Susan Patton ruffled the feathers of many women, young and old, when she wrote a letter to the editor of her alma mater’s student newspaper, The Daily Princetonian, encouraging college women to focus on looking for their life mate while in college. Her argument was straightforward: it’s where you’re going to find the highest concentration of smart men from good backgrounds, and you aren’t getting any younger.
A year later, she followed it up with a piece in the Wall Street Journal previewing her new book, Marry Smart: Advice for Finding ‘The One.’ The opening of her Journal piece was a tad cruel. “Another Valentine’s Day. Another night spent ordering in sushi for one and mooning over ‘Downton Abbey’ reruns. Smarten up, ladies.”
Prickly as she may be, she makes some valid points. Points that a lot of women, especially career-driven, educated women don’t want to hear. Points like, “your fertility won’t wait,” or “for most of you the cornerstone of your future happiness will be the man you marry,” or that women looking for husbands in their thirties are “competing with women in their twenties.”
True, true, and true. Susan Patton addresses a real problem: many women today do not approach marriage with the same focus as they do their careers, and it hurts them in the long run. But her solution is elitist and insufficient.
Susan Patton addresses a real problem, but her solution is elitist and insufficient.
First, scaring women about their biological clocks is not a good tactic. And encouraging women to spend their undergraduate years looking for a husband will likely seem naïve to college students and recent graduates. Most college men show no interest in marriage, nor much readiness for it.
It’s certainly appropriate for women to begin thinking about marriage in college, but college in many respects is a utopian fantasy. Princeton, for example, looks like a British medieval world. There are few real-world demands in college. It’s simply not a good environment for feeling out a future spouse. A woman should not be looking for a J. Crew cutout who is fun on the weekends and whose parents have a nice home to visit on Christmas break. She needs the chance to search for a mate who suits her in the environment she will inhabit: reality. She should be looking for the guy who will pick her up late from work, who will help her move into her new apartment, who will accompany her in the everyday struggles. You don’t marry a resume. You marry a man. And men and women go through a lot of personal change when they leave college for the real world.
So while it’s good that Patton encourages women to approach marriage with focus and care, it’s ultimately counterproductive to tell them to try to lock in an elite fantasy man in an elite fantasy world.
Patton’s advice also ignores a lot of recent data, which has found that women are actually better off waiting until their mid- or late twenties to marry. In fact, the longer a woman waits to marry, the less likely she is to get divorced. A woman getting married between 20 and 23 has a 34 percent chance of getting divorced, versus a 20 percent chance between 27 and 29 and an 8 percent chance after 30. Women who marry older are also more likely to make more money and to be in a higher-income household.
Instead of devoting their energy to finding a husband in college, women should reconsider their approach to dating in their twenties.
Many women, however, hear data like this and take an approach to dating in their twenties that is not healthy. Rather than view dating as a chance to grow personally and to home in on the characteristics they seek in a life partner, many twentysomething women treat dating as a recreational activity. They engage in casual sex or cohabitate, which hinder and obfuscate important life choices (and which have been shown to hurt marital outcomes). Instead of devoting their energy to finding a husband in college, then, women should reconsider their approach to dating in their twenties.
A better source of advice than Patton’s Marry Smart is Jennifer Marshall’s 2007 gem, Now and Not Yet: Making Sense of Single Life in the Twenty-First Century. She points to data that shows that nine in ten women say they want to marry, but nearly 30 percent of women find themselves single at 30. She advocates for an openness to marriage that recognizes that one might meet one’s future spouse in college, but not to panic if one doesn’t meet him or her until one’s early thirties. The key, she argues, is to be open to marriage and not to lose sight of its connection to dating, but at the same time to seek peace and contentment in one’s present state.
For most of us, even if we have satisfying careers and other outside pursuits, the cornerstone of our future happiness really will be the person we marry and the families we build. But if we want to help women to succeed in this realm, we have to take a hard look at how society encourages young people to court. Susan Patton is fighting the very real problem of society advising women to delay marriage, freeze their eggs, shack up with their boyfriends, et cetera. But telling women to marry their college boyfriends is a shallow proposal that misses the bigger picture.