"Marry a man who loves you just a little more than you love him." It's a time-honored adage, one many American women still hear from their mothers and grandmothers. A persistent truism, it still shows up with predictable regularity in advice columns. Just last week, I heard it at an engagement party for some of our friends. But this time, it came from the lips of the bride-to-be's younger sister, noting with a mix of what seemed like relief and pride that her future brother-in-law was, as she put it, "just a little bit more into" his fiancée than she was into him.
I'm not sure how far back the saying goes (if you can find an early literary use of this aphorism, please share). Presumably, its origins lie in the not-so-distant past when women were far more dependent on their husbands than they may be today. As historians like Stephanie Coontz have shown, the ideal of marriage as a lifelong love affair — or even an enduring friendship — is relatively new. Many of what we think of our as deepest romantic ideals date back only a little more than a century.
Yet the fact that marriages in the more distant past were more concerned with property (and with reassuring men that they could know who their children were) doesn't mean that a husband's romantic devotion didn't have a vital purpose. In a world where women were essentially chattel, marriage marked the moment at which a woman was transferred from father to husband. The choreography of the familiar American church wedding service reflects this still. At marriage, a husband acquired the right to beat or otherwise mistreat his wife. But legally sanctioned opportunity is not automatic obligation. A man could, if he wanted, refuse to exercise any of the rights of domination he had. What would hold him back from doing the violence that he was allowed to do? Love. Or so goes the theory. In reality, as experts in intimate partner violence agree, plenty of abusive men claim to be head over heels in love with the women they harm.
In our own world, this tenacious bit of conventional heterosexual wisdom reflects a different assumption. A man who loves his wife (or a boyfriend who loves his girlfriend) more than she loves him in return will, as my friend's little sister told us at the engagement party, be less likely to cheat. Greater male passion isn't about protecting a woman from intimate violence as much as it is about reducing the risk of infidelity. Based on the intuitive but unverifiable assumption that men in love are less likely to be unfaithful, the theory also offers a secondary reassurance to women. If he loves you more than you love him, and he cheats on you, at least your diminished investment will inoculate you against the worst emotional effects of sexual betrayal.
This old adage is an unhappy book-end to Lori Gottlieb's viral advice to "settle" and marry Mr. Good Enough. Gottlieb urges women to take advantage of their peak years of desirability (not after 35, she implies) to snare a good guy. Pickiness will lead you to wait too long, she warns, and all the good ones will be gone. Better to be married to a nice guy who doesn't make your socks roll up and down than to be lonely:
Madame Bovary might not see it that way, but if she'd remained single, I'll bet she would have been even more depressed than she was while living with her tedious but caring husband.
And there's the kicker: What does it matter if your husband bores you? Happiness, according to Gottlieb, lies less in finding a man who turns you on than in settling for one who is really turned on by you.
There are plenty of problems (and perhaps a few nuggets of wisdom) in Gottlieb's article (now a bestselling book), just as there are with the older advice to women to find husbands who will love them just a bit more than they are loved in return. But the real issue is the myth of male weakness that undergirds all of this. If we believe that men can't control their sexual or violent impulses, then we force women to look for strategies to safeguard themselves against heartbreak or physical harm. And as in the past, a man's adoration becomes a vital part of that strategy.
In this age where hormones and evolutionary psychology are commonly cited as explanations (or outright excuses) for the most appalling male behavior, it makes good sense to teach women to look for an effective and enduring guarantor of masculine reliability. That means encouraging women to make romantic decisions based more on men's devotion rather than on their own desires. Shorter Gottlieb: "caring" trumps "tedious", and don't be so much a fool to insist that you can easily have the former without the latter.
Not only do we believe that men are weak when it comes to impulse control, pop culture relentlessly reminds straight women that they are hardwired to be attracted to "bad boys." Evolutionary psychologists trot out all sorts of theories to explain why women are sexually drawn to unreliable alpha males, but the end result is that we teach women to be suspicious of their own longings. In a corollary to the myth of male weakness, grandmothers and Gottliebs warn that a woman who is head-over-heels in love and lust will be less likely to see vital warning signs; a woman who finds herself only tepidly attracted to a man will be able to assess his character more accurately. His greater devotion keeps him faithful; her less intense passion keeps her safe — and, presumably in control both of her own emotions and of her male partner.
Encouraging women to settle before they're ready — and for men whom they love less than they are loved in return — isn't just carefully repackaged common sense. Rather, it's the repurposing of old advice for the sake of diminishing women's expectations both of themselves and of men. That this aphorism has proved so tenacious is not a sign of its truth about what makes a good relationship, but a sign of how reluctant we remain to challenge the myth of male weakness.
Hugo Schwyzer is a professor of gender studies and history at Pasadena City College and a nationally-known speaker on sex, relationships, and masculinity. You can see more of his work at his eponymous site.