Monday, February 11, 2008

On Settling

Lori Gottlieb writes "Marry Him!", about the declining marriage prospects of women as they approach and pass 40:

Now, though, I realize that if I don’t want to be alone for the rest of my life, I’m at the age where I’ll likely need to settle for someone who is settling for me. What I and many women who hold out for true love forget is that we won’t always have the same appeal that we may have had in our 20s and early 30s. Having turned 40, I now have wrinkles, bags under my eyes, and hair in places I didn’t know hair could grow on women. With my nonworking life consumed by thoughts of potty training and playdates, I’ve become a far less interesting person than the one who went on hiking adventures and performed at comedy clubs. But when I chose to have a baby on my own, the plan was that I would continue to search for true connection afterward; it certainly wasn’t that I would have a baby alone only to settle later. After all, wouldn’t it have been wiser to settle for a higher caliber of “not Mr. Right” while my marital value was at its peak?

Those of us who choose not to settle in hopes of finding a soul mate later are almost like teenagers who believe they’re invulnerable to dying in a drunk-driving accident. We lose sight of our mortality. We forget that we, too, will age and become less alluring. And even if some men do find us engaging, and they’re ready to have a family, they’ll likely decide to marry someone younger with whom they can have their own biological children. Which is all the more reason to settle before settling is no longer an option.

I was thinking about all this in the context of some of my own writing along these lines. A few posts ago, I suggested that someone's "sexual history" (for want of a better phrase) might have some bearing on their future fidelity. But this is not a message that gets communicated to young people today, even in Christian education. Why?

1. While there is much in the Bible about being chaste, there is very little about marrying chaste. The requirement seems to only have applied to Levitical priests.

2. Evangelical Christianity puts an emphasis on repentence and forgiveness, so it becomes difficult to simultaneously put out a message that someone's past sins should weigh against their present suitability.

3. Using chasity as a screening factor comes with not inconsiderable cost, especially for women. For one thing, it dramatically shrinks the pool; sadly, this will probably be true in Christian communities as well, though different in degree. For another, and let's be brutally honest here: all things being equal, those of us subject to greater temptation will fail more often than those who are subject to lesser temptation . . . or no temptation. This is not to give ammunition to the ignorant notion that the virtue of chasity was invented by people who weren't gettin' any no how. But it is to admit that being chaste came far easier for me than it must have come to many of my friends better endowed with those qualities attractive to the opposite sex. In the aggregate, this tendency is going to make a difference: the pool of virgin men will on average be less appealing than the pool of players when judged on the conventional qualities.

Given this dynamic, it is understandable that many, indeed most, women might accept the higher risk of infidelity in exchange for other qualities. But they should do it with their eyes open.


Stephen Werner said...

”…declining marriage prospects of women as they approach and pass 40.”

This seems to be an oft-overlooked consideration (people only seem to have such epiphany’s in retrospect), and yet is especially important for women (as Lori Gottlieb notes). It has some relevance to men, but to a much lesser extent in regards to their prospects for getting married. Even though (as I hope to address later) men decline as “marriage material” with age, the increasing desperation of women as they age tends to more than offset decreasing suitability of men.

Over on Half Sigma’s site, he brought up the idea of “human capital” – he clearly meant for a discussion of economic earning power – but the question of non-working wives/mothers came up in regards to how their “human capital” was to be viewed (by your friend Spungen, no less -

I had tried to “play along” with the notions HS had proffered – even though I found the very basis repugnant – reducing the worth of human beings to their economic potential. But her question got me to thinking about how the “relationships-as-business-transactions” crowd that dominate that site could relate to the value of family. I weakly postulated the idea of “emotional capital” for HS to add to his woeful list of measures of human value. But, after reading Gottlieb’s piece, and your thoughts, I realize that I had missed the much more obvious and meaningful term to use in that discussion – “relationship capital”.

It’s actually an awkward term to use when addressing an issue that is so vitally important to the human condition, but it does create the nicely packaged buzz-term that many would prefer. What Gottlieb has realized that she has squandered – her youth, her looks, her physical condition – can be jadedly seen as a part of her potential “relationship capital”. Once they’re gone, she no longer has them to barter for a better position (as regarding potential spouses). Thus, she concludes that she must settle out of a position of weakness of capital. She, like many, seems to have a very dim view of marriage – a soul-less, sexless partnership with someone you can stand to live with. It’s a sad view of one of life’s most potentially fulfilling human interactions. It’s one that my own 23-yr happy marriage suggests doesn’t have to be the case. But, given that many people settle for what their “relationship capital” will buy them, I can see why that feeling befalls many (so-called) marriages.

You’ve add a very good observation regarding how ones sexual history would impact ones “relationship capital”:
”… I suggested that someone's "sexual history" (for want of a better phrase) might have some bearing on their future fidelity.”

I would add that, again, this is especially true for woman. A woman’s quest for “Mr Right” can easily be shot down if “Mr Right” doesn’t want to take on additional risks of future infidelity nor the risk of latent STD’s. While the same assessment should hold true for men, women’s incoherent admiration for “Playa’s” effectively defeats it as an issue.

But, on the other hand, I’d also like to consider the issue of the marital value of a man through time. What I think Gottlieb (and most others) fail to even consider through their years of searching is that most “Mr Rights” (from a marital perspective) don’t stay on the market long. Men who will make good husbands and fathers are generally looking to get married and settle down at a younger age. But society’s (and women’s) obsession with their (to use HS’s terms) human capital blinds them to their relationship capital. Because they are younger, and less advanced in their careers, they are disregarded by status seeking women who usually start out from comparably younger ages looking for men of wealth and status, hoping to trade on their youth and looks in terms of their relationship capital. Women who take a more sober look at life will tend to see the relationship capital inherent in the marriage minded younger men – devotion rather than riches.

And, to exacerbate the issue, as people get older, they tend to become increasingly set in their “ways”. If one has spent years living single, they are less likely to feel comfortable in the cohabitation of a marital relationship. As you note, if one is used to “playing the field”, monogamy is not an easy change. And, if one has spent years studying the faults of potential partners of the other sex, men are just as likely as women to reject potential “good” partners for minor reasons. For these, and probably others I missed, as they age, men do not tend to be better marriage material for women who’ve finally decided to start looking for a man. Their new-found desperation will ultimately dictate that they “settle” for a much lower quality spouse than they could have found before they foolishly squandered their relationship capital while pursuing the “ideal” that modern feminism has beaten into their minds.

In the end, it is as you suggest – …women might accept the higher risk of infidelity in exchange for other qualities.” They probably could have done much better for themselves had they had their “eyes open” at an earlier age.

Col. B. Bunny said...

Mr. Werner, I think you focus a bit too much on the "capital" assets of youth, looks, physical condition. You did mention "devotion" but I think you are not giving enough credence to the idea that people can learn from their mistakes. As a man who is 64, believe me when I say I find women who are well into their 60s attractive. No woman need fear that I will find her wrinkles unattractive. They will overlook mine, I hope, I hope. I think you should consider that both sexes can make errors in how they've approached matrimony -- I no less than anyone -- and yet learn from that experience. I'm a far better possible mate than I was 20 years ago and would be very, very motivated to make a marriage work. This is especially so because I have known not a few women and I've experienced divorce.

So time improves people even if they lose that other superfluous "capital."

Previous history does not dispose me to infidelity at all. It teaches me that not making a commitment is a fools game.

I like you point about single people getting too much experience rejecting people. But that changes as one improves the quality of one's thinking. It's a corrolary of lack of commitment. If you're too used to thinking you can always find another (marginally) better woman you don't focus on making a commitment to that flawed but quite adequate women in front of you. I think if a woman knows her man is committed to her, then he will be rewarded with devotion and love that will strictly come out of nowhere. Some will say it doesn't come out of nowhere.

I often think it was a shame that I came "on line" in the 60s when I was determined to join the military. This was not a popular profession amongs my potential mates, not to mention the disruption to life that that service entailed. At the same time, women were being sold a bill of goods about how they didn't need men and needed to pursue careers outside the home so they wouldn't have to be dependent on a mere man. Contact with more traditional women since then -- women not infected with that particular virus -- was always amazing to me. There was this easy acceptance of and enthusiasm for marriage and family, and no defensiveness or brittleness. Pretty nice.

That was for the 60s generation and maybe that experience is no longer relevant to people even 20 years younger than I.

I wonder how true it is that the good ones leave the market early. With widespread confusion about commitment and easy divorce, seductive career, and contraception, it's easy for people to bail from inconvenient marriages and they do at an alarming rate. You know the stats.

Bottom line, I think both you and the author of this blog discount what experience can do to transform one's thinking. We need not be prisoners of our mistakes. But, I have to admit, that enlightenment can be slow in coming. Most of the time I wonder what it was that I was smoking all those decades.

Which makes me one of the more perplexed individuals on the planet, but no less interested in a committed relationship to a "sadder but wider woman," whom I would cherish, given the chance again.