Punk pioneer Johnny Rotten once sneered, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” And that’s how you may feel reading a New Yorker piece about the ideal marriage according to novels, wherein novelist Adelle Waldman lays bare the depressing reality that since forever and still now, women want an intellectual equal while men want someone pretty and cheerful.
It’s a terrific read. In it, Waldman explores the notion that throughout the history of literature, men and women have often described their ideal mates and objects of their affections in very different ways. She writes:
For as long as novels have been written, heroines in books by women have studied their beloveds’ minds with a methodical, dispassionate eye. The ideal mate, for Jane Austen’s heroines, for Charlotte Brontë’s, for George Eliot’s, is someone intelligent enough to appreciate fully and respond deeply to their own intelligence, a partner for whom they feel not only desire but a sense of kinship, of intellectual and moral equality.
A link between love and respect hardly seems like a unique or daring proposition—until we consider that so many male authors have tended to think about love very differently. Straight male authors devote far less energy to considering the intelligence of their heroes’ female love interests; instead, they tend to emphasize visceral attraction and feelings.
She goes on to posit that famous male writers from Tolstoy to Bellow to Roth and Knausgaard may, in fact, be “the real romantics.” More likely to depict matters of the heart as swoony and inexplicable. More about “broad personal appeal” than an intellectual equal.
Waldman knows of what she speaks. If you knew what was good for you, you also tore through her novel The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. with the eagerness one can only have while reading a woman novelist who writes better about men then men seem to write about themselves. I found especially satisfying, though wildly depressing, the way her protagonist Nate Piven, whom the Times succinctly called an “emotional fugitive,” is far more critical, threatened, and occasionally repelled by the intellect he finds more commensurate with his own in Hannah, and far more comfortable with the bewildering emotional messiness of Greer, who leaves his intellectual perch unchallenged. Hannah is smart and thoughtful and a grown up. And Greer—well, she has more “sparkle.”
While yes, we are talking about fiction, and yes, on the individual level romance is more about the ineffable preference and chemistry that may or may not bear out with an IQ test, it’s not as if real-world studies into heterosexual mate preferences don’t back this shit up all the time. A recent study of some 10,000 men and women out of the University of Texas at Austin found not only that the preferences men and women state in a partner are different, but that they are “much larger than previously appreciated and stable across cultures.” Even in Norway and Sweden! You might bellow, spewing your coffee across your keyboard. Yes, even in your favorite go-to fantasy lands for sexual equality, like Norway and Sweden.
It’s just like you’d guess: Men primarily want younger, more attractive women, and women primarily want someone ambitious with financial stability. Again, this isn’t new. We know that high-achieving women have famously complained of a lack of eligible men they consider their intellectual equals. Heartthrob George Clooney falling for the brilliant Amal Alamuddin is heartening but rare. Over a decade ago, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd admitted a man once told her, point blank, that he’d wanted to ask her out but found her job “too intimidating.”
“He said I would never find a mate, because if there’s one thing men fear, it’s a woman who uses her critical faculties,” she wrote in 2002. “Will she be critical of absolutely everything?”
While most of us are not New York Times columnists, ordinary non-ding-dongs know that everything’s allegedly different now, we’re so much more equal, and yet, far less accomplished smart women still bemoan the idea of a guy who doesn’t back away slowly from their razor wit. From “guys don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses” to the simple, longstanding advice to play a little dumb, smart women are still counseled to slow their brain-roll as often as necessary. Plus, femininity has never been synonymous with brilliance.
“They’ll compromise and allow the man to have an upper hand so as to not lose him, especially if she realises that he has a fragile ego,” explains clinical psychologist Varkha Chulani in a piece at the Times of India charting why women feel the need to dial it back in love and in work. “This is mainly a relationship-saving tactic.”
That women are still burdened to save a relationship by playing to a man’s ego in the first place is really bleak, but you play the cards you’re dealt in the game you’re stuck playing. In October of last year, the Telegraph asked, “Why do some men run a mile from intelligent women?” They ask why some men, given the chance, will choose someone with less “mental wattage” to spend an evening with, citing research that for some alpha types (and the sample size here was small, at only 105), intelligence makes them feel “less masculine.”
Turns out the idea of a smart woman appeals, but the reality is less than exciting. “Not all, but many men are only comfortable when they can have the last word,” Baroness Greenfield wrote. “These alpha types might seek to avoid partners who compete with them intellectually, looking instead for someone to bolster their ego, rather than destroy it.”
But why are these options—either be bolstered or shot down—the only two available? What about a nice give a take, a meeting of the minds, the satisfaction from playful interaction with a like-smarted person? Why is our cultural/literary depiction of a good hetero relationship still symbolized by a kind paternalistic looking up to a man for his brilliance, his resourcefulness, but for him, a gazing downward admiringly at a woman who appears to be as interesting as a human basket of lifestyle magazines.
In a male counterpart at the Telegraph piece provided by man Nick Curtis, we learn that brains are great in a gal but it definitely makes for more work for a man because of that pesky male ego thing. “Dating a clever woman opens you up to a world of hurt male pride, and constant reminders of your own woefully slow, Y-chromosome-impeded cognitive ability, Curtis explains. “Marrying a smart girl makes it worse.” He continues:
If that smart girl is also more physically attractive, more gracious and also a better person (as smart girls tend to be) than you, then you’d better have a pretty solid sense of self-esteem, fella. Or be too damn dumb to notice.
He further describes the relationship as “a steady ceding of intellectual territory” to her. And while it’s written all in good humor—and he makes it clear that any man who isn’t appreciative of a woman’s intellect is an idiot—the implication, of course is that, still, that whole being brilliant thing is a man’s game, and we’re all just working our way back from that to see just how far women can encroach on it.
Things are no more equal in the many lists of things women want in a mate versus men. Men put a much bigger premium on a “pleasing disposition” in a mate as compared to women—according to Forbes, it’s been in men’s top five traits desired in a mate since the 1930s. Whereas women are apparently fine with the surly bastard type.
And while all this still sounds hopelessly retrograde, one of Waldman’s passages about why this is historically the case in novels really stood out:
For centuries, men have had far more opportunities to find intellectual outlets outside the romantic sphere—they’ve been able to travel more, to meet a broader range of people, to have professions, to win the respect of peers. Women, on the other hand, were forced to lean more heavily on love and marriage, for intellectual recognition and companionship as for everything else.
Beyond this, she argues, sexism dictates that men simply don’t look for intellectual equality in women but in other men. And in spite of social change, of women on greater equal footing with men than ever in education and earning potential and reproductive freedom, we still simply “conceive of love differently.”
That perception has shifted, but away from men as equals, not toward them. Recently books, television shows and films from Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend series, to Girls, to Frances Ha celebrate female friendship as more intellectually and emotionally nourishing than what hetero women may find with men. (The Times called lady besties the new power couples.)
In a recent Modern Love about PLPs—platonic life partners, the author, Ephi Stempler, is a gay man who writes about his lifelong friendship with the straight female Marisa, with whom he has frustratingly never found a better rapport than the one they share. “Every friendship I made was a faint shadow of the magnificent supernova that was my relationship with Marisa,” he writes. “And the dudes I met were increasingly older and hardhearted after their own years of romantic frustration.”
He details the crux of their on-again, off-again rooming situation/friendship over the two decades they’ve been friends, an easy intimacy and deep closeness he often struggled with as proof he was perhaps avoiding intimacy in “real” relationships, or at least, in the sexual ones with men.
But even though they both have pursued plenty of other relationships, and she also has children with another partner, they resign themselves to each other:
They know who should do the cooking and the dishwashing. They talk about their latest flings and support each other’s biggest dreams. They get over fights fast and give each other prodigious amounts of space. They binge on Katy Perry when no one else is looking. They share an aesthetic and a language and a history that gives them strength to go on.
I have all that with my best friend. And maybe the closest approximation of real love either of us will ever experience.
But it took Stempler years and lots of inner struggle to get to that place. Which begs the question: Are such solutions hopeful or a result of incredible contortions? I choose to see them as the former—that if hetero men stubbornly cling to notions of intellectual equals outside the bedroom, women, and gay men will find them elsewhere.
Even if one major criticism of marriage is that too many people mistakenly think their lover should be their soul mate, it’s clear that at least some of us still want this from a romantic mate. And so long as it’s lacking, minds will keep trying to meet wherever they can, even if they need to venture far off script to do so.
Image by Jim Cooke, photo via Getty.