Why men and women get married
For all the young women who've chewed their nails to the skin anticipating a proposal, it may be a relief to know that, yes, men still want to get married. But there's a critical difference between the sexes.world Updated: Jun 03, 2010 22:48 IST
On the car trip from Fairfax, Va., to New York City last January, Jhaymee Wilson, 28, and her boyfriend of two years, Jonathan Heinlein, 29, talked eagerly about their long weekend away. Wilson had never been in the city before, and they compiled a list of must-see tourist haunts. It wasn't until they arrived at the lavish St. Regis Hotel that she noticed Heinlein seemed unusually tense.
"Are you OK?" Wilson asked. He said the daylight was fading and he wanted to start sightseeing. Wilson knew that her boyfriend, an amateur photographer, liked the afternoon sunlight, so she shrugged it off and followed him into a cab.
Next stop: the 102nd floor of the Empire State Building. Wilson took in the southern vista of rust and deep purple sunset hues across the skyline. Turning back to Heinlein, she found him bent on one knee, face upturned, holding an open ring box with a platinum-set, round-cut diamond ring inside.
The surrounding tourists were staring, Wilson began shaking and Heinlein stuttered to get the words out. "Will you marry me?" he asked. Applause erupted from the onlookers as Wilson threw her arms around him. "Yes!"
This classic proposal is not to say that the Wilson-Heinlein marriage (set for Spring 2011) will look anything like their grandparents' or even their parents' unions. Helped by women's higher education levels and entry into the workforce and 21st-century standards of what makes an attractive mate, they are the new face of marriage, on course to change the institution itself.
Why get married at all? Women don't need providers and men don't need in-house procreators. Turns out, we both want to get married. But for very different reasons.
For all the young women who've chewed their nails to the skin anticipating a proposal, it may be a relief to know that, yes, men still want to get married. But there's a critical difference between the sexes. In broad terms, when a woman falls in love, just like the Trinity character in The Matrix, she knows he's The One. But a man's readiness can be seen as a life stage. To call on The Matrix again, a time when he's ready to take the red pill.
"He first needs to feel like he knows what he's doing in the world and where he's going," says John Gray, relationship counselor and author of the Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus books. "Women are more concerned about who they're going with."
"Historically men have been more eager to marry when they're financially secure, and women have wanted to marry when they wanted children," says Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist and author of Why Him? Why Her? Fisher calls it a "human male need" to provide for his wife, a desire that hearkens back to our hunter-and-gatherer days when the "dual-income family was the rule." She harvested the fruits and vegetables, and he brought home the meat.
But when the woman was pregnant or nurturing small children, she was vulnerable. It became the man's job to protect and provide for his family. Today, still, men do not feel ready for marriage until they can fulfill that historic role, albeit with career stability and a certain amount in the bank rather than a bison turning on the spit.
The real change is that now marriage readiness goes both ways. Gray says that he's observed a shift in marriage because of women's education and work. Women now receive 60% of college degrees and comprise half the workforce. "When she has a good job, her security needs are met, and she looks for a man to provide emotional support," says Gray. Women are looking for partners who are romantic, supportive, good communicators and will be helpful on the home front, Gray says.
Researchers and sociology professors Christine B. Whelan at the University of Pittsburgh and Christie F. Boxer at the University of Iowa set out to find out what men and women look for in a spouse and uncovered this very trend. From a list of attractive traits, women ranked a man's desire for home and children at No. 4. In past decades they had ranked it much lower. In 1977, for example, it was No. 10.
Men's standards, too, have changed in what they find attractive in a potential wife. Until the 1960s men ranked a woman's education and intelligence at No. 11 on their lists of attractive qualities. Now men prioritize a woman's intelligence over her good looks, ranking it at No. 4 as compared to No. 8.
Which brings us back to our newly engaged couple Heinlein and Wilson. The pair both work for the same IT consulting firm, CACI International, in different departments. She's a project manager and he's a senior information security specialist. Wilson has a master's in project management and is working toward an executive MBA, and Heinlein likes that. He says it was her intelligence, beauty and career ambition that attracted him to her in the first place.
Meanwhile she made clear to Heinlein that she wanted a husband who would support her career by being an equal partner at home. They've even discussed him staying home with their future children (two or three is the idea) while she continues to climb the ladder to the corner office. Wilson is thrilled that he's willing to be a stay-at-home dad, and Heinlein appreciates that the financial pressure isn't all on his shoulders.
And unlike the urban myth of husband-hunters like Sex and the City's Charlotte York, more women are delaying or forgoing marriage. According to the current population survey, the median age at first marriage in 2009 was 26 for women and 28 for men, up from 22 and 25 a century ago. Marriage historian Stephanie Coontz, a professor at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., says with more options, women are delaying marriage to pursue education and find the man they really love.
"It's only in the last 20 years that women have said they'd marry just for love," says Coontz. "It used to be that people were embarrassed to admit they loved their spouse, but now they're embarrassed to admit the other reasons for marriage."
Sociologist Whelan believes that both sexes tie the knot due to a combination of love and social pressure, and that pressure comes a bit later for men. The typical ready-to-wed man, she says, has been out of college for a few years, maybe just got a promotion or raise, and has experienced a summer of attending several of his friends' weddings.
Once friends start walking down the aisle, "it's as if a light bulb goes off in their heads," says Whelan. Suddenly men realize they want to settle down, and they start seeing the women they date through an is-she-wife-material lens.
Women, too, often receive intense pressure from friends and family members. Just-engaged Wilson began to feel it at 25; her younger sister married before her. It wasn't enough to make her compromise, though. She was looking for love, compatibility and a man who would support her dreams. Heinlein had also watched many friends say "I do" in the year leading up to his proposal, and felt that he, too, was ready.
"I'm happy," she says. "I'm getting to an age where I want to marry and feel ready. We're moving forward as a couple."
"I can't see being with anyone but her," he says. "I'm excited to start a family."