This may well be true. But insisting from the top of the ivory tower that people get married fails to address the reality facing heterosexual women from many walks of life: namely, the state of men today. Having written about gender, dating, and reproduction for years, it strikes me how blithely these warnings about marriage gloss over people’s experience. A closer look at what the reality of dating looks and feels like for straight women can go a long way toward explaining why marriage rates are lower than policy experts would prefer.
On the rare occasions that women are asked about their experiences in relationships, the answers are rarely ones anyone wants to hear. In the late 1990s, sociologists Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas interviewed 162 low-income single mothers in Camden, New Jersey and Philadelphia to understand why they had children without being married. “Money is rarely the main reason” why mothers say they are no longer with their children’s fathers. Instead, mothers report much more serious crimes, write Dr. Edin and Dr. Kefalas. “It is drug and alcohol abuse, criminal behavior and subsequent incarceration, repeated infidelity, and patterns of intimate violence that loom large in poor mothers’ narratives of relational failure.”
But it doesn’t take such harmful behavior to discourage marriage; Simple compatibility or consistency can often be difficult to achieve. Ms. Camino, for her part, has dabbled in dating since her partner left, but she has yet to meet anyone who shares her values, someone who is fun and (she hesitates to use the word “feminist”) but a man don’t do it. She just rolls her eyes and says something about getting her period every time she expresses an opinion. The last person she dated cheated on her and disappeared without warning after four months of dating. “There are women who are just trying and men are not ready,” she told me. “Most of them don’t care.” Who exactly is Mrs. Camino supposed to marry?
Since people promote marriage, they have also observed that it is difficult to find a good man (see: William Julio Wilson or the first Nora Ephron). But what was once dismissed as a complaint from picky women is now backed up by a host of data. The same experts who hinder marriage also lament the crisis between men and boys, known as male drift — men who drop out of college, drop out of the workforce, or don’t take care of their health. Kearney, for example, recognizes that improving the economic position of men, especially those without college degrees, is an important step in making them more attractive partners.
But even this nod ignores the qualitative aspect of the dating experience, the part that is difficult to cover in surveys or address with policy. Daniel Cox, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who recently surveyed More than 5,000 Americans surveyed dating and relationships found that nearly half of college-educated women said they were single because they had trouble finding someone who met their expectations, compared with a third of men. The in-depth interviews, she said, “were even more discouraging.” For a variety of reasons (mixed messages from the broader culture about toughness and vulnerability, the activity-oriented nature of male friendships) it seems that when men start dating, they are relatively “limited in their ability and willingness to be fully emotional.” present and available,” she stated.