I’ve been thinking a lot about value and dating since my recent post on the subject. Today’s post is going to be a little different than my normal presentation of facts. Instead, I’m going to talk about what I feel is an interesting (and potentially frustrating) change in dating/mating dynamics.
Through most of human history, mating has been largely about procreation and property. The concept of marrying for love and self-actualization is not completely new, but America and other post-industrial democracies are arguably the first venues in human history where the majority of marriages are not matters of financial or social necessity. Most marriages happen because two people have fallen in love (or gotten pregnant).
Also, society has changed substantially in the last fifty to a hundred years with regard to living arrangements. Most Americans either live by themselves or with roommates. Lots of unmarried thirty or forty year old men and women have their own houses, and many are homeowners. It’s not all that difficult for either sex to live single.
While this is certainly good from the perspective of gender equality, it’s caused some considerable changes in the value of women to prospective husbands. I was thinking of myself recently: I own a house. I am a great cook. I do my own laundry. I don’t need anyone to contribute financially to keep this arrangement going. I’m also not unusual in this respect. Most men my age are pretty damn self-sufficient.
For much of American history, a substantial part of the value of a wife was domestic. With labor intensive chores like cooking, laundry, and general housekeeping being essentially delegated to women, men without wives could legitimately say they “needed” a wife to take care of such things. No longer. * There’s also precious little social pressure left for men to marry. No longer is the forty year old bachelor seen as a deviant or malcontent. Typically, he’s a divorcee, just like everyone else his age, and typically, he still has a fairly easy time dating casually.
The biggest value of women to men remains procreation. Most people want to have children, and finding a wife is still the best way for a man to do it. So for twenty-somethings and early thirty-somethings, there’s still one overwhelming reason to get married. But the window for childbearing is pretty short. Most women in college are not looking for a man to impregnate them. After about age thirty five or forty, many people are divorced and through with having children. Single parenthood is not easy, but it’s far from impossible. Most people will have five or six serious long term relationships in their lives, and especially among the educated and upper classes, only one or two of those will be for the purpose of reproducing.
The upshot of all of this, or so it seems to me, is a value problem for women. Sure, men will always want to date women for sex, and most men want more than a warm body — they want a woman they like who enjoys other activities as well, but without the marriage and children, that kind of relationship is defined primarily as a friendship with sex. So, for men who are established, single, and not looking for a mother for their children, what bargaining chip do women have to entice men into a committed, long-term relationship? For many men, it just makes more sense to have casual, short to medium term relationships that have all the sex without all the extra hassles of joint checking accounts, choosing whose house to move into, redecorating, and so forth.
What does this mean for women outside of the childbearing window? Is our culture moving inexorably towards serial short-term monogamy? Are women doomed to continually repeat the cycle: Fall in love, date, have “the talk,” and then break up when the guy decides it’s not worth his while to commit to anything else?
I don’t know the answer. What I do know is that I know a lot of men who follow this pattern. As long as the woman doesn’t ask for more than friendship with sex, she’s fine. When she asks for a ring, she gets the boot. Especially for women with children, this seems like a big problem. What benefit is there to a guy to marry and take on the extra responsibility and financial burden when he’s getting sex, and doesn’t especially need or want to raise someone else’s kids?
Will there be a change of value for women? Something that will entice men into long-term commitment that doesn’t involve housework or children? Again, I don’t know. At a certain point, most men do have to make a commitment as they approach the later part of their life. Dying single and alone isn’t fun. But most men have twenty or thirty years after they’ve had kids to find someone to die with.
Susan Walsh wrote an article over at Hooking Up Smart that’s been tickling the back of my brain for a while. In it, she encourages young women to drop their extra-picky expectations of the “perfect husband” and get married to a man who will be a good husband, but who may not be the ideal man. I think this is solid advice. The value of sex has gone down considerably since feminism and the “Free Love” movement. No man has to get married to have regular sex. The value of a wife as domestic help has gone to virtually zero, especially since so many women still feel a certain backlash at the thought of being valued as a house cleaner.**
This whole line of thought reminds me of one of my personal mantras: Generally speaking, you can get anything you want most of the time. It is nearly impossible to get everything you want.
So it seems for women in post-feminist America. Freeing women from domesticity and giving them permission (and encouragement) to have sex in casual relationships has given them lots of options they didn’t have before. But the necessary downside to this is that it has reduced the value that they bring to a marriage. Most any man can get friendship and sex in casual relationships. If women aren’t bringing anything else to the table, then practically speaking, that’s the limit of their value to men who don’t want (anymore) children.***
For young, childless women who aren’t ready to be mothers, this isn’t a big problem. Women’s value is highest when they’re young and childless. They are at their physical peak of beauty, and this alone is usually enough enticement for a man to at least commit to long term monogamy. But as women age, the gap in value between men and women narrows considerably. Men tend to get more wealthy, more socially established, and wiser as they age. Physically, they can remain attractive to a wide age range of women well into their forties or even fifties. If anything, men’s value rises somewhat during their thirties and forties, while women’s value (especially women with children) drops sharply. Forty to fifty year old men who make enough money generally don’t have much trouble finding a twenty-eight or thirty year old woman to date them or have sex with them.
In other words, A-list men can generally entice A-list young women even after having children and divorcing. It becomes very, very difficult for women to do the same. I wonder how this value dynamic will affect our culture over the next generation or two.
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::
*Don’t get the idea I’m lamenting the good old days. I think it’s great that women are emancipated from the traditional gender roles. But like most things, there are pros and cons.
** Incidentally, I just asked myself the question: What would entice me to move from a casual dating relationship to living together and making long term plans? I have to admit that not having to do housework anymore would be a big deal to me. Perhaps, for women trying to land a self-sufficient man who doesn’t need a second income, a rethink of housework as “demeaning” or subservient is in order. I dunno.
*** I realize this is a very clinical look at dating and marriage, and I know that for a lot of people, love is enough reason to get married. This will probably not change for a substantial part of the population. But there is still the reality that love tends to be much more important to the young and unmarried. After a couple of failed marriages, both men and women tend to get a bit more practical about long term commitments based just on emotions. Also, with education and money comes selectiveness. Lots of A-list men are smart enough not to get married just for love. More and more men realize that love isn’t magic, and the idea of one soul-mate per person is just flat out wrong.