Are Women Delaying Marriage Because They’re Being Too Picky?

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A new study reports on the rising average age of first marriage in the United States. While 20-something men delay for reasons that are primarily financial, women are described as overly picky and fearful.

It may have been easy to miss in the recent wall-to-wall coverage of the Supreme Court and gay marriage, but a new study out this month heralds more “bad” news for the state of heterosexual unions. Too many women are waiting too long to get married, the report—authored by leading social conservatives—laments, and the risk that this delay poses to the happiness of all but the most fortunate is apparently tremendous. All you single (straight) ladies may be doing a splendid job of changing your Facebook profile photos to support the right of same-sex couples to wed, but y’all are taking too damn long to get the ring on your own fingers.

Knot Yet: The Benefits and Costs of Delayed Marriage in America presents itself as a neutral analysis of the impact of the rising age of first marriage. The average age at which women marry for the first time has risen to 27, up from 23 as recently as 1990. (For men, the age at which they first get hitched is at 29, also a record high.) While the researchers reluctantly acknowledge that this shift brings benefits to one group—highly-educated women—they insist it has had a disastrous impact on almost everyone else, especially unmarried folks in their 20s. The unwed, they claim “are significantly more likely to drink to excess, to be depressed, and to report lower levels of satisfaction with their lives, compared to married 20-somethings.”

A deeper look at the study—and the ancillary blog posts and articles from the authors—reveals rigidly gendered assumptions about why men and women postpone marriage. For the dudes, it’s all about the dreadful economy: They want to get married, the researchers remind us repeatedly, but they can’t afford to. Study co-author W. Bradford Wilcox offers us the example of Chris, a 22-year-old welder who says that “his recent stint of unemployment ‘drove the final nail in the coffin’ of his relationship with a young woman he was hoping to marry.” The assumption is that men would marry earlier—certainly before they became fathers—if only they had jobs that paid them well enough to support a wife and family. The young male spirit is willing, but the young male bank account is just too weak.

The authors of Knot Yet ascribe different motivations to the women who wait to marry. While 20-something guys delay for reasons that are primarily financial, women are described as overly picky, fearful, and waiting—unrealistically to be struck by certainty. One post on the Knot Yet site makes much of Stephanie, 25, and a single mother who claims that lack of money is just an excuse rather than the real reason for the delay in getting wed. “‘I ended up running away,’” she chuckles (when asked why she turned down an offer of marriage from an ex)…“I don’t know. I seem to [run away from relationships once they get serious] a lot. Especially if I get into a position where I’m really unsure…It makes me think about, ‘Is this really how I want the rest of my life to be?’” 

In the same excerpt in which he empathizes with Chris the depressed welder, Wilcox frets about Melissa, a 31-year-old single mom who “harbor(s) a general suspicion about the possibility of lifelong love and the whole institution of marriage.” The framing is all too obvious: Men are constrained by lack of economic opportunity, while women are constrained by their own fears—or ambitions. The authors suggest that men, particularly working class men, don’t marry because of external factors beyond their control, while their female peers wait because of internal doubts and expectations for which they are at least partly responsible.

Most of the mainstream media coverage of the Knot Yet report has glossed over this inescapable anti-feminist message. Reporting on the study has largely failed to mention that three of the four main authors are renowned social conservatives who have been active in both the abstinence-only and traditional marriage camps for years. Wilcox, a director of the anti-equality National Marriage Project, served as a paid consultant on the widely-discredited “gay parents are bad for children” study authored by evangelical darling Mark Regnerus. Kay Hymowitz, author of the feminist-bashing Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men into Boys, has written in defense of misunderstood, well-intentioned single young men who have been cruelly transformed into what she calls a “breeding experiment run by women.” And Jason Carroll, a director of Brigham Young University’s RELATE Institute to promote healthier marriages, is perhaps best known as co-author of a widely disputed study that claimed that pre-marital abstinence leads to better communication after the knot is tied. It would not be a stretch to point out that this is a group with, at the least, a long history of promoting a socially conservative agenda.

Perhaps because the authors are so well-known as promoters of conservative family policies, there’s little that seems novel about Knot Yet’s renewed push for early marriage. The study fits in nicely with the whole “settle for Mr. Good Enough” message promoted by Lori Gottlieb and others. It also dovetails with the Bush-era campaign to promote marriage as a strategy for reducing spending on social programs that disproportionately benefit single women (and their children.) 

If there’s a consistent lament from anti-feminist social conservatives like Wilcox, Hymowitz, and Carroll, it’s that the expansion of the (admittedly fragile) safety net since the 1960s has displaced men from their traditional roles as protectors and providers. It’s why so many angry white men vote Republican—they imagine that they’ve been cuckolded by wily liberal Democrats who’ve seduced middle-class women with feminist theory and working-class women with welfare. Rather than working to wriggle out of the Protector/Provider/Patriarch straitjacket, young men like Chris the welder fall into self-pitying depression and conservative sociologists like Wilcox wring their hands over picky unmarried women who have lost the ability to distinguish “good men from bad.” Men derive their identity from women’s dependency, the authors of Knot Yet imply, and the refusal of so many women to return to that natural state of vulnerability threatens the happiness of children and the stability of society itself.

The Knot Yet study is right to note that there are a wide variety of social and economic factors driving these dramatic changes in American marriage and reproductive practices. And though their goal of making “family life more stable for children” may be a worthy one, it’s a shame that they see that stability as contingent more on a lowering of female expectations than upon male transformation.

Hugo Schwyzer has taught history and gender studies at Pasadena City College since 1993, where he developed the college’s first courses on Men and Masculinity and Beauty and Body Image. A writer and speaker as well as a professor, Hugo lives with his wife, daughter, and son in Los Angeles. Hugo blogs at his eponymous website and co-authored the recent autobiography of supermodel Carré Otis, Beauty, Disrupted. You can find him on Twitter at @hugoschwyzer.

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