This post responds to a CNN article, Why More Women Choose Not to Marry, by Pepper Schwartz. Lest the youthful name or photo suggest frivolity, Schwartz is a Yale PhD, professor of sociology at the University of Washington, the love and relationships ambassador for AARP, and author of books about “the surprising secrets of happy couples” and “creating a new normal in your relationship.” (See also The Happiness of Married Women and Some Readings on Marriage and Divorce.)
Schwartz’s CNN piece leads off with the observation that 53% of women over 18 are now single, and the claim that this is because “women now have choices that allow them to customize the arc of their lives and some of them find that it is best for them to put marriage aside.” Schwartz says, in other words, that 53% of women are single because, by and large, that’s what they choose.
The cited source for that statistic is a U.S. Census Bureau spreadsheet presenting data from the Current Population Survey. According to that spreadsheet, in 2013, there were somewhat less than 123 million adult (i.e., 18 or older) women, of whom 92 million (75%) had been married at some point, 63 million (52%) were presently married, and 31 million (25%) had never married. Based on those numbers, Schwartz is saying that, of the presently single women, half decided not to marry at all, and half decided to become divorced, and in both cases these decisions were made principally for the reasons she is about to enumerate.
For the individual woman, of course, these statuses may be in flux: the never-married may marry; the divorced may remarry. A Huffington Post article cited Cruz (2013) for the proposition that marriage rates had dropped from 92 per 1,000 women per year, in 1920, to 31 per 1,000 women per year as of 2011. According to Cruz, women were most likely to have been never married in 1880: 31%, as compared to 29% in 2011 and only 17% in 1960 (see Nanos, 2012). A Pew study (Wang and Parker, 2014) said that the median age at first marriage had risen from 20 and 23 (for women and men, respectively), in 1960, to 27 and 29, in 2012. As for remarriage, a CDC report (2002) observed that, in the 1950s, 65% of divorced women remarried, whereas only 50% remarried in the 1980s. A USA Today analysis of census data suggested that, by 2011, remarriage rates had dropped to 29%.
Cruz further noted substantial differences in marriage rates by race and ethnicity. As of 2011, the percentages of women who were married ranged from 26% of black women to 43% of Hispanic women, 51% of white women, and 56% of Asian women. Cruz said that the percentage married had dropped by 60% for black women and 33% for Hispanic women since the 1950s.
To be sure, marriage is not the only way in which a man and a woman can live together. In recent years, an estimated 48% of women aged 15-44 lived with a male partner before marriage, up from 34% in 1995 and even lower rates in prior decades (Copen et al., 2013). According to that USA Today article (above), cohabitation was also more common now among those who had previously been married. Altogether, Copen et al. (pp. 3-4) found that 74% of women had cohabited by age 30, in 2010, as compared with only 62% in 1995.
Marriage (and to varying degrees cohabitation) tends to be good for a person. Briefly, as noted in Wikipedia and other sources, both men and women tend to enjoy health and other benefits, though not always in the same ways. It goes without saying that a bad marriage can be worse than no marriage.
A Useless Husband
Point number one on Schwartz’s list of reasons why fewer women marry is, in her words, “A useless husband.” That phrasing invites a retort: by all means, let us begin by making sure that something derogatory is said about at least some portion of the male population. This is perhaps what one should expect from a sexologist whose biography (e.g., Wikipedia, University of Washington) demonstrates a long-term preoccupation with women’s perspectives. Here, again, we have someone who is retained by mainstream organizations as a consultant on the lives of men as well as women, despite palpable ignorance of or hostility to male perspectives.
But perhaps one should have expected an anti-male bias immediately, upon viewing the title of Schwartz’s piece: “Why More Women Choose Not to Marry.” The title assumes women are the arbiters of acceptability. Would it not have been more appropriate to ask why people choose not to marry? There may be good reasons to focus on women’s choices, but the question remains: why not explain what those reasons are? Why proceed as though one can simply ignore male readers who would wonder about that?
In Schwartz’s view, what is it that makes a husband useless? Her words: “If a woman is poor and only meets equally poor or poorer men.” Yes, a poorer man could be a drag upon a poor woman’s finances. But an “equally poor” man? It is a remarkable proposition. If you are just as poor as your wife — if, in other words, you cannot make her richer — then you are useless.
Granted, this is CNN. No doubt some portion of the reading public expects silliness from CNN. It is, nonetheless, a major news outlet, and Schwartz is a prominent sexologist. This is the sort of thing that large numbers of men and women are being told is reasonable.
In such remarks, the divorced Schwartz betrays her roots in the outdated anti-male mindset of second-wave feminism — of the era when a woman without a man was claimed to be “like a fish without a bicycle.” That ignorance — of what most women want and need, and of the benefits (above) of heterosexual relationships — did terrific damage to countless individual lives, and to relations between the sexes.
Schwartz’s words also convey an awful view of present-day women. Is that really how most women think: do they share her view that a man is useless unless he makes you richer? Granted, again, it is just a piece in CNN. But that Yale degree and university appointment do imply the presence of a scientist — of, that is, a person who words her public utterances thoughtfully, and with attention to what the data show.
It seems enormously discriminatory to equate male poverty with uselessness. Consider, for instance, the married couple consisting of two people with disabilities, or of two elderly people, or of two homeless people. They may not have a pot to boil beans in. But they have each other — and in this world, sometimes the mere presence of that other person can bring joy. For disadvantaged people especially, sometimes that man can make a difference between life and death. It is cruel and stupid to call such a husband useless, merely because he does not live up to Schwartz’s elitist notions of male acceptability.
The bigotry is particularly evident in the context of race. Schwartz is surely aware that black people experience high rates of poverty, and that (as noted above) black women are only half as likely as white women to be married. Many black women surely do find that some among what Schwartz calls “the available partners” are “equally poor.” By deciding not to mention the benefits of marriage, Schwartz conveys the mistaken impression that poor women should not marry equally poor men. Then again, Schwartz’s preoccupation with higher-income concerns suggests that perhaps the article was not really intended for poor women.
Race provides an interesting perspective for review of Schwartz’s article as a whole. Why choose a title and a starting point that treat individual men as the primary objects of critique, when any competent sociologist would know that many black men are not “available” because they cannot get jobs, having been disproportionately (and often falsely) stigmatized by incarceration? Why not say at least a few words, somewhere in the article, about societal arrangements that render so many men, white and black alike, financially unviable? Quite aside from the issue of fairness to men, a mere trace of empathy with the situation of the impoverished woman should be sufficient to provoke remarks directed at the system, as distinct from its male and female victims.
Later in her piece, Schwartz comments on the so-called “marriage penalty tax,” where wealthier women will pay more in taxes if they marry men whose incomes are at least equal to their own. That would have been a good place to critique existing social and legal factors (e.g., the law-induced ordeal of divorce) that make cohabitation more likely and marriage less likely.
It is possible that some of Schwartz’s remarks are due to mere failure in written expression. I have not emphasized that possibility because she is, after all, that prominent person with those sterling credentials, asserting competence to advise so many on so much. But, on her behalf, let us contemplate a rewrite. Her muddled remarks, under the “useless husband” heading, do include references to financially beleaguered men who “will make [women’s] economic situation worse” and to “a nonworking, noninvolved husband.” Yes, it is fair to observe that poor economic prospects and/or lack of engagement with day-to-day household needs make some men undesirable as husbands. If Schwartz were to combine that observation with comparable remarks about useless wives, and with some perspective on cohabitation and sociolegal impediments, she might have a coherent point.
Avoiding Cheating Men
Under this heading, Schwartz oddly provides nothing more than an anecdote about a conversation she had with three rich women in China. It is not clear why such a tale would be featured in an article that is otherwise focused on marriage rates and other phenomena specifically within the United States.
Schwartz’s anecdote conveys the view that a rich Chinese husband would reserve the right to have a mistress. Given the title she assigns to this section — “Avoiding Cheating Men” — Schwartz’s point appears to be that some single American women have concluded that their husbands would cheat, and they would rather remain single than risk such an outcome.
Here, again, it would have been helpful to have a sense that there is some statistical reality — something more than, say, Schwartz’s personal experiences or anecdotes — behind such remarks. How many women really decide not to marry, or remarry, just to avoid the risk that, someday, their husbands might cheat on them? Do these women engage in cohabitation instead? How many cohabitations end because the man cheats? Tell us about serial quasi-monogamy (i.e., having one partner after another, as distinct from two at any single time except perhaps around the point of transition): to what extent, if any, do these women find that it offers benefits equal to or exceeding those of traditional marriage, with respect to this issue of cheating?
There have always been cheating men, and being cheated on has probably always tended to be unpleasant. Why would women react differently to it now? When Schwartz tells a tale focused on rich women, is she implying that cheating has statistically become less of a concern for poorer women? Whatever the rate of male cheating, have married women become more likely to seek divorce because of it?
The key point here may be that a cohabiting person can end a relationship more easily if and when cheating occurs. Yet this pessimism may, again, convey more of Schwartz’s personal views and experience, and less in the way of valid general-purpose commentary. What if no cheating does occur? What if, in the span of a fifty-year marriage, there is only one instance of infidelity? People have to confront these realities. It would have been helpful if, for example, this sociologist had told us which women enjoy the best health and financial outcomes: those who never marry, those who marry but are never cheated on, those who are married and cheated on but stay married, or those who divorce in the wake of cheating.
I grant, again, that CNN may have limited patience for an intelligent and balanced presentation of issues. I am just not sure that justifies a blatantly misandristic focus on cheating men. There is, after all, a place for comments on cheating wives. It happens often — and that, too, seems to have changed from the 1960s. While studies vary, it appears that wives probably cheat 50% to 100% as often as husbands, and that their cheating is not merely retaliatory. It is chilling to consider that a relationship advisor like Schwartz could be advising couples, including men, while presenting infidelity as a problem solely for women.
But are these criticisms fair to Schwartz? Was she, perhaps, required by CNN’s marketing people to present a case entirely skewed in favor of women? It would be an unfortunate commentary upon elite social science doctoral programs if they produced PhDs willing to write whatever editors required. Schwartz, in particular, occupies public roles that are simply incompatible with the biased tone, slant, and words of her article.
It is surprising that Schwartz even mentioned the subject of infidelity as a reason for avoiding marriage. Her own article for AARP said, “[W]hile questions of infidelity grab the most headlines, having an extramarital affair is not what’s behind the breakup of most long-term relationships” and “extramarital affairs happen for only a relatively small number of couples.” One must ask: was the “cheating men” heading included in the CNN article for any reason other than just to afford another gratuitous dig at men?
Waiting for Mr. Right
The other major reason for female nonmarriage, according to Schwartz, is that women are simply postponing the decision. Highly successful women “may wake up every day to new and exciting challenges and think, ‘best to wait,'” rather than allow their high-powered careers to be derailed by commitment to a partner with “an equally ambitious, or conflicting, life agenda.” In addition, she says, some women are becoming “pickier,” waiting for “the perfect guy” and, without him, would rather “go alone.”
No doubt Schwartz is correct: this sort of thing does occur. Yet there is, once again, this unfortunate positioning, this treatment of men as the problem, when there are any number of alternative perspectives. For one thing, if women are not the gold-diggers that Schwartz sometimes makes them out to be, why would they not just choose husbands who are not committed to incompatible career agendas? There is no obvious shortage of educated and otherwise worthy male candidates capable of career flexibility. It seems like a question that a writer sensitive to male perspectives would have anticipated. Schwartz does acknowledge, later, that this could be a good deal for a woman. But that does not answer the question: why, according to Schwartz, are women failing to accept that kind of deal?
Women may well be more picky than they used to be. Here, again, some basis in research would be helpful. It would not have to be especially scholarly. One might simply remark that, for instance, women pay more attention to men’s incomes as their own income rises, if that is the case, or that women’s dimensions of life satisfaction change with levels of education. As another example, rather than assume that female career success is an absolutely positive development in all cases and to every degree, one might ask what kinds of careers or marital roles leave most women most satisfied.
Schwartz does cite sociological theory (albeit not data) on one point. In classic exchange theory, she says, people base their actions on tradeoffs: they leverage what they have to offer (e.g., money, good looks) in order to get a good deal. As just observed, unfortunately, Schwartz herself contends that women do not consistently seem to be seeking that kind of deal — acquiring a worthy man who will sacrifice his career priorities to have her. If Schwartz is correct in that regard, exchange theory does not seem very helpful, and her explanation fails. It seems she is not sure why women are not making seemingly logical decisions that would result in higher marriage rates. Explaining that was, supposedly, her reason for writing the article.
In lieu of male-unfriendly speculations substituted for data, Schwartz might have drawn upon other attempts to grapple with the title question. Why are people not choosing to marry? The Pew Research Center offers a few examples of the sorts of materials that should have influenced Schwartz’s comments:
- Fry and Cohn (2010) note that — contrary to Schwartz’s belief that high-powered women are irrationally insisting upon having comparably high-powered husbands while rejecting such husbands’ career agendas — there are now, in fact, more marriages in which the wife’s education and/or income exceeds the husband’s.
- Wang and Parker (2014) note that the marriage gap was as small as 1% in 1970, when 9% of men and 8% of women had never married, but is now up to 6% (i.e., 23% of men, but only 17% of women, have never married). One might ask whether a growing subset of the male population has become stigmatized as unmarriageable, reducing the choices available to women and providing an empirically supported explanation for female nonmarriage.
- Wang and Parker also provoke the question of whether women are concerned, not with whether the man is “equally poor” as Schwartz suggests, but rather with whether the man is engaged in a steady vocation. In their full report, Wang and Parker (pp. 6-7) observe that the 6% marriage gap (see preceding paragraph) accompanies significant declines in male employment. It would be interesting to know whether it is the job per se (i.e., the money) that women care about, or whether they tend to be content if the guy has a purpose in life — as in, for instance, a highly motivated artist with little income. There could be a question of whether women are hard-wired to ask whether the man is preoccupied with his work, regardless of what it pays, and is thus less likely to become bored and to seek extramarital stimuli.
Schwartz might have drawn additional insight from other remarks offered by researchers like Wang and Parker — involving differences in views among younger and older adults, for instance, and the persistence of belief in the importance of marriage.
This post has criticized a prominent sexologist’s explanations of the reasons for a lower marriage rate in the U.S. today. Criticisms have focused upon that author’s indulgence of personal beliefs, particularly of an anti-male variety. The general argument is that, in that article, as in other writing about extensively researched issues in social science, it would have been better to leave the ideology on the shelf and focus on (a) what the research says and (b) what men as well as women might want to know. It is regrettable that the public continues to be fed this sort of material, when there are so many ways in which readers could be better and more appropriately informed.