Rebooting Marriage

There is a seismic shift afoot that affects all aspects of what it means to be a man or a woman. But we’re still burdened with antiquated ideas—especially where marriage is concerned.

Census data reveal part of the story: Women have been outpacing men in bachelor’s degrees since 1996 and, for the first time, more women now have advanced degrees than men, too. Women now make up the (slight) majority of the workforce and, in 147 out of 150 of the biggest cities in the U.S., young women’s salaries are higher than those of their male peers (although this applies only to single, childless women under 30 in urban areas—the pay gap which favors men remains elsewhere).The generation coming of age today grew up with the belief that women can do everything men can do. More men than ever before are taking on the primary caregiver role and, in almost one quarter of marriages, the woman makes more money than the man. After years of the fight for equality, true collegiality and partnership between genders appears closer than ever before.

Yet our attitudes about whom we are supposed to marry has barely changed. We are still burdened with antiquated ideas about what men and women are supposed to look for and expect in a spouse. These traditional and deeply embedded ideas are on a collision course with the facts on the ground. If straight women continue to seek men with superior education and earnings to “take care of them” (even in situations where, at least financially, women are perfectly able to take care of themselves) and if men continue to only be comfortable in the “superior” position, we can expect to see many more frustrated and lonely mate seekers.

This dilemma has been written about extensively in recent months and years. The most recent is an April article in the Daily Caller by Kay Hymowitz. Despite the fast-growing educational disparity which favors women, she suggests that the so-called fairer sex is unlikely to be “willing” to start “marrying down” (her word choices) anytime soon. The whole notion of marrying down is clearly fraught with problems since it only accounts for two measures—educational attainment and income—which aren’t always reliable proxies for intelligence or success in the real world. But Hymowitz’s article really touched a nerve. Unfortunately, amidst all the commentary a painfully obvious point was lost:

It’s only marrying down when women do it.

Despite the existing barriers to gender equality still enshrined in our policies, the biggest obstacle we face, when it comes accepting how demographic shifts are upending traditional gender roles for men and women, is deeply cultural. No one—not men or women—wants to “marry down.” But in the game of love, it’s a gender-biased label.

Really think about this: Even in 2011, when a wealthy, educated man marries a less wealthy, less educated (and frequently younger) woman, we often assume the couple reflects the natural order of things. If anything, we may question whether the woman in these pairings is a “gold-digger,” but we rarely ask why a man would select a spouse not perceived to be his “equal.” We usually just shrug our shoulders in a fatalistic way: “That’s men!”

Culturally, we understand and accept that men seek female partners for support other than financial when entering into a marriage. Men with wives who possess less education, or who make less money than they do, are presumed to value other qualities like emotional support, domestic compatibility, good parenting potential, and physical chemistry, among many, many others. And that’s fine.

But when we talk about women marrying men who are less wealthy or less educated than they are, something doesn’t sit right. We revert to the language of defeat, or settling, hence the question of whether women will marry down. Suddenly, the traits and criteria men naturally prioritize in wives seem like odd choices for women to value in potential husbands. Even for enlightened thinkers, these roles are deeply socialized and culturally reinforced. In fact, one of the most simultaneously challenging and liberating aspects of gay marriages (or relationships) is that there aren’t strictly prescribed gender roles to fall back on.

Hymowitz has her own theory about why straight women won’t marry down: she says when it comes to marriage, we’re ultimately snobs, and we want to produce smart kids who will thrive in a knowledge-based economy. Of course, as Will Wilkinson points out, the more obvious reason smart, successful women typically want to marry equally educated and financially successful men is simply that they want someone like them; they want someone who “gets” them.

But this is where the new reality of marriage becomes a numbers game: if you look at the data, it would appear that heterosexual women are either going to have to marry less (no judgement there; I’m not here to “sell” marriage) or some are going to have to marry men with less education and income than they have. Already, fewer adults are married and the age of first marriage is climbing for both genders. Now the question is whether women’s criteria for a spouse will shift and expand. Hymowitz thinks no. But I think it will, and it should.

The reality is that 22 percent of households already have what is often termed “breadwinner wives” (admittedly, I don’t know about educational attainment in these households). That’s hardly an anomaly. We can go down this path kicking and screaming, bemoaning the End of Men, or hand-wringing over whether manhood can survive the recession. Or, we can stop, take a collective deep breath, and recognize that we have the opportunity to re-imagine what it means to be a “real man” and to liberate men from what—even in 2011—is still a pretty limited view of manhood. Gender equality can no longer be only about addressing women’s subordination; it requires recognizing the restrictions this arrangement has placed on men, as well.

Frankly, it’s a confusing time to be a young man. Everyone is telling guys they’re destined to fare worse than their fathers’ generation and their employment and financial prospects are dwindling. But our culture also pays lip service to the idea that a new man can embrace his emotional side, can be a nurturer, and should be valued for more than his wallet. But that’s often drowned out by calls to “man up” by beer commercials, political candidates, and sports commentators. Who are young men supposed to be? Don Draper? Phil Dunphy? A stoic sports hero? A slacker in an Apatow film? It’s no wonder we’re all confused about what we’re supposed to bring to the table in a marriage and what we’re looking for: We’re talking to men and women out of both sides of our mouth.

For women, true marriage equality means getting comfortable marrying up, down, sideways, or diagonal. It’s hard to imagine progressing on this path if women can’t learn to redefine spousal support beyond the financial, like men always have. If women don’t value men who take on more traditionally “feminine” roles, then we’re going to have to stop complaining when men devalue “women’s work.”

At my organization, we think of ourselves as role rebooters, navigating a world built on outdated assumptions about “traditional” men and women’s roles and supporting the new reality of our day-to-day lives. We’re at the beginning of a pretty significant shift in the social, political, and economic dynamics that have dominated marriages for decades. These changes feel tumultuous when you’re on the inside, re-writing the rules, but they will eventually benefit both men and women immensely if we can learn to embrace them. When it comes to modern marriage, it’s time to ditch the antiquated expectations that serve to limit rather than liberate us, and to bravely forge a new path, together.

This post was originally published on Role Reboot.

(Photo Andrew Morrell Photography)

About Nicole Rodgers

Nicole Rodgers is the President and co-founder of Role/Reboot, an organization created to navigate a world built on outdated assumptions about men and women's roles and advocate ways to support the changing reality of our day-to-day lives. Follow her on Twitter @Role/Reboot


  1. Women still generally expect to marry men with equal or greater incomes. Women are pretty lax on their educational requirements, so long as the man is earning more. A elementary school teacher pulling in 40k probably won’t mind that her husband only has a high school education if he is pulling down 75k. Women will always trade requirements for more resources. They deny it left-and-right, but they cannot refute what men see on a daily basis. I could tell other’s that the sun doesn’t exist, but if they see it on a daily basis, year after year, they would come to the conclusion that I was full of crap.

    How many weddings have you attended in which the bride was earning more than the groom? If you live on planet earth, that number would be extremely low, most likely in the single digits.

  2. The “Men Going Their Own Way” aka men rejecting the physical, emotional abuses we suffer being chattel to women, forced to live under the Sword of Damocles(sexist family court system). And the sheer level of sexism, oppression and demonization we face in our day to day lives all starting in kindergarten; has all caused men to say “NO!”.

    The fact that your article is so off base and focuses more on pandering to the oppressive gender(women) then actually dealing with the problem at face value shows that the real Men’s Movement has a lot more work to do.

    Marriage is a dieing institution that will not be revived until the crimes committed against my generation of guy’s are answered for(Gen Y). This is nothing more then a fluff piece far removed from reality to settle the worries of bigots that they may be made to answer for their crimes.

  3. This article is overly heavy on activism and light on content. Give us something we can actually use.

  4. I think there is two things we need to discover as men to even consider legal contracts with women at all.

    1. Does the empowerment of women over the last forty years actually translate into family resource or will it just set the self entitlement bar higher. (the real question here is can women be trusted?)

    2. Can a man trust a woman to support him, once the children age. This to me is not a risk worth taking, simply because the mindset in community and law sets absolutely no value on men in the femily.

    What women have achieved for themselves over the last 40 years is great…..enjoy it. But in those same 40 years you have told me as a man that I am worthless in and out of the family. There is no representation from the feminine in society that they value men. I think marriage and families are dead.

    If a woman wants a child or a family, she need only take a holiday and hire a donor. Men are no longer part of the equation in the community, in law or in a “femily”.

  5. dungone says:

    I feel that this article started out very strong and hit a lot of important points, but sort of lost focus and maybe missed a few things. First, while young women are out-earning men, this says nothing of women’s higher drop-out rate from the labor force. All the education and salary in the world won’t make a difference if young women today don’t take the breadwinner role as a serious, life-long commitment. A woman who wants to be successful and yet still wants to marry up worries me because it might be a sign of someone who isn’t really sure what she wants or at least, looking at her older counterparts, isn’t sure if her success will last. Not to rain on anyone’s parade, but we’re really just not “there” yet.

    Second, there are courting rituals to contend with. Marriage doesn’t happen in a vacuum so it’s important how people meet and who they date. Men still ask women out and when they seek a serious relationship, having limited resources, can only seek out and spend money on a finite number of women. This is different from being insecure, it’s just a matter of maximizing their options and trying not to waste their time and energy on things that aren’t likely to work. And this isn’t very likely to change unless more women start asking men out on dates, proposing for marriage, and maybe even buying men expensive diamond rings. Our culture expects men do a lot of things in order to make women feel loved and secure, but there aren’t similar expectations placed on successful women. The point has been made very well that women are still trying to cope with step one: marrying down. So don’t expect men to feel any more secure about it anytime soon.

    • In my experience, men don’t really want women making the first move, asking them out on dates, or God forbid, proposing marriage. They say they would like it, but they really don’t because it feels emasculating. I’ve felt like asking guys out many times, but I would never do it directly, because I’m not sure if he would react positively. Instead I try to send signals, like flirting, making a point of talking to him, expressing interest in him, mentioning things I’d love to do, etc. Usually the guy gets the hint. Otherwise, I figure its safe to assume he’s not interested. I mean, I can be pretty obvious! But a lot of guys assume a woman who is too forward is either a slut or desperate, or both. So it’s a fine line. It’s even worse if you are a successful and financially independent woman (I’m an attorney) because then you also have to worry about the guy being intimidated by your independence. Meanwhile, while I’m working late again to support my independence, the guys in my office are chasing after the women who are sweet, feminine, and passive. Who do you think is more interested in “marrying up” — me, or a the girl who is making $7 an hour as an aerobics instructor or receptionist? But do most men care about that? It doesn’t seem like it. So I guess what I’m saying is that both men and women are responsible for these cultural expectations.

      • dungone says:

        But do you really want to get involved with a guy who would be offended by you asking him out? The only guys I have ever met who would be offended are stuck-up religious fundamentalists who believe that a woman’s place is barefoot and pregnant. For what it’s worth I’m not like that and in fact I was pleasantly surprised by a woman who asked me out and after a few dates showed up at my house in a trench coat holding roses and wearing nothing underneath. God, I wish stuff like that happened every day. Incidentally, she became an attorney after college. What I believe is really happening here, with those men who you perceive as being offended, is that you end up facing the same exact thing that men face 90% of the time when they ask someone out: rejection. It comes with the territory.

      • dungone says:

        Also, yes I know it sucks that your coworkers are chasing after cocktail waitresses and receptionists while you’re still at the office working. But that was my original point. That won’t change until successful women learn how to ask men out. And there’s also bound to be another man there working just as late as you and not going out to chase bartenders. Why don’t you go talk to them and see if they’re single? In fact it’s 8PM and I’m sitting at the office… only reason I’m going to a bar in about 10 minutes is because the bartender is the only woman one there whose job is to talk to me, and she’ll put in my Sushi order on top.

      • It has nothing to do with money and everything to do with justice and equality under the law. You could be a billionaire super model but until the injustices, persecutions and oppression against males ends your just another over entitled female supremacist bigot as far as I am concerned.

        Look at what happened in Florida recently with what those three teenage girls did to that little boy, a child! + The perpetual “all girls club” mentality makes the thought of capitulating to the bourgeoisie oppressor class beyond sickening.

  6. I had hoped (from the title of the article) to find information here on how marriages are working well as equal partners perform equal work to make the marriage successful. Can we get an article on that?

  7. Really? People still look at marriage as a method of social climbing? Sick.

    • tartelcontar says:

      of course they do. why wouldn’t they? if any method of social climbing works, people will use it. the only question is whether both genders do it. i think they do, though men marrying up is less common these days. it used to be more common in the old days, when nobility passed through the male line. a poor nobleman marrying a rich merchant’s daughter was thought of as a good deal for both sides.

    • It’s sick but that won’t make it go away.

  8. I think we need to think about ending discrimination policies enacted against men such as Affirmative Action “women first” college admissions. My state still has this policy. It is time women achieve on their own merit and that men be allowed to achieve based upon ours.

  9. I bet these relationships when they do turn to marriage have a higher divorce rate…IF women are still covered under Marriage 2.0 divorce law.

    • Actually, looking at the marriages that inspire me, I think of my professional mentor, who’s been married since the year I was born. She maintained her own surname, earned an equal salary to her husband, had a job of equivalent prestige (she was a school principal, he is still a psychologist), and has been extremely active in her home community in raising awareness of sexual violence and domestic violence and practically providing shelter and guidance to victims. It certainly is incredibly strong as a relationship and one that has made a lot of traditional marriages I know pale in comparison.

      I know which option looks more rewarding and exciting to me.

  10. News flash: women lied about equality. Women are hypergamous and all the data shows it. Get ready for a continued decline. Mark my words.

    • Before you go on the typical MRA rant about hypergamous females, please tell me whether you personally would be interested in having a relationship with an ambitious, educated woman who makes more money than you do. Assume she was perfect in every way, extremely attractive (since I know that is important to MRA types), and she thinks you are completely awesome, but she has her own money, a career and is not interested in a relationship involving traditional gender roles. No, you probably would not date her. I suspect that you would think she was a scary, ball busting feminist.

      • Not at all…I’d love it because I’d get all the rights of being a woman in marriage….i.e. ALL the rights.

      • When it comes down to it I am an efficiency egalitarian humanist. That said I cannot ignore the injustice, and bigotry I have suffered because of my gender and the injustices and bigotry other men are suffering all for the benefit of the “fairer gender”. I don’t know what happened in the 50’s,60’s, 70’s and 80’s. But I do know what is happening now. And what is happening now makes me so sick to my stomach that I would probably vomit in your face if you were to ask me in person.

        And to add insult to injury most women and a thankfully an ever decreasing number of men are stuck in a group mentality hate trance and refuse to acknowledge the sexism and bigotry younger males have dealt with. You drink the blood of the innocent and still expect to not be labeled a monster?

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