How Women Are Losing in the Marriage Market

How Women Are Losing in the Marriage Market

how women are losing in the marriage market kate bolick mark regnerusI don’t expect that many people read both The Atlantic and Christianity Today, but I’m one of them.  These two publications don’t agree on much, so when they do, I pay attention:  particularly when the topic is as explosive as love, sex, and marriage.

(In fact, one of the most popular posts on this blog is (Arranged) Marriage and the Modern Girl, which highlights the similarities between the marriage advice dispensed by Lori Gottlieb at the Atlantic and devoutly religious families negotiating arranged marriages for their daughters.)

My new issue of The Atlantic arrived in my mailbox last week with a 39-year-old woman gracing its cover, proclaiming “What, Me Marry?  In today’s economy, men are falling apart.  What that means for sex and marriage.”  The short answer:  nothing good.

Statistics indicate that males, as a group, are in decline.  Author Kate Bolick discusses how this decline (as measured by statistics on income, education, and unemployment) is creating what she calls a “new scarcity.”   Women typically want marriage more than men do, but a “marriageable” man is harder to find than ever. And that disrupts what sociologist Mark Regnerus (in an interview with Christianity Today) calls the “traditional marriage economy,” which looks like this:

Most men want sex more than do women and have traditionally gained access to sex via marriage.  In turn, most women have given sex for marriage, which has brought economic security and commitment.

Does that description make you cringe?  You’re not alone.  Regnerus explains, “People will cringe to listen to it, but when they think about it, it’s remarkable how accurate it can be.”

But the economics of sex is changing.  The minority gender has more power, and as the supply of “marriageable” men decreases, “women [are] competing for men rather than the other way around,” says Regnerus.  When women outnumber men, Bolick says, “social norms against casual sex will weaken.”  But it’s not casual sex marriage-minded women are after.  They want a real relationship, but too many women “feel they have little choice, that to delay sex puts the relationship at risk.  That’s how male-centered relationships have become.”

These authors aren’t describing how things ought to be, but how things are.  Regnerus says, “I’m optimistic about individuals’ chances.  Always.  But collectively I’m not optimistic.”

I got married at (almost) 22.  11 years later, I have friends who are in the marriage market, trying to find a good man who isn’t (as Bolick puts it) a deadbeat or a player.  And they’re asking: how much should you compromise?  Sacrifice?  Settle?

I know my answer:  I do think there’s a time to make realistic compromises:  go on and marry the guy who doesn’t love tennis, or dogs, or the theater.  If an otherwise good guy is too short, or too tall, or bald, or wants 2 kids instead of 3, go for it.  But don’t let anyone force you to into a script you don’t want because you don’t see any other options. You won’t do yourself any good, and you won’t be doing women on the whole any good either.  Don’t settle for that.

What’s your experience?  Do you see these dynamics playing out in your own lives?  In the lives of your friends?  What do you think this all means for women today?

Ironically, I was reading The Atlantic article on my front porch, watching the kids play in the yard, when my next door neighbor popped over to say hello and tell me she’d gotten married.  This long-divorced, 40-something woman with two college-aged kids found a “great guy” and they’d just returned home from a month (month!) in Napa.  What would Regnerus and Bolick say about that?

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  1. Jamie says:

    Ironically, in my experience it has been the women with the highest standards that have had the least trouble in the marriage market. Men (the good ones) like a challenge and they appreciate girls/women who don’t have a string of exes or albums of drinking photos on their Facebook page.

    I also agree that getting married early makes a difference! Obviously not everyone can, but starting out facing the world together early seems to make it a lot easier to build a happy, successful relationship than trying to bend two disparate lives together later on.

    Good post!

    • Adriana says:

      Love your comment Jamie – the first part especially. This was my experience. My standards were very high. I got married at 25. Sex came after the vows:) Delaying physical intimacy in no way put our relationship at risk! Instead it gave me a chance to clearly evaluate the true character of this man I was considering building my life with. I discovered him to be a person of honesty, integrity, and self-control. These were qualities I knew would see me through the long haul. 10 years later, I am positive I made the right choice:)

  2. Amber says:

    I have to say I really admire someone like you. I love that you find inspiration and information from multiple sources, coming from different perspectives. It really is a breath of fresh air. Too often (and I think it is becoming worse in our society), people only go after the information that “agrees” with their religious beliefs, outlooks, political affiliations, etc. But there are multiple sides to a story and (at least in my opinion), it can only broaden your perspective and understanding to learn about them.

    Marriage is such an interesting journey. I do think women today have such unrealistic expectations about marriage. I see this playing out with some of my girlfriends and, sometimes (gasp!), me. It is great that women feel more in control of their lives, money, etc., but that doesn’t mean they can’t enjoy the more traditional aspects of marriage as well. In my marriage, we have reached a balance that works for us. Women (and men) shouldn’t have to settle, but they should also realize that no one is perfect, and happiness can come in many forms.

  3. DFrazzled says:

    A friend of mine starting having sex three weeks into a new relationship. Although she does not have a moral standing against pre-marriage sex, it was faster than she had intended. His response afterward: “What took you so long?”

  4. Lori says:

    This is why it is up to us mothers and fathers to produce good men…men who work hard, believe strongly in the institution of marriage for life, respect women, and love children! I always encourage the women I mentor to allow your husbands to make their sons into men. Don’t interfer when he’s tough on your sons. They need to be tough. It’s a tough world out there!

  5. Dang… I have so much to do since getting home from the blogging conference but so much I would like to write about this ( where is the time fairy when you need her?)..

    In a nutshell – It’s complex and I think it goes back to how a generation of children were and are being raised. After a failed first marriage ( with the exception of three great kids) I learned and am pretty sure that a lot of men in my age range were just wrong for me in that I wanted someone strong and responsible and this age bracket seemed to be filled with a lot of nar-do-well types who lacked courage and ambition. They were babied by their mothers, let to skate through school, partied through college and then thought the world owed them a job- so wrong

    I looked to the age set above mine, in my case by 14 years for find a man/men who embodied the qualities I wanted in a husband- I found him and he is AMAZING. This is further reflected in how we raise our children ( now numbering 6).. all of them. I want them all to be strong, and independent, and worthy of finding a mate they love.

    I love men and know some great guys but as mothers and fathers we need to think who we are raising and get on the stick about getting it right.

    Maddie- who seems to have a large nutshell :)

  6. 'Becca says:

    I admire your synthesizing of diverse perspectives! In today’s world of MEdia tailored to niche markets, it’s important to look at how people different from yourself see things, too.

    I have been happily unmarried for 15 years. One of many reasons we aren’t married is to avoid feeling trapped by stereotypes of what a wife does and how a husband should behave. Even for people who are married, I think being flexible about who does what (earn money, cook, bathe child, do laundry, etc.) is an important part of success, particularly in a society where stable well-paid jobs are more scarce esp. in traditionally male fields. Faith Permeating Life has several nice stories of a young married couple negotiating some of these things.

    To me, the partial separation of sex from domestic partnership in our society is not a bad thing, but it does add some confusion to traditional assumptions about what is in the “package” of marriage. I work for a long-term research study of males, who are now in their thirties. A majority are fathers, but only about half of those are married. The variety of domestic arrangements is fascinating. One that is surprisingly prevalent is, “living with his child(ren) and their mother, who is no longer his romantic partner.” They provide stability for the child and save money and time on domestic tasks by continuing to share a home. I know one man personally who is in this type of family, and it takes a different type of emotional strength and time management than marriage, but it does require quite a bit of both. I think in the next few years, particularly if the economy stays difficult, we’re going to see more alternative arrangements like that. To me, it sounds preferable to having a lot of adults living alone, esp. when it gives children one home instead of joint custody.

    I do see an increase (among people I know) in the number of men who kind of wander through life with sporadic and/or unambitious employment and a tendency to dodge responsibility and procrastinate. An important thing to understand about this (which a lot of pro-marriage folk seem not to comprehend) is that marriage DOES NOT SOLVE THIS PROBLEM. The man will most likely fail to be a satisfactory traditional husband, while his wife feels trapped and bitter. A better solution is a partnership in which the man’s strengths, whatever they may be, are used to support the partner who is filling in for his weaknesses. Honestly, traditional marriage is set up that way, too, just with particular assumptions about who’s good at what: The husband’s strength at some form of work is used to support the wife, filling in for her weakness as an earner; the wife’s strength at home management is used to support the husband, filling in for his weakness as a cook, parent, etc. In an era when women’s earning power is well on the way to surpassing men’s, pushing traditional marriage is a less constructive solution than encouraging men to improve their home skills and parenting skills. Kids need fathers and need to see them as competent.

  7. I have many friends in this situation, however, almost all my friends that are religious and/or have high morals and unwavering standards are already married (and I’m only 24). The ones that date around, sleep around, etc. looking for men to love them (and I think this relates a lot to self esteem issues) are the ones that never even approach marriageable men because they’ll throw themselves at the first ones that come along (who are never of very good marriage quality). It’s very difficult to watch as a friend, but there is only so much I can say!

    • Anne says:

      Yes, and I think this is a big point–throwing yourself at the first one who comes along because you think that’s what HE wants is not going to get the woman what SHE wants! I think you’re totally right about the self-esteem issues!

  8. It’s hard for me to weigh in here because I met and married my husband in college, but I’ll try.

    Refusing to have sex before marriage doesn’t alienate quality, marriagable men. It only alienates the men who are unchaste and are looking for women who are the same. And honestly, isn’t that the kind of man we should WANT to alienate? I know I might sound idealistic, but being married to a man who loves you enough to marry you before sleeping with you is infinitely more fulfilling than being married to a man who likes Death Cab for Cutie as much as you do.

    It seems it’s become acceptable to place importance on all the wrong things….thus resulting in such a high rate of divorce.

    • 'Becca says:

      Dwija, although I personally had no interest in saving sex for marriage, I agree with you! A marriageable man is first and foremost one who shares your beliefs ABOUT MARRIAGE and what it is for; that means that if you are saving sex for marriage, any man who resents you for it is by definition an unsuitable man for you.

      I also met the right man for me when I was in college. I admit that this means I have no first-hand understanding of what the adult dating scene is like. (It sounds awful!) But it doesn’t mean I, or you or Modern Mrs. Darcy, have no understanding of how to choose the right man. It just means we were fortunate enough to meet the right man early in life and recognize that he was the right one.

      • Anne says:

        ‘Becca, excellent point–the person you marry should absolutely share your beliefs ABOUT MARRIAGE.

        And for your 2nd paragraph: yes, yes and amen.

    • Allison says:


      I think you’re most definitely right about needing to find someone with the same values as yourself. In me and my husband’s case, we both wanted to have sex and live together before getting married, because neither or us would ever be comfortable agreeing to bind ourselves to another person without knowing if we were compatible in those two very important areas. I would never buy a car without test-driving it first, or buy shoes without trying them on. Luckily he’s a clean, tidy person who’s an absolute joy to live with… which is one of the reasons I married him and not someone else!

      If he hadn’t been great in bed (which he was, thank goodness!), that wouldn’t have meant I wouldn’t have married him either… but if he’d been bad in bed AND had no intention of learning how to please me/didn’t care about pleasing me/thought he was God’s gift to women or just in general had a poor attitude about something so delicate and personal… that might have been a reason to keep looking.

  9. sarah says:

    As a 30 year old single, I can totally relate to the shortage of “marriageable” men! It’s so true! I am looking for a relationship that can be built on the firm foundation of Christ and am frequently surprised at how hard it is to find a man that wants the same. In fact, the most recent guy I dated seemed like a decent, church-going guy who I shared many similarities with…all was well until…I found out he was sleeping with a married woman!!! I was astounded! And, needless to say, never went out with him again after that.
    And so my search continues…

  10. Amanda says:

    I can so relate to Sarah’s comment! My biggest challenge seems to be that (in the eyes of most of the Christian guys my age – I’m almost 26) I am over-educated. I’ve found that the pool of guys who appreciate intellectualism generally have issues with my faith and that guys in the church have issues with my brain. But in reality, it’s not even an issue. In a church of 700, there are 2 single men in my age bracket (at least that attend regularly and are engaged in the life of the church). They’re not in the shadows, they’re not there at all. Not saying you have to date someone who attends your church, but as that’s where I spend most of my time I’m using it as an example. I’ve seen a lot of girls start compromising when it comes to dating a believer because, they say – where are they? There aren’t any. And I get it. It’s a really interesting topic, one I know that people have been observing and writing about for years. I’m not sure it will change, really.

    • Anne says:

      It is such an interesting topic, and I am loving the great dialogue here from the different perspectives!

      Bolick’s theory, and to a lesser extent, Regnerus’s, was that changes to fundamental things like marriage were much more likely to occur in times of great economic flux, and that it’s looking more and more like that’s what we’re in. We’ll see what happens…

    • Sharon says:

      Hey Amanda, I had the same problem. No eligible bachelors to be found in my church. So, I joined eHarmony, met my husband within a month of joining and we got married just shy of a year later. We were both 29 when we married. I know some people have had good experiences with eHarmony, and others have not. But, I just wanted to throw out that option to you.

  11. First, I should probably state that I am not a Christian and secondly that I am unmarried. I am a student.

    I live with three men and two women. We all have strong values that are the foundations of how we interact. We have an evening meal, cooked by one of us, washed and dried by others, every evening at the dining room table. In choosing the house we agreed that having a dining room table was a high priority for us. Our food bills are shared, our washing is done together and we are each equally responsible for emptying the bins. I know this isn’t typical for a student house, but it’s how we work.

    When I cry there are five people looking out for me. When I go to the gym there are four people asking how it went and another stood behind me helping me put my bike back behind the sofa. The three men will all make excellent husbands when they find the right girl to marry. They are all tall, good looking, kind, caring men. They all agree that they’d like to marry if they found the right woman.


    • Anne says:

      Kate, I am married, past student life, and I am a little jealous of your arrangement! I love living with my husband who is truly my very best friend,and with our kids, but I wish we were fortunate enough to live in a broader community with supportive friends and maybe even extended family. Instead, it’s just us.

      The last third or so of Bolick’s article is devoted to exploring supportive relationships that are NOT marital or romantic. She suggests that the emphasis on marital relationships in our culture comes at a cost to the other important relationships in a person’s life. Your comment here reminds me of her ending emphasis on the importance of friends and extended family, like aunts and uncles. Personally, I want it both ways!

  12. The notion of who’s a ‘marriageable’ man & who’s not is an interesting one: if it is determined by income, education, and employment, then many single men who are good guys are in trouble if they’ve been laid off or are underemployed.

    I don’t know much about whether single women are more agressively chasing after marriageable men or not, but I do see couples who can’t or won’t move forward because of their economic situation. I know of an unmarried couple grappling with the man’s long-term unemployment, and others struggling with low wages.

  13. HopefulLeigh says:

    Anecdotally, I agree that marriageable men are becoming a rarity, especially as I get older and remain single. I found much of the Atlantic article to be depressing, as if being a single Christian woman in my 30s makes me an endangered species that has no marital prospects. I have standards, yes, but I’m hoping to find a man that will live up to them. I refuse to settle and I’m quite sure that if I don’t get married, I will still have a fulfilling life. Unfortunately, society seems predisposed toward the married and parenting folks so it’s easy to feel left out at church and many other places. That just means that “older” singles have to be more intentional about finding and creating community.

  14. Jen says:

    I should preface my comment by saying I am 32, live in a big city, am in no way religious, and am married and have been since I was 23, so take my perspective for what it is. But none of my single female friends now or in the past 11 years since I got out of college has had much anxiety over sex before getting married. I personally don’t know of any friends who waited until being married to have sex, nor do I know anyone who lost a relationship over not having sex soon enough. I have to wonder if the idea that women “hold out” on sex to encourage marriage (as the sociologist quoted above says) is really true any more–is there any data to back it up? It’s certainly not in any of the circles I’ve ever been part of. That’s not to say all women nowadays are promiscuous, but I haven’t heard that kind of worrying about sex since I was in high school. What I DO hear though is concerns over marriageable men. I have plenty of friends in their mid 30s to early 40s who complain that most decent guys are married by that time, and what’s left are generally the guys with problems (jerks, those who enjoy the bachelor life a little too much, guys with poor relationship skills, etc).

  15. Lucky says:

    I was thinking about this today, and wondering if there’s any correlation between the lack of marriageable men and the fact that Beavis And Butthead is coming back to TV.

  16. Yan says:

    I’m 34 and single. Purposefully not married, too. I feel that the current definitions of marriage are getting more and more narrow despite also being expanded in some areas to include gay marriage. I don’t see a place for me in the institution as defined.

    That doesn’t mean I’ve closed my eyes to the benefits of a good partnership. I’m watching, looking, open to that. I am not waiting for one person to start my life, but I hope some day to add someone to it and reap the benefits of being two together.

    I think the main thing I see having changed in the idea of marriage is so many women (and maybe men, I don’t know — my male friends don’t talk about it like women do) expect a “perfect” man who will fulfill all of their interpersonal and relationship needs — family, friend, confidante, “soul mate,” alpha and omega person. That is a LOT of pressure on a relationship. I see a vast difference in finding a person you can fall in love with, build a life with, and built a beautiful friendship with and expecting one person who can fulfill your every emotional and social need.

    Perfection is not human nor all that interesting. And love is a messy adventure.

  17. Sharon says:

    My husband and I were 29 when we got married. I have been a Christian my whole life and knew that I wanted to marry a good, Christian man. But, I spent quite a bit of time dating every Mr. Wrong that came across my path. To be honest, I was totally intimidated by the right kind of guy. (AKA I had low self-esteem). And, also, the churches I went to didn’t have many eligible bachelors to begin with. When I was finally sick and tired of having my heart broken again and again, I joined eHarmony. I met my husband within a month and we were married just under a year later. As one friend told me, I’d dated around enough to know what I wanted and didn’t want in a husband, so there was no need for us to date for a super long time before getting married. I totally agree that men respect the women who respect themselves.

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