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Why We Choose To Get Married

By Jane Ganahl,

A hundred years ago, single men and women married each other for practical reasons. Women, with no hope of becoming educated or having a career, chose men who would be good providers. Men needed someone to take care of the home, cook and bear children to carry on the family name or even work in the family business. To paraphrase the lyrics of Tina Turner, what did love have to do with it? Not much; passionate love and major attraction were not even high on the list of reasons to consider marriage a few generations ago.

These days, it appears that both men and women have become utterly, completely impractical about why they want to marry someone — and it’s quite a turnaround since the days of yore. In fact, a study conducted by Dr. Christine B. Whelan at the University of Pittsburgh and Christie Boxer at the University of Iowa has shown that, since women are now making their own way in the world, there has been a profound shift in the reasons both genders choose to marry someone. The study’s researchers examined how men and women each ranked the importance of 18 different characteristics when choosing a potential spouse (from “irrelevant” to “crucial”) over a 70-year period, allowing them to see how the answers evolved across three different generations of college-aged singles. And my, how our priorities have changed!

For example: in 1977, women ranked a man’s desire to be a dad at #10 in their lists of “must-haves” for husbands. In the aforementioned recent study, it’s moved up to #4 on the list. Why? Because women today want men that will be equally excited about becoming parents and caregivers for any future children they’d be raising together.

Men’s priorities have also changed when it comes to what they’re looking for in a potential wife. You don’t have to be an avid watcher of Mad Men to know that, back in the ‘60s, men were much less interested in a woman’s intellect. In fact, they ranked education and intelligence at #11 on their lists of attractive qualities in women. These days, more enlightened men (perhaps raised by feminists?) rank a woman’s intelligence (#4 on the list) above her good looks (#8) in assessing the most desirable qualities in a wife. How much women value a potential husband’s level of education and intelligence hasn’t really changed — it’s still #5 on the list. A woman’s desire to have a home and raise children now falls to #9 on the list for men, indicating a desire to marry for much different reasons than simply carrying on the family name through their offspring.

“Finally, men are considering more long-lasting traits in women than just good looks!” says Dr. Michelle Gannon, psychologist and co-founder of Marriage Prep 101. “Men are looking for women who are accomplished and interesting, but who will also be supportive and loving.”

Other interesting facts from this study:

  • Both men and women highly value emotional maturity and dependability, ranking it #3 on the list of desirable traits.
  • Both sexes ranked “sociability” in their top 10 lists (#6). In decades past this quality was ranked much lower, indicating that we all want a spouse who’ll participate with us actively in our social lives.
  • Both genders value “good health” in a potential spouse.
  • Women used to rank “good financial prospect/provider” very highly when considering potential husbands; now it’s fallen to #10 on their list because they expect to co-provide for the household financially.
  • Women also used to rank “ambition and industriousness” very highly, but now those qualities have fallen to #8 on their list because, again, women these days have ambitions of their own and don’t need to rely so heavily on their husbands.

“Today’s couples want more egalitarian relationships,” says Gannon. “Since many women want to have their own education, a career, marriage and a family, choosing someone who is a good partner, in the truest sense of the word, has never been more important. It is wise for women to choose men who truly aspire to having a home and children, who are emotionally mature and dependable — because high-functioning marriages and families don’t just happen on their own.”

In the “not surprising” category of the study results:

  • Men currently place an even higher premium on attractiveness than they did during Don Draper’s heyday. In 1956, good looks ranked at #15 on their list of women’s desirable qualities. In 2010, looks have risen to the #8 position — perhaps because we’re bombarded daily with media images of beautiful women? For the ladies, a man’s physical attractiveness didn’t even make it into their top 10 list; “good looks” can be found in the #12 spot when ranking a man’s desirability.
  • Apparently, women really do love bad boys: Men rank having a “pleasing disposition” higher on their list (#5) than women do (#7), indicating that women are more willing to deal with a spouse whose personality can be somewhat challenging at times.

And now, for the best news gleaned from this survey: both men and women agree that the most important reason to marry someone now is for love. When reviewing their lists, both sexes put “mutual love and attraction” in the #1 spot. If you think this choice seems obvious, consider the same answers from 1939 — when women ranked “love” at #5 on their list of reasons to marry! Nowadays, women don’t need husbands to act as their providers; when they marry, it’s because they’ve found a soul mate. And until recent decades, men placed true love at #4 on their priority list — behind dependability, stability and generally being “nice” (all qualities that one might find in, say, a major appliance).

“In our Marriage Prep 101 workshops, we see that both men and women desire deep, passionate love,” says Gannon. “The trick with today’s marriages is making that love last long-term. We teach people that love is not just a feeling, it’s also an action. Staying in love requires both partners to be intentional and proactive within their relationship. It’s one thing to marry because you found your soul mate; it’s another to make that marriage last through the years.”

Jane Ganahl is author of Naked on the Page: The Misadventures of My Unmarried Midlife,editor of the anthology Single Woman of a Certain Age, journalist of two decades, and codirector of San Francisco’s Litquake literary festival.

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