4 Wrong Assumptions About Women And Marriage

With all the buzz about women outearning their husbands — and new data about education and marriage — it's time to tackle some misconceptions about getting hitched.

1. Education makes women less likely to marry.

While only 74% of white female college graduates had married by 40 in 1950, compared to 93% of high-school dropouts, that gap is actually closing. 86% of white women with a college degree have now married by 40, compared with 81% of those without a high school diploma. And Tara Parker-Pope of the Times Well log notes that among black women, 70% of college graduates are married by 40, compared to just 60% of high school grads. Parker-Pope quotes economist Betsey Stevenson (she of the infamous women's unhappiness study), who "said the shifts in marriage are occurring at a time when couples are less likely to marry for financial security or economic benefits and more likely to choose partners based on the 'companion benefits' of marriage." Perhaps college-educated women in the 50s married less in part because they were financially self-sufficient — or because men didn't want a self-sufficient woman. Whatever the case, times have changed, and those warnings about book-learning ruining your marriage chances are now not just sexist but inaccurate.

2. Women should "play games" to land a husband.

Man-snagging manuals still advocate that women hide their true feelings and personalities in order to convince men to marry them. But — shocker — pretending to be sweeter or more helpless than you are is actually a bad idea, at least according to marriage researcher Stephanie Coontz. In a 2005 Christian Science Monitor article, she wrote,

[M]any marriage-advice books still claim that the secret to a successful marriage is for women to "surrender" to their husbands' traditional views about gender roles. But recent research shows that this is a bad idea. Today men with traditional ideas about male and female roles are more likely to divorce than men with non-traditional views. It's particularly bad advice to tell women to play games to catch a man, because women tend to grow more discontented with their marriages over time, while men grow more content, even if they initially resisted pressure to change their behavior.

So women shouldn't, say, pretend to be fine when we're actually mad, because we're only going to get madder over time. And while this may seem kind of depressing, it's also a great argument against settling.

3. Women who are "too successful" or make too much money will have unhappy marriages, or none at all.

As Latoya pointed out, the Times seemed to be making this assumption in its initial coverage of a Pew report on women's increasing economic power. Sam Roberts wrote of one high-powered lady,

Ms. Zielinski, the fashion stylist, said her best friend, a man, told her once: "‘You are confident, have good credit, own your own business, travel around the world and are self-sufficient. What man is going to want you?'"

And despite his acknowledgment that "women with college degrees are still more likely to marry today than less educated women," Roberts called women like Zielinski "victims of a role reversal that is profoundly affecting the pool of potential marriage partners." But this "role reversal" — if women making 71% as much as men rather than 52% can really be called a reversal — may have no victims. Tara Parker-Pope tackled the Pew report just a few days after Roberts, and had a different take:

While it's widely believed that a woman's financial independence increases her risk for divorce, divorce rates in the United States tell a different story: they have fallen as women have made economic gains. The rate peaked at 23 divorces per 1,000 couples in the late 1970s, but has since dropped to fewer than 17 divorces per 1,000 couples. Today, the statistics show that typically, the more economic independence and education a woman gains, the more likely she is to stay married. And in states where fewer wives have paid jobs, divorce rates tend to be higher, according to a 2009 report from the Center for American Progress.

So despite what Zielinski's friend and a host of family-values conservatives would have us believe, women's empowerment is actually a good thing for marriage.

4. All women want to get married.

The first lesson of Gender Stereotypes 101 is that all women desperately want to get married, and are engaged in a constant war to force some reluctant man or other to walk down the aisle. Just like the Crazy, Condom-Puncturing Bitch stereotype, this one turns out to be false. In response to the Pew report, Stephanie Coontz said,

We've known for some time that men need marriage more than women from the standpoint of physical and mental well-being. Now it is becoming increasingly important to their economic well-being as well.

In a comment on the Times Well blog, Shana adds,

It's because studies are always framed this way (with a picture of a frou-frou wedding cake) that the notion gets perpetuated that we women should be married in order to be happy. Why not frame it from the MEN'S point of view? They're the ones who actually benefit from marriage, according to numerous statistics - in terms of better health, better income, etc. The wives actually suffer compared with single women.

While some of the research claiming marriage is bad for women is suspect (as Double X's Hanna Rosin points out, who gives a shit if married women gain four pounds?), Tara Parker-Pope's response to Shana is worth remembering:

Data show that older who [sic] women who haven't married are nearly just as happy in life as married women and they are far happier than divorced women. So yes, marriage isn't the only road to happiness for women.

Parker-Pope also notes that there's still a dearth of research about women who marry women, and the sheer heteronormativity of most discussions of marriage is a damaging assumption in itself. But in fact, the freedom of gay people to marry and the freedom of women not to be pressured to do so may really be two sides of the same coin. As much as conservatives harp on "traditional marriage," traditions change, and the male breadwinner/female homemaker model may no longer be a recipe for happy union — if it ever was. All those concerned with "defending marriage" might do well to heed Betsey Stevenson's prediction for "where marriage is headed": towards "couples who are together because they enjoy life more when they're together." Unlike the many sexist, prescriptive, and downright scary views of marriage out there, this one actually seems like a tradition worth defending.

College-Educated Women More Likely To Stay Married [LiveScience]
Marriage And Women Over 40 [NYT Well Blog]
She Works. They're Happy. [NYT]
More Men Marrying Wealthier Women [NYT]

Related: Why Marriage Today Takes More Love, Work - From Both Partners [Christian Science Monitor]

Earlier: Are Women Really Earning More Than Men?