On the importance of the good-enough marriage and how we are losing it
A few notes on Mark Regnerus' excellent work _Cheap Sex_
I use this book in several courses b/c it’s simply the best single recent statement on what has gone awry with American dating and mating culture over the past several decades.
The world of sexual relationships can be looked at as a market in which goods are pursued and exchanged. Economic goods are sometimes involved, but not inevitably. Other goods that participants in the market are pursuing include physical pleasure, emotional bonding and support, and the at-home labor contribution of a reliable and effective co-parent. The logic of markets is useful here because it allows us to understand which pairings are likely to happen, which aren’t, and how durable they are likely to be.
There is here, as in the rest of human life, a sex difference at work. Regnerus does not get into the evolutionary theory that is necessary to fully explicate it, but he has a good implicit sense of what is driving this. Males and females differ, typically, in their hierarchy of goods pursued in the market. There is significant overlap and mutual valuation of some of the same goods, but in general men place sexual access itself and physical attractiveness closer to the top of that hierarchy than women do, and women are typically more interested in emotional investment and evidence of stability as a resource provider.
This is despite the fact that in recent decades women have caught up and in some demographic subgroups surpassed men as earners in the economic marketplace, and so from the middle-class upward they now have much less need of a man’s income, and in many cases no need of it at all. Again, Regnerus doesn’t look to the evolutionary evidence, but it is abundant here. Things that have been selected for very long periods of time are not going to get rearranged in a few decades. The fact that women do not like to ‘date down,’ i.e., go out with guys who are considerably beneath them in educational credentials and earning potential is still very much in evidence today.
By “cheap sex,” Regnerus merely refers to the fact that the price of sexual access has gone down. Historically, women have been the gatekeepers on this. Men will have a sexual encounter much more easily and unquestioningly than women will. This is mostly about deep biological facts again. If a pregnancy occurs from an ill-chosen such encounter, the woman is the one who will be faced with the part of the burden that is most difficult to escape and that will require the most commitment if the child is brought all the way to term. For this reason, females of species like ours are more selective about mating than males, who commit little material resource to a single sex act and can much more easily move along to the next, are.
The sexual revolution (and “revolution” is the correct term here) of the 1960s and 1970s destroyed traditional dating structures that protected women from sexually predatory men by demanding that the latter give significant evidence of their good intentions well before they were going to get any possibility of physical contact. It also championed the idea that sex should be ‘liberated’ from marriage and familial institutions. The purported goal here was to further free women from purported patriarchal structures, at the same time as women were entering higher education and the work world at much higher levels than previously.
The unintended consequence was a market in which the good that men most wanted, to which women controlled access, was radically devalued. Meaning not that men wanted it less, but simply that it could be had for much less in exchange.
Every young single woman today knows how the market works. Regnerus cites at length from his female subjects in the study to let them make the point. If a woman is at all interested in a guy emotionally, i.e., she wants the relationship to be more than merely physical, she typically wants to move slowly with him to make him show evidence of his emotional commitment before getting physical. She knows though that if she does this with any guy who is not a complete loser, he will have other options in the marketplace for easy sexual access. She will therefore tend to feel compelled to get physical more quickly than her druthers, and in many cases the emotional commitment from him will not be forthcoming.
Men too adapt to the new marketplace. Regnerus shows how the traditional dating and mating market requirements for them meant they had to show signs of responsible entry into adulthood—a stable job, ability to moderate deep male proclivities to promiscuity in sexual interest and action—before they were likely to get close enough to a young woman even to give her a peck on the cheek. That’s all gone. And going with it is the taming of males it helped produce.
Many more young men today have given up on that game altogether, shirking college and career goals, spending all their time with juvenile preoccupations well into their 20s and 30s, avoiding commitment. All of this winds up harming them and the rest of us as well, for young men who have not been effectively taught how to control and sublimate the baser parts of their instincts are the single most dangerous sub-population in any society.
The good enough marriage, then? Regnerus says this too has been seriously, perhaps mortally wounded by our current culture. The same system of ideas that preaches to all of us that sex is a purely individualist, hedonist element of the good life, something not necessarily at all connected to long-term relationships, also informs men and especially women that they ought not settle. The individualist ethic of self-perfection, through a construction of identity based on consumption, career, material success, quantitative accomplishment in every measurable realm, leads us to believe that the perfect relationship is out there, somewhere. (Provided of course we actually want that—we may prefer remaining a singleton, living promiscuously, any trajectory we desire, of course). Tinder and the other dating apps show us an array of options not approximated previously in human history, and our motivation to impatience with imperfection is fed by such things. “He looks good, but what else is out there?” Swipe left.
The costs of this are tremendous. Couples—and especially women—wind up dissatisfied in perfectly workable relationships that provide much mutual benefit because…they are not the glimmering ideal for which one was waiting, which one viewed as one’s birthright. “OK, I like this and this and this and this about her, but surely there must be someone else out there who does all that and also doesn’t lose her mind when I leave the cupboard door slightly ajar after taking out my coffee maker in the morning.”
The good-enough marriage is a tremendous accomplishment that pays great dividends to the couple involved and to their children. It has essentially completely disappeared in our popular culture, and it is shrinking in real American life. More Americans are avoiding marriage altogether, even though surveys indicate that the vast majority of both sexes—and especially so for women—indicate the desire to be married and to have children.
We talked in class a good deal one day last week about one figure in the book (see below). It shows the percentage of unmarried women across the lifespan who desire to one day be married. The line peaks in the mid-20s north of 65% and declines somewhat thereafter, but the decline is not pronounced. By age 40, only a bit shy of 50% of unmarried women still desire to be married, and that is about the same rate all the way into the mid-50s. But by the time single women enter their 40s, their chances of ever marrying decrease significantly.
In other words, many women who want to be married are not meeting that goal in the present mating market, which mendaciously tells them constantly that they can have it all if they just want it badly enough and tenaciously hold out for perfection.
The liberated culture in which we exist preaches endlessly to young people that they can be perfectly happy outside of long-term committed (if mostly imperfect) relationships, and it has given them a market that has demonstrably led to more aloneness, that is to say, loneliness. This figures shows pointedly how badly this all matches up with what many actually want.