Politics & Policy

Single Hope

A conversation on love and marriage with Barbara Dafoe Whitehead.

Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, a sociologist who co-directs the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University, is probably best known for having written the article “Dan Quayle Was Right” in the April 1993 Atlantic Monthly. Her latest book is Why There Are No Good Men Left: The Romantic Plight of the New Single Woman. We asked her to some Valentine Day questions on the state of singles in America.

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: The title of your latest book — Why There Are No Good Men Left — suggests that men might have the bulk of the “issues” when it comes to getting married, is that the case?

BARBARA DAFOE WHITEHEAD: The title of my book is based on a perception that is widely held among marriage-minded single women between the ages of 25-35. Empirically, the perception is false. The vast majority of young women, especially college-educated white women, will marry at least once in a lifetime, presumably because they’ve found a good man. However, there are important reasons why women feel unduly pessimistic about their chances, and the book identifies them: They begin a serious search for a husband at an older age, when they have less time left on their biological clock. A pool of suitable single men is harder to locate, once women are in the work world and beyond the college campus. And even some of the suitable men are in no great hurry to marry, given the pleasures of the single life and their opportunities to enjoy many of the sexual and domestic benefits of marriage by living with a girlfriend. And these are only a few of the reasons explored in the book.

LOPEZ: You argue that “social forces have changed the timetable and course of love”? In general, is this good or bad?

WHITEHEAD: In general, for women, it’s good. They are able to finish college, get further professional or graduate training and establish themselves in their chosen careers. They are better armored against the economic fallout of divorce in today’s high divorce society. And college-educated women who marry at older ages than the college women of the 1960s are likely to have stronger and longer-lasting marriages. However, until we have a courtship system that reflects this new timetable, there is a downside: The search for a husband is likely to be a rocky and lonely “do-it-yourself” project, unsupported by the larger society.

LOPEZ: Do you think The Bachelor/The Bachelorette/Joe Millionaire are really about courtship? Isn’t it just people looking for fame and fortune?

WHITEHEAD: I think you have to distinguish between the “actors” and the audience. Clearly, Trista (The Bachelorette) and Evan (Joe Millionaire) are after fame and fortune, not a serious courtship leading to marriage. Still, I would argue that the popularity of these admittedly schlocky shows, and particularly The Bachelorette, tells us something about the audience and its yearning for the ordered rituals of romantic courtship.

LOPEZ: Not to sound like the guys in Sleepless in Seattle, but most single women over 30 today — will they wind up married? With Children?

WHITEHEAD: Yes. And yes. But for women who marry at older ages, it may be “a child” rather than “children.” For educated married women, the birth rate has been falling and is likely to continue to do so.

LOPEZ: Egg freezing, IVF — how deep an impact are these having on the timetable and course of love and marriage?

WHITEHEAD: Some women have used these technologies to extend their natural biological clock. But so far, these women are the exception rather than the rule. There isn’t any evidence that assisted reproductive technologies offer a surefire way to achieve motherhood. Nonetheless, many women are deluded into thinking so. And efforts by specialists in reproductive medicine (mostly women) to remind women of the fertility factor have been met by furious condemnation by NOW.

LOPEZ: Do you anticipate any backlash on the horizon? Folks getting married younger en masse, rejecting cohabitation, etc?

WHITEHEAD: Educated single women are less likely to cohabit than those with lower levels of educational attainment, a reversal of the pattern in the 1970s and 1980s. I expect this trend will continue and perhaps lead to a rejection of cohabitation among more educated women. No evidence to date of a return to earlier patterns of marrying at younger ages.

LOPEZ: To singles on Valentine’s Day, what’s your best advice?

WHITEHEAD: If you are a married-minded woman, over the age of 25, be confident of success but be mindful of time and don’t waste it on low-commitment cohabiting relationships.

LOPEZ: Would you have any different advice for men?

WHITEHEAD: Though I’m not in the advice business, here’s what I might say to men, or at least to my 23-year old son: If you’ve found the woman you want to marry and you want to have children with her, respect her timetable and plan marriage accordingly. If you are over thirty, still looking for the right woman to marry, and wondering what smart thirtysomething women really want, consider this: Many smart women in their thirties are looking for a worthy man who is able to engage in a relatively short but serious-minded courtship with marriage as a possible goal.


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