Sarah Camino had been in a relationship for two years when she found out she was pregnant. The father, whom she met while they were both working at a restaurant in Times Square, was initially excited. But he had been using drugs lately, and had been fired from his last four jobs; when she ventured that she was scared she might wind up raising the child alone, he got defensive and walked out. She and her daughter now live in Florida with her parents, and he is not a part of their lives.
Camino, a beautician and hospitality worker, checks all the boxes of the demographic that has been targeted for advice in recent months by an array of columnists and authors, who have argued for the promotion and prioritising of marriage, sometimes for the sake of overall happiness, but more often for the sake of children’s well-being.
She’s a 37-year-old single mother without a college degree. She cares deeply about her child’s happiness and about providing her with a good future. When I asked what she made of the advice to get married, though, she was sceptical. “I don’t think things are perfect like that,” she told me. She had planned to stay with the father, but that’s not how it happened. “I didn’t think he was gonna leave me like this,” she said.
The most recent wave of commenters have tended to position themselves as iconoclasts speaking hard truths: Two-parent families often result in better outcomes for kids, writes Megan McArdle, in The Washington Post, but “for various reasons,” she goes on, this “is too often left unsaid” — even though policy wonks, and the pundits who trumpet their ideas, have been telling (straight) people to get married for the sake of their children for decades. Brad Wilcox of the Institute for Family Studies, who recently scoffed at “the notion that love, not marriage, makes a family,” has a forthcoming book titled Get Married: Why Americans Must Defy the Elites, Forge Strong Families, and Save Civilization. All of these scolds typically rely on the same batch of academic studies, now compiled by economist Melissa Kearney in her new book The Two-Parent Privilege: How Americans Stopped Getting Married and Started Falling Behind, which show that kids with two parents fare better on a variety of life outcomes than those raised by single parents, who are overwhelmingly women.
This may well be true. But harping on people to get married from high up in the ivory tower fails to engage with the reality on the ground that heterosexual women from many walks of life confront: that is, the state of men today. Having written about gender, dating, and reproduction for years, I’m struck by how blithely these admonitions to get married skate over people’s lived experience. A more granular look at what the reality of dating looks and feels like for straight women can go a long way toward explaining why marriage rates are lower than policy scholars would prefer.
On the rare occasions that women are actually asked about their experiences with relationships, the answers are rarely what anyone wants to hear. In the late 1990s, the sociologists Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas interviewed 162 low-income single mothers in Camden, N.J., and Philadelphia to understand why they had children without being married. “Money is seldom the primary reason” why mothers say they are no longer with their children’s fathers. Instead, mothers point to “far more serious” offences: “It is the drug and alcohol abuse, the criminal behaviour and consequent incarceration, the repeated infidelity, and the patterns of intimate violence that are the villains looming largest in poor mothers’ accounts of relational failure.”
But it doesn’t take behaviour this harmful to discourage marriage; often, simple compatibility or constancy can be elusive. Camino, for her part, has dabbled in dating since her partner left, but hasn’t yet met anyone who shares her values, someone who’s funny and — she hesitates to use the word “feminist” — but a man who won’t just roll his eyes and say something about being on her period whenever she voices an opinion. The last person she went out with “ghosted” her, disappearing without warning after four months of dating. “There are women that are just out here trying, and the men aren’t ready,” she told me. “They don’t care, most of them.” Who, exactly, is Camino supposed to marry?
For as long as people have been promoting marriage, they have also been observing that a good man is hard to find (see: William Julius Wilson, or early Nora Ephron). But what was once dismissed as the complaint of “picky” women is now supported by a raft of data. The same pundits plugging marriage also bemoan the crisis among men and boys, what has come to be known as “male drift” — men turning away from college, dropping out of the work force, or failing to look after their health. Kearney, for example, acknowledges that improving men’s economic position, especially men without college degrees, is an important step toward making them more attractive partners.
But even this nod ignores the qualitative aspect of the dating experience — the part that’s hard to cover in surveys, or address with policy. Daniel Cox, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who recently surveyed more than 5,000 Americans about dating and relationships, found that nearly half of college-educated women said they were single because they had trouble finding someone who meets their expectations, versus one-third of men. The in-depth interviews, he said, “were even more dispiriting.” For a variety of reasons — mixed messages from the broader culture about toughness and vulnerability, the activity-oriented nature of male friendships — it seems that by the time men begin dating, they are relatively “limited in their ability and willingness to be fully emotionally present and available,” he said.
Navigating interpersonal relationships in a time of evolving gender norms and expectations “requires a level of emotional sensitivity that I think some men probably just lack, or they don’t have the experience,” he added. He had recently read about a high school creative writing assignment in which boys and girls were asked to imagine a day from the perspective of the opposite sex. While girls wrote detailed essays showing they had already spent significant time thinking about the subject, many boys simply refused to do the exercise, or did so resentfully. Cox likened that to heterosexual relationships today: “The girls do extra and the boys do little or nothing.”
Marriage proponents often contrast the stable relationship patterns of the college-educated with the instability of the less-educated, but a bachelor’s degree is hardly a guarantee of a ring. The Yale anthropologist Marcia Inhorn’s recent book, Motherhood on Ice: The Mating Gap and Why Women Freeze Their Eggs, argues that educated women freeze their eggs because they’re unable to find a suitable male partner: Inhorn points to a large gap in the number of college-educated women versus college-educated men during their reproductive years — on the order of several million.
But Inhorn’s book goes beyond these quantitative mismatches to document the qualitative experience of women who are actively searching for partners — the frustration, hurt, and disappointment. “Almost without exception,” she writes, “women in this study were ‘trying hard’ to find a loving partner,” mostly through dating sites and apps. Women in their late 30s reported “online ageism,” others described removing their Ph.D from their profiles so as not to intimidate potential dates; still others found that men were often commitment-averse.
The behaviours were ubiquitous enough that Inhorn compiled a sort of taxonomy of cads, such as the “Alpha males” who “want to be challenged by work, not by their partners” or the “Polyamorous men” who claim “that their multiple attachments to women are all ‘committed.’” Her breakdown — table 1.1 in the book — reads like a rigorous academic version of all the complaints you’ve ever heard from your single female friends.
One of these friends, with whom I went to college, would like nothing more than to be married. She’s beautiful and successful, and not, as far as I can tell, overly “picky.” She has had long-term relationships in the past, and cherishes the intimacy and stability they provide. To that end, she keeps a Post-it note on a bulletin board. On it, she has drawn out 10 lines of 10 circles each. Every time she goes on a date with someone new, she fills in a circle. She’s committed to going on at least a hundred dates as she searches for a male partner with whom she can have a family. In two years, she’s filled in nearly half of the circles, and she’s still single. It’s like an SAT test form where every answer is incorrect. When she asks her male friends to set her up with their friends, they consistently tell her that no one they know would be good enough for her. “It’s like, how bad are you guys?” she marvels.
To be sure, many men are fantastic people and partners, and I’m sure many women are loathsome, creepy, or otherwise disrespectful. Many of us know these terrific men — they’re our friends, our relatives, our colleagues — and would love to meet someone similar. Relationships are an important part of life; companionship is lovely and a natural human desire. But rather than chiding people (mostly women, mostly single mums) to get married “for the children,” how about a little empathy that we’re living through a juncture where various forces at play have made meaningful companionship hard to find?
There are policy solutions that can help everyone: family allowances to curb child poverty, child care to support working and single parents, retraining out-of-work men, higher ed reform for people who want to attend college but can’t afford the cost. In the process, these policies might encourage marriage by providing economic stability. But to truly address the decline in heterosexual marriage, we must attend to the details — to acknowledge the qualitative aspects of relationship formation. And, in particular, we should listen to the experiences of women who are attempting to find partners. We should care about the interior lives, not just the educational attainment or the employment status, of the men who could be those partners.
All of this is a much trickier proposition, with no clear policy solution in sight. It requires taking the stories of single women seriously, and not treating them as punchlines — something for which there is little historical precedent, but which a handful of scholars are slowly beginning to do. But unless we pay attention to the granular experiences of people in the dating trenches, simply advising people to marry is not only, frankly, obnoxious for the many women out there trying — it’s also just not going to work.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Written by: Anna Louie Sussman
©2023 THE NEW YORK TIMES