What Do Women Want?

Women work harder for a smaller share of the benefits of marriage, so why does the media keep promoting marriage?

There’s an odd thing that happens whenever women write about how marriage is a better deal for men than women — men want to argue that we’re wrong. Marriage is bad for men, then say and then they back up their arguments by talking about … divorce.

They complain that women get alimony, or spousal support, and while that has been historically been true, it actually has been rather rare, from about 25 percent of divorces in the 1960s to about 10 percent today or even lower, according to Judith McMullen, a law professor at Marquette University. Let’s not forget that women couldn’t even have credit cards in our own name until the 1960s. So, yes, a few of us who gave up our careers to stay home, watch the kids and take care of all the household duties needed some help getting on our feet. If couples want someone at home to take care of that stuff, the at-home caregiver should be compensated in the event of divorce. But ever since women have been working outside the home, in many cases becoming the family breadwinner, that is changing (in a side note, even who gets custody of the children is changing, too).

Still, I hate to tell it to you, guys, but marriage isn’t divorce and divorce isn’t marriage; there’s no such thing as alimony or child support within a marriage. That only can potentially occur after a marriage ends. (And if men are so upset by things like spousal support and child custody, why don’t they just get a prenup so they can decide for themselves who gets what instead of relying on the state’s prenup?) But if we’re talking about who actually benefits from marriage, it has traditionally been men — and that continues today.

An unequal institution

I bring this up because sociologist Lisa Wade recently circulated a popular blog post on marriage in an end-of-year roundup. Wade writes:

Heterosexual marriage is an unequal institution. Women on average do more of the unpaid and undervalued work of households, they work more each day, and they are more aware of this inequality than their husbands. They are more likely to sacrifice their individual leisure and career goals for marriage. Marriage is a moment of subordination and women, more so than men, subordinate themselves and their careers to their relationship, their children, and the careers of their husbands.”

Why does the media keep promoting marriage for women, she wonders.

Good question, but there’s still a lot of societal pressure to couple up and put a ring on it, even though marriage has been called a “greedy institution,” limiting both men’s and women’s freedom, including sexual freedom — unless you have an open marriage and that, my friends, is up for you to create or not.

Women want in, women want out

Noam Shpancer, professor of psychology, notes in his Psychology Today blog that women work harder for a smaller share of the benefits of marriage, which although they may be more eager to get into, they’re just as often also more eager to get out of, too:

(M)arriage actually appears to benefit men more than it does women. Research has shown that the ‘marriage benefits’ — the increases in health, wealth, and happiness that are often associated with the status — go disproportionately to men. Married men are better off than single men. Married women, on the other hand, are not better off than unmarried women.”

Which is why women initiate divorce more than men. This is, as I’ve written about before, not unique to the United States; divorce rates are up across the globe, from the U.K. to Iran to China to even Saudi Arabia, driven by women. Given that there are many places in the world where married women suffer incredible injustices, this makes sense. In some places men can still force their wife to have intercourse (which was only changed in the U.S. in 1993, but there still are loopholes), and others where a man can abduct a woman but all’s OK as long as he marries her (no matter what she wants) or even rape her and then force her to be his wife. Why would a woman want to be married and stay married if that’s how she can be treated?

Despite the fact that many studies indicate marriage makes men become better men — even Ben Affleck agrees — many men still think marriage is better for women. Oh, OK — they want to talk about marriage in the U.S., where the hardships women face elsewhere in the world isn’t quite our reality, thankfully. So why are more women rejecting marriage in the States?

For one, we have choices now and some women prefer to be single. But for others who’d like to marry, well, therein lies the rub.

Women want more from marriage

There’s been much talk about a lack of marriageable men, not only for those in lower socioeconomic groups, but also for educated professional women of any color. Sociologists Tristan Bridges and Melody L. Boyd note that what used to make a man marriage material is changing — it’s not just education and jobs (although, yes, women generally want a husband who makes a good salary, and for many lower-socioeconomic women, that’s essential). Women — finally — want more out of marriage itself:

Many still want the economic security associated with marital households, though women today may not need to lean on this security as much as they did thirty years ago. But, they also want a set of intangibles that is much more related to the quality of the relationship than the individual qualities any given man might possess. High-quality relationships provide economic support, but they also come with emotional support, shared commitments to household labor, childcare, and more. They want a partner in every sense of the word.”

Which means men who only pride themselves on having a steady, reliable paycheck may be doing so “to the detriment of things that women might actually want from them,” thus excluding them from being seen as marriageable.

This probably isn’t a happy thing for men who are either unable or unwilling to change in those ways. It may be easier for a man to work harder and earn more money than it is to take on what some men might consider “women’s work.” But who knows how artificial intelligence technology will impact that; we’re going to lose jobs, and whatever jobs arise will require new skills.

Still, a lot more men are interested in become equal partners, although when push comes to shove, they still want and expect their wives to defer their career to his. And, they’re often penalized at work for taking time off to be more hands-on dads. That is something all of us should be protesting.

The end of marriage?

So what do women want? For women who want husbands, we want more out of marriage. And if women want more out of marriage, if we want the similar benefits men get from it, will this mean that there will be fewer hetero people marrying in the future? Probably. (I make a distinction between hetero couples and same-sex couples because same-sex couples, denied marriage for so long, may be more likely to wed and take advantage of the 1,100 government and legal perks and protections, while also enjoying more egalitarian unions).

And if that’s true, then there are a lot of things society depends on marriage for — like caretaking — that we’ll need to find creative solutions for. Maybe it will be having robotic caregivers. Maybe we’ll have time-limited, renewable marital contracts so we’ll finally be free of the belief that marriage should be lifelong. I believe we need to create a society of modern-day alloparents, what I call carenting, which would hugely help the growing numbers of single people and childfree couples, and that’s important.

What do you think?

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