In 2012 I wrote an article at Fox News entitled “The War on Men” in response to a Pew Research finding that showed women ages 18-34 believe having a successful marriage is “one of the most important things in their lives”— and that fewer men were voicing this same opinion. The takeaway? Women want to marry as much as ever, but men increasingly do not.
That isn’t the end of the conversation. The same month, a different Pew finding fell under the radar. Despite valuing marriage, women have also become laser-focused on career—more so than men. “Two-thirds (66%) of young women ages 18 to 34 rate career high on their list of life priorities, compared with 59% of young men,” write Eileen Patten and Kim Parker.
So while it’s true that men overall are less interested in marriage, it is equally true that more women than men are prioritizing career over marriage. That creates a gap between women and the men who do want to marry.
Although we rarely hear about them, there are many marriage-minded men who’ve carved out career paths and are ready to settle down. Problem is, their girlfriends aren’t. In a stunning reversal of traditional gender roles, it is women, not men, who are now reluctant to walk down the aisle.
A Career Focus Can Mean No Family
It seems that whenever we talk of work and family, we pretend these two domains move seamlessly together, melding their way toward an invariably fulfilling future. In fact, they are often incompatible.
While the Pew studies show young women value both marriage and career, these two goals can clash. (Consider the number of couples today who must decide which partner’s career to follow.) When they do, one always gives way to the other. For many women today, that something is marriage.
Take Bill and Sarah. Both are 31, and enmeshed in their respective careers. They live together and earn roughly the same income. Their plan is to eventually marry, which Bill is anxious to do, but Sarah keeps putting it off. She knows that when she does marry, her career will no longer be her number-one priority, and this makes her uneasy. Time is marching on. While there’s talk of nuptials, no plans have been made.
Bill and Sarah are stuck.
The Career-Focused Woman
Like many women today, I always knew I’d have both work and family in my life. But when I envisioned my future, family was always at the center. From the time I was in college, I was thinking, planning, and talking about how to map out a life that incorporated a career but revolved around family. I did so even though in college then most people didn’t talk of marriage. It’s no doubt more verboten today.
Conversely, today’s young women are encouraged to prioritize a career. They’re groomed to value financial independence over marriage and motherhood. Ergo, women put all their eggs in one basket—the career basket—and assume the rest will take care of itself.
Only it doesn’t. Marriage and family require thoughtful planning, just as careers do. More so, even. “It takes a strategy to build relationships and have a happy life, just like it takes a strategy to build a career or business,” notes Lo Myrick in a recent Wall Street Journal article entitled “The Best Relationship Advice of the Year.”
Sadly, we don’t teach women to view marriage this way. Instead we tell them marriage is secondary to a woman’s otherwise more important life—that marriage will either happen or it won’t, as though this major life event were an afterthought. What twisted priorities! It used to be a given that family was what truly mattered and that a job was just the side dish.
But 40 years of feminism changed all that. So did divorce.
How We Choose Our Priorities
How do we form our beliefs about love and life priorities? From the culture, yes. But also from our childhood.
It is natural, for both boys and girls but especially for girls (one need only have a son and a daughter to see the difference in this development), to want to grow up and have a family someday. Children take their cues about marriage from their parents. If the modeling was poor, the children will bring to their adult relationships childhood fears that guide their decisions.
“What is it about the [romantic] area of life,” asks Mark Manson at Business Insider, “that our psychological defense mechanisms run rampant trying to convince us to not pursue what we want?…My fear of commitment is undoubtedly rooted in my parents’ divorce, and my knee jerk reaction for years was to run away any time a woman attempted to get close to me. I slowly eroded that fear by opening myself up to intimate opportunities little by little over a long period of time.”
Women are no different in this regard: they will also close themselves off if they didn’t have a model for lasting love. The difference is that women have a double whammy. Not only are they products of divorce, the culture has convinced them that marriage for women is passé. Girls aren’t “supposed” to grow up and get married. They’re supposed to rule the world.
The result of all these broken families and cultural propaganda is that women put their energies into what they can control, and a career fits the bill. A career can be planned for and neatly executed. We get out what we put in.
Of course, the same can be said about marriage, but women aren’t taught to view it this way. Instead, they consider marriage a risky endeavor—one that requires a large degree of luck. (To some degree, this is true. But our attitudes and beliefs play a much larger role.) So while women may theoretically value marriage, as the Pew study suggests, they have no model for how to make it work.
They want to be married, but they have no compass. So it’s safer to stay focused on career.
Fears of Men and Marriage
Jackie Kennedy once said, “There are two kinds of women in the world: those who want power in the world, and those who want power in bed.”
To put it another way: Some women are career-focused, and some women are family-focused. Yes, a woman can combine these two in some fashion. But at the end of the day, she will have to choose which one matters most. (For the record, so do men. When anyone puts more emphasis on one thing, the other will suffer.)
That is not what women are taught. Rather, they are encouraged to “have it all”: a thoroughly satisfying, independent career life and a high-functioning, happy marriage and family, all without skipping a beat. As if husbands and children don’t change the entire game.
But of course, they do. Deep down, women know this, which is partly why they delay marriage in the first place. Yes, economics plays a role. But the economics of today, as opposed to 50 years ago, is direct result of women being told not to trust men and marriage and to instead focus on career. The fear came first.
I’ve always been sympathetic to a woman’s split identity: as an independent agent and as a mother. But the secret to getting it right, for women who do want to marry, is to emphasize family, not career. Careers come and go; spouses and children are forever. (This is true even for couples with children that divorce.)
And women don’t do that. Instead they focus on career and wind up in a pickle. Either they can’t find a marriageable man because they waited too long and the good ones are taken, or they do find one but cohabit instead and delay the Big Event, thus making their relationship all the more tenuous. Or they marry at the final hour and struggle to have a family the natural way, spending thousands of dollars and shedding endless tears desperately trying to get pregnant.
Women do all of this out of fear. Fear of love, fear of trust, fear of men, fear of marriage. Fear permeates their lives and dictates their actions. As a result, it is now men who are waiting for women to commit. The women they love are using their careers as the reason they can’t or won’t settle down. But in reality, they’re scared.
They’re scared of who they’ll become without their careers. Scared of loving motherhood so much they’ll ditch their career, or of not liking motherhood and wanting to run back to the office—and thus be tormented by guilt. Scared of wanting to stay home but not being able to afford it because they’ve made decisions based on two incomes instead of one. Scared of their marriage ending in divorce.
Yet the irony is that by prioritizing career, the strength of their relationship suffers. That’s because relationships don’t build themselves. Without time, attention, and investment, relationships die.
Choose to Invest in Love
So, what’s the answer? For women to start investing once again in love. Planning in advance for a successful marriage includes making smart choices early on—in work, in sex, and in life. If you want to be a wife and mother someday, take it more seriously than you do your career. Your marriage will have far more impact on your happiness and well-being than will your job. You can always get another job, but you can’t just run out and create a new family.
Well, you can—people do it all the time. But then you’ll be repeating your parents’ mistakes, and your children will be no better off than you are. They too will be products of divorce and neither trust nor believe in love.
You can end this cycle by not letting your parents’ mistakes affect your belief in marriage. If, like Mark Manson, you’re a product of divorce, or even of a high-conflict marriage, don’t give in to the fear that suggests you’ll end up like your parents. Every new generation has a chance to improve upon the former. But to do so, you have to invest the time and energy into your relationship—much more so than you do your career.
In May, I will have been married for 20 years. I’m also a relatively successful writer. But my writing career will ebb and flow. It may even stall. And its ups and downs don’t hold a candle to the ups and downs in my marriage, which affect my happiness and emotional stability in a way my career never could.
I suspect this is true for most of us. So doesn’t it make sense to put marriage first?