This may well be true. But harping on people to marry 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 marry skate over people’s 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” mothers say they are no longer with their children’s fathers. Instead, mothers point to far more serious offenses, Dr. Edin and Dr. Kefalas, write. “It is the drug and alcohol abuse, the criminal behavior 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 behavior this harmful to discourage marriage; often, simple compatibility or constancy can be elusive. Ms. 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 Ms. 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. Ms. 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.