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Great (to Middling) Expectations: In Search of a Suitable Dream for Marriage

“Women are conflicted in ten different directions today,” “Shirin” tells me. She’s an accomplished, unmarried woman in her 40s, living in Los Angeles.  She continues, “They know you cannot have it all. You cannot have the career, the travel, the friendships, the time alone, and the family…. Nor do many men I know really do fifty percent of anything in the house.”

Shirin’s skepticism’s not unusual. I conducted an online survey for my book, and asked participants if they agreed, “It’s never really equal in terms of housework and chores. Wives usually end up doing more.” This opinion garnered the highest “I agree entirely” reaction (26%)—a perfect 10 on a 10-point scale–of all the questions, with 70 percent agreeing anywhere from somewhat to entirely. Had the survey been restricted to women, the percentages probably would have been higher.

 In a 1983 survey of elite college graduates, 85% said they dreamt of being a “married career woman with children” But the Having it All dream has fallen on hard times. Recently-completed research by the Center for Work-Life Policy finds that increasingly, Generation X women are choosing career over children. They think in terms of having either/or, not all. Part of the problem is that women’s hands are forced—this isn’t much of a “choice”–by family-incompatible workplaces. Professor Joan Williams says that career women should be called “push-outs,” not opt-outs. Another explanation could be dauntingly high standards for motherhood—more on that in a future column. Still another explanation is a mood of a premature realism, that young women give up on the Having it All dream pre-emptively, before they’ve married, or tried it. 

But the romantic dream for marriage isn’t faring much better. Unmarried women are often advised to ditch the Cinderella dream that preceded Having it All, and slim down their romanticism. Bestselling author Lori Gottlieb ponders the idea of settling for “Mr. Good Enough.”

I reviewed popular commentary about marital expectations, and I noted an effort to downsize expectations. We’re reminded that “marriage takes hard work” and that divorce often happens because of quixotic expectations. Mediocrity is applauded as realism, and a Man in the Gray Flannel Pajamas philosophy of going to “work” in your marriage, as well as your job, is proposed.

I’m of two minds about the romantic killjoy. Certainly, there’s such a thing as marital naivete. It’s probably why the majority of divorces happen in the first seven years,  among  those who harbor a romantic fairy tale that their spouse will meet all of their needs, without them having to change, compromise, or tolerate the inevitable ups and downs (although I don’t personally know anyone that naive). 

I also sense that our dreams for marriage are shifting gradually from the sublime to the stable. In my survey, almost half of respondents agreed that marriage was “more like a friendship than anything else these days,” and while that can cause its own problems, it’s as reasonable a goal for a post-romantic marriage as any other.

So I’m not a big Defender of the Romantic Faith.

On the other hand, it feels as if “romantic” has become a catch-all pejorative for any marital benchmark that goes beyond sexually faithful nonviolence and child support.

Isn’t there anything we should legitimately crave from marriage—something that’s worth leaving, or waiting, for? I’m not talking about the fantasy of uninterrupted bliss. But what about feeding your soul, or having a vital companionship, desire, a feeling of aliveness, or a marriage that adds rather than saps you of joie de vivre and energy? 

And, indeed, while women are urged to be less picky and to be happy for any husband, single men seem to be getting pickier and pickier.

I’ve gleaned this emerging dream double standard anecdotally, from conversations in which single women told that they’d gotten ditched because:  their boyfriends wanted to marry women who were “brighter,” who “made more money” than they did, who were “more successful in their careers,” or who scored better on an IQ test that he’d administered as a psychologist (yes, this really happened). Another man didn’t want to move a relationship forward unless his girlfriend improved her voice through coaching (and this really happened, too).

These suggestive examples find some research instantiation in studies, by sociologists such as Michael Kimmel and Kay Hymowitz, of protracted bachelorhood among young men.

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Pew research finds that for the first time in history, men now stand to gain more from marrying a college-educated woman than the other way around. Maybe some of these finicky men are instinctively holding out—for educational pedigrees, career potential and earning power, in addition to nice breasts.

Because, once they do marry, at least one group of husbands is striving for, and in some cases achieving, the very Having it All dream that their wives have been advised to abandon.

In the case of the “workhorse wife” marriage, for example, the husband gets to pursue his creative or professional dream, while his wife brings home a fat paycheck and, more often than not, cooks and cleans, too. These are not equitable, stay-at-home dad arrangements, where dad pulls his load with childcare. Instead, they’re arrangements where one spouse is the rock star and the other is the backstage roadie, doing all the unglamorous work of ordering pizzas and working the lights.  Through marriage, he gets a meaningful vocation or avocation, children, wife, and leisure, a chance to follow a dream of his invention, and that’s really what feminism had in mind–for wives, too. 

But, in a way, aren’t these finicky single men and “moocher” husbands asking the right question, or at least a reasonable one? That question is, “now that I no longer have to get married, and the old marriage imperatives are over, why shouldn’t marriage improve my life?”

It’s not a crazy idea. Forty percent of Americans and 50% of younger Americans now think marriage is “becoming obsolete.” Maybe that’s the trend, in part, not because our expectations for marriage are too high, but because they’re too low—so low that it feels just as appealing and easier to live single, or live together unmarried.

In an age when we don’t need to get married, why shouldn’t we be a little ambitious for marriage?

In marital expectations we should be realistic, of course—Realistic, but ambitious.


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