Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Changing Male Mind

Over at the Hooking Up Smart blog Susan Walsh shared a fascinating chart two days ago. Link here.

The chart offers a snapshot of what men want… in a mate. It compares male preferences between 1939 and 2008. Stephanie Coontz  reported on this culture shift a year ago in The New York Times.

The chart tells us that today’s men place relatively greater importance on love, attraction, education, sociability and good looks.

The greatest increases involved education, sociability, good looks and good financial prospect.

Today’s men rated love and sexual attraction most important. Men in 1939 rated good character the most important.

In 1939 men valued: dependable character, emotional stability, pleasing disposition, good health, desire for home and children. They placed far more importance on housekeeping skills, religious affiliation and chastity than do men today.

For whatever the reason, today’s men do not seem to be looking for wives. They seem to see marriage as a romantic interlude. Men in 1939 saw marriage as a social alliance.

As  Coontz notes, the education penalty has nearly vanished. That means, men do not hold higher education against women, especially when those women can help support the family. Of course, in an unstable marital climate a woman who can support herself will receive less alimony.

Yet, the more salient point is that men place the highest value on romantic love, sexual attraction and good looks. Today’s man is not looking for a wife; he seems more clearly to be looking for what a previous age would have called a courtesan or concubine.

Otherwise, it is difficult to understand why a modern man who values his prospective wife’s education also places so much more value on good looks than his 1939 counterpart.

When marriage was seen as an alliance between social beings, qualities like religious affiliation and social refinement were far more important. If you are going to make a life together and become part of a community these qualities are of great importance.

But, if marriage is based on romantic love and attraction, along with good looks, what will happen when they all fade.

Good character gains value over time; sexual attraction and good looks are diminishing assets.

One might say that the institution of marriage has evolved. One might also say that people no longer understand what marriage is, and therefore have unrealistic expectations about it. If the latter is true, the institution is more likely to punish their ignorance.

Perhaps it is too obvious to state, but marriages contracted in 1939 were much less likely to end in divorce than are more modern marriages. 


JP said...

"Yet, the more salient point is that men place the highest value on romantic love, sexual attraction and good looks. Today’s man is not looking for a wife; he seems more clearly to be looking for what a previous age would have called a courtesan or concubine."

I honestly thought that romantic love was the reason to get married.

That's the real reason why you are with the person in the first place.

If there's no romantic love, how do you tolerate being married to the person?

Stuart Schneiderman said...

It's not about whether or not there is romantic love-- though I would point out that the vast majority of human marriages have very little to do with romantic love-- but about where one places the emphasis. If a couple ignores character flaws because they believe that romantic love will cure everything, they are making a mistake. The charts show relative importance. Romantic love cannot endure when one or both members of a couple have bad character.

JP said...

Here's a therapy-ish article:

The Industrial Revolution and the birth of capitalism led Americans to be the first on earth with a
high level of freedom, progress, achievement, wealth and physical comfort. This elevated standard
of living allowed us to view marriage as a pursuit of our own happiness, rather than an economic
necessity of an extended family support system (Branden 35-36). In other words, this radical change
in life style in nineteenth century America allowed us to be “culturally free to marry for love”
(Branden 45). As this idea grew in a time of heightened freedom, Americans viewed this base for
marriage as a base for a better life without questioning its stability. The traditional needs for marriage faded quickly and many Americans today have no thoughts of how the old reasons for
marriage actually resulted in long term relationships."

I was honestly always horrified by the thought that people got married without romantic love being present because it seemed like a rational and mercenary approach to life where you were using the other person as a mechanistic tool to further your own social ends.

I definitely agree about the character issue, though. If you're married to somebody without it you are in for a world of hurt.

So, I suppose that I consider romantic love to be a *necessary* but not *sufficient* reason for marriage.

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David Foster said...

JP..."this radical change
in life style in nineteenth century America allowed us to be “culturally free to marry for love”

Michael Chevalier, a French engineer who visited the US circa 1833, observed that Americans were the most money-obsessed people he had ever met..but that, paradoxically, this obsession allowed them to be much more romantic than the Frenchman or Frenchwoman when it came to marriage:

“I ought to do the Americans justice on another point. I have said that with them everything was an affair of money; yet there is one thing which among us, a people of lively affections, prone to love and generous by nature, takes the mercantile character very decidedly and which among them has nothing of this character; I mean marriage. We buy a woman with our fortune or we sell ourselves to her for her dowry. The American chooses her, or rather offers himself to her, for her beauty, her intelligence, or her amiable qualities and asks no other portion. Thus, while we make a traffic of what is most sacred, these shopkeepers exhibit a delicacy and loftiness of feeling which would have done honor to the most perfect models of chivalry.”

Stuart Schneiderman said...

As for the history of love in marriage, the custom originated in pre-Industrial England, during the seventeenth century. I am not sure what Brandon is talking about, but the Industrial Revolution was a British, not an American invention.

The notion of free will is intrinsic to Judeo-Christian theology. It's application to politics and economics also comes to us from Great Britain.

I have long suspected that the first group of Westerners to marry for love were Martin Luther and his defrocked monks and nuns. After all, they had no property to bring to their marriages, so they married the person they loved and desired.

Anonymous said...

One of the greatest problems that upper classes had with early Christianity up through medieval times was that the Church would marry people without their parents consent. This is because upper class people would worry about their progeny tying the knot below their station. Romantic attraction has been associated with marriage for some time now.


Susan Walsh said...

Thank you for the link, Stuart. I get the sense that the changing male mind reflects the Women's Movement's gains, unfortunately.

Don't get me wrong - I am pleased that men value intelligence. And I understand why earning potential in a mate is a plus.

I think you've hit on the most important point - ultimately, character is the defining element in the quality of relationships.