On Marrying Your Intellectual Equal

Susan Patton, in a letter to the Daily Princetonian, told college women to hurry up and find a mate while they’re still in school because intellectual equality is key to a long-term relationship. Nancy Townsley argues that it’s not the only thing that matters.

My college best friend got married in late December 1981 after dating her intended, a Bruce Dern look-alike from Washington, for less than a year. I followed suit in March 1982, marrying a sweet, buttoned-down man I’d gotten to know at our mutual alma mater, Oregon State University, in the fall of 1978. He had piercing blue eyes, played guitar, and sang John Denver songs, an aesthetic and emotional trifecta that caused me to swoon early on and say “I do” four years later.

He was far better than the last guy I’d dated, who cheated on me with a busty-but-brainless sorority sister. Plus, my new man reminded me of my father, whom I adore, so he had that going for him.

Because of their brief courting history and what I perceived to be a precariously yin-yang sort of match, I wondered, quite self-righteously, whether my friend’s marriage would last—and it has, for 32 years now. Mine made it nearly two decades and produced three lovely and talented children. But in a few critical ways overlooked by both of us before we tied the knot just after grabbing our undergrad diplomas, perhaps it was doomed from the beginning.


Long before the Internet was born, opening the floodgates for relationships to blossom online, we selected our mates the old-fashioned way: We met in lecture halls, at Friday night keg parties, and through mutual friends high on life, Jim Beam, and hormones running amok. We paid little attention to where each of us landed on the Intelligence Quotient spectrum, so immersed were we in the Attraction Quotient.

My first husband got a BS in business administration and I earned a BA in technical journalism, with a minor in Spanish thrown in for flair. In the weeks and months after graduation, we rode the waves of an illusion that the world was indeed our oyster and we were its perfectly-paired pearls. After four years of ladder-climbing, he reaching a much higher rung than me, we conceived our first child, the embodiment of most of our dreams and proof positive that our little family was predestined for success. Dinner conversations were lively, if not stilted at times, each of us gazing across the table secretly longing for something more than we were able to admit we needed.

We had married, in effect, for love, and even though our relationship eventually disintegrated and lurched to an end, I still think we generally (and unwittingly) followed the advice of Princeton University alumna Susan Patton long before her letter—urging female undergrads to locate and snare equally erudite husbands before leaving school to establish their careers—appeared in The Daily Princetonian last March.

Patton argued that once a coed left campus, the pool of satisfyingly smart suitors would vastly shrink, rendering her much less likely to find and keep a mate for life. “Simply put, there is a very limited population of men who are as smart or smarter than we are. And I say again—you will never again be surrounded by this concentration of men who are worthy of you,” Patton warned.

Though it wasn’t something I gave careful thought to back then, my kids’ dad and I were relative intellectual equals, at least in the purely earned-GPA sense of the phrase. We both commenced without a “cum laude” behind our names but with comparatively high standing in OSU’s Class of 1980, a minor miracle considering all the extracurricular shenanigans we both participated in. We drank and cavorted, stayed up way too late, and studied far too little, getting by on our wits, NoDoz, and the ability to ace the occasional multiple-choice exam.

Yet here’s the thing: I now think our long-term mismatch resulted not from a deficiency on either of our parts in the intelligence department, but from the distinct way each of us trained a lens on the world, he largely through linear, pragmatism-tinted glasses and me through more adventuresome, passion-colored ones. We read, we strived, we achieved—yet we too quickly launched our lives on boats equipped with vastly different navigational tools, eventually arriving at a destination we never meant to reach.

That’s why I like what a recent article in The Atlantic has to say about the metamorphosis of modern marriage. In a post-feminist society, argues author Richard V. Reeves, a new “high investment parenting” model—in which mature adults synthesize their needs and desires with those of their offspring, often emphasizing the latter over the former—has usurped outdated gender roles and social rules for marriage, resulting in greater stability and contentment. Female professionals in dual-income relationships have replaced women dependent on men to make a living for the family while they, to paraphrase my college pal’s father, are counted on only to “make the living worthwhile.”

Patton’s theory that intellectual equality is critical to a couple’s cohesion, while intriguing, takes an unfortunate U-turn when it suggests to female undergrads that they employ a “hurry up and don’t wait” approach to pairing up for life. I much prefer Reeves’ view of a more progressive cohabitational contract, one in which individuals take a marital long view, often putting off the wedding until they complete graduate school, get a few bucks in the bank, and grow up a little.

The marriages in my sphere that have gone the distance display a repertoire of caring behaviors between their partners that has only increased with the passage of time, owing largely, I think, to built-in reserves of Emotional Intelligence that trump IQ in terms of relevance to the relationship’s long-term health.

So the moral of the story might be this: Marry someone who’s your IQ equal and also your EQ complement, so that you look at life through a similar lens from the start. And, beware the lust-filled early stages of any affair that lulls you into believing the road to perennial bliss is paved only with identical measures of gray matter. The contents of that cleverness—and in particular, its intentions, hopes, and dreams—are every bit as significant.

Nancy Townsley is managing editor of two community newspapers, the Hillsboro Tribune and the Forest Grove News-Times. Her work has most recently been published in Brave on the Page: Oregon Writers on Craft and the Creative Life (Forest Avenue Press), the Riveter Magazine, runnersworld.com, and Bleed, a literary blog from Jaded Ibis Press. She lives in St. Helens, Oregon.

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