult decisions
And by way of wrapping up, she sort of concludes that the shifts happening are GOOD, because they’re getting us to question whether relationships are meant to be everything we try to make them be these days. I love these arguments…about how our notion of “love” is such a modern concept and that previously we partnered as an economic contract. Have we made our lives complicated by thinking it should be about more? She provides this:
Until the mid-19th century, the word love was used to describe neighborly and familial feelings more often than to describe those felt toward a mate, and same-sex friendships were conducted with what we moderns would consider a romantic intensity.
Some even believe that the pair bond, far from strengthening communities (which is both the prevailing view of social science and a central tenet of social conservatism), weakens them, the idea being that a married couple becomes too consumed with its own tiny nation of two to pay much heed to anyone else. In 2006, the sociologists Naomi Gerstel and Natalia Sarkisian published a paper concluding that unlike singles, married couples spend less time keeping in touch with and visiting their friends and extended family, and are less likely to provide them with emotional and practical support.
And finally, shifting focus!
I definitely noticed an increase in my own contentment when I began to develop and pay more attention to friendships with women who, like me, have never been married. Their worldviews feel relaxingly familiar, and give me the space to sort through my own ambivalence.
I don’t know that I came to the end with a discernible view of things. But I certainly found the various points fascinating. I think single 30-somethings often wonder why the issue is so much bigger for them than just being a little bit lonely, or missing a boat or….whatever. Often these issues aren’t really THE issues. The REAL issue is how these shifts are shifting everything else. I mean, this is AN INTERESTING ISSUE. And if you’re 30-something and single, you’re at the coalface of it all. And so people want to discuss it with YOU. And you want to understand what’s going on because, well, you stick out.
Anyway, I think it’s good and true and comforting to know something bigger is going on….you?