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The Marrying Kind

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Embassy Pictures Corporation /Photofest
Anne Bancroft, Katharine Ross, and Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate (1967)

Reading the first three of these books about marriage, you might be tempted to reflect that there’s nothing new under the sun. Books of advice about finding love and keeping it have been around, offering formulas and nostrums to readers and believers, since the beginning of print, and so have statistics about the demise of marriage. But Committed and Marry Him, the two books by Elizabeth Gilbert and Lori Gottlieb, suggest that what is new is the mindset of the intended readers. What do we take from the new sensibilities of today’s authors and readers, the thirty-somethings weighing these age-old issues? Has anything really changed?

This reviewer should probably disclose at once that there is much in the day-to-day concerns of the mate-seeking world of today completely outside her experience, which is that of someone who has been married since her teens, and has many children and zero experience of relationship coaches, Internet matchmaking, speed dating, or the worlds of office work, therapy, singles bars, and biological clocks that are the new realities. I even took the very college course (required for incoming freshmen) with the very professor derided by Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique and mentioned here by Elizabeth Gilbert as epitomizing the era of unreconstructed females on the cusp of risen consciousness. (Of the class, “Marriage and the Family,” I remember only that when our group of inexperienced teenagers expressed reservations about male anatomy, Dr. Henry Bowman reassured us that, among other things, the penis was actually a lot cleaner than the vagina, being so much more often exposed to soap.)

It used to be that on a date, the boy would pay for a Pepsi and the movie; that was it. Lori Gottlieb, in Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough, estimates the cost to today’s woman of four months of dating, counting therapy afterward when it doesn’t work out, to be $3,600: online dating service, clothes, including expensive underwear, haircut, hair color, cosmetics, bikini wax, entertaining him, and gifts. Things have changed.

1.

First, some statistics to frame the discussion. Marriage is a “public, formal, lifelong commitment to share your life with another person,” as Andrew J. Cherlin defines it in The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today. In the American view, marriage remains the ideal state: only 10 percent of Americans endorse the idea that the institution is outdated, compared to, say, in France, where a third of people think it is. On the contrary, America is seeing a sort of Marriage Renaissance, the impetus for which comes in part from the gay marriage movement, which in itself reflects our reverence for weddings. All the usual explanations for the marrying nature of Americans seem good enough: marriage is seen as a haven in a rough world, an antidote to rootless anomie unneeded by people in smaller, more comfortable societies, and it developed in response to other historical factors including patterns of life and religion in Colonial America and on the frontier. Cherlin also says that marriage is not an innate biological impulse but a socially determined convenience for raising children.

By the time they’re forty, 84 percent of American women have been married, a higher percentage than in other Western nations; and more than half (54 percent) of marriages will have broken up within fifteen years. About the same percentage of “cohabiting relationships” will have broken up even sooner. Americans divorce more often than others do and have more partners, more children out of wedlock, and more abortions.

Along the way, a total of 90 percent of women, almost all of them, will have one partner or more during their lives, and some many, many more.1 If hypocrisy, as some suspect, is our most salient national quality, Cherlin finds lots of examples in the inconsistency of American religion and law, the one urging us with increasing shrillness to fidelity in sickness and health, the other extending legislation for no-fault divorce. No doubt American piety and reverence for marriage have their origins in our national psyche for religious and other reasons that Cherlin outlines—but in practice, religious communities often have a high rate of divorce. The Bible-belt state of Arkansas has the second highest in the nation, after Nevada. Fundamentalist Christians have a somewhat higher divorce rate and higher turnover of live-in partners, maybe because this group also tends to have less education and lower income. The divorce rate among college-educated people has actually fallen in the past two or three decades.

Cherlin believes that the fragility of the American family is the result of an evolution—an “upheaval”—since the late 1950s, from earlier traditions governing property, progeny, prestige, duty, and God, to a new view that marriage is a “right” on the path to personal fulfillment: “It is about personal growth, getting in touch with your feelings, and expressing your needs. It emphasizes the continuing development of your sense of self throughout your life.” He links this changed view to the civil rights movement and Vietnam, and to the “prosperity and progress of the 1950s.” He also mentions, but probably seriously underestimates, the liberating effect of the pill. Better contraception seems enough in itself to explain the mutation in women’s attitudes. Once liberated by family planning to enter the job market, they gained, along with the ability to earn money, the independence to leave marriages that were run on terms that no longer seemed acceptable. It must also affect marriage rates by removing one incentive for marriage—unplanned pregnancy.

Cherlin, a professor of sociology and public policy at Johns Hopkins, is mainly concerned to study the impact on children of divorce and serial partnering; fully 40 percent of American children will “experience the dissolution of their parents’ intimate partnership” by the time they’re fifteen, a higher figure than in other Western countries except New Zealand.
Cherlin wants to make the point that children of divorced parents are just as well off with one lone but stable parent, but are far less well off when the custodial parent—usually the mother—has a series of temporary partners, or, more surprisingly, even if she remarries, given the likelihood that that marriage will break up too. He believes that efforts to reenergize traditional marriage aren’t going to work because the notion of marriage has changed. From an arrangement meant to foster the rearing of children it has come to be seen as “a private relationship centered on the needs of adults for love and companionship.” In drawing some inferences for public policy, he suggests exploring ways of helping single parents financially, but he acknowledges the difficulty in today’s moralistic legislative climate of doing this without seeming to commend unwed parenthood.

2.

How do single people find partners in our fluid, urban world? One way, used by millions, is to sign up for one of the many matchmaking sites on the Internet (eHarmony.com, Match .com, Chemistry.com, JDate, Spark, and dozens of others). With many of them, you take a test, list your requirements, describe yourself, and of course pay. While some rely on your basic demographic data like age and whereabouts, others give you a personality test, and the questionnaires designed to match you up with other people are the work of such consultants as Dr. Helen Fisher, a research professor of anthropology at Rutgers, author of self-help books, including Why Him? Why Her?, aimed at helping people understand their own basic personalities and predict the types of people they’ll get along with.

Her analyses of academic studies and nearly 40,000 responses on Chemistry .com to a questionnaire she reprints in this book have led Fisher to propose a set of four fundamental personality types she calls Explorer, Builder, Director, and Negotiator, distinctions that resemble those in many other morphological systems we’ve all heard of: introverts and extroverts; Types A and B; the Humors—still used in homeo-pathy—Sanguine, Bilious, Lymphatic, and Nervous; endo-, ecto-, and mesomorphs; the classic Air, Earth, Fire, and Water; Ayurveda; the Chinese 5 Elements; the zodiac; and many others reaching back to the mists of time, referring to body types, psychological tendencies, character, or fate. The most influential modern personality inventories usually rely on a well-established one, the MBTI, developed to help with personnel placement during World War II, by Katherine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers, who in turn relied on C.G. Jung’s typological system of introverted or (Jung’s spelling) “extraverted” thinking, feeling, sensing, and intuiting personalities.2 Fisher relies on them too—as do many modern personnel departments, and even the Pentagon.

These systems propose that each of us has a predominance of traits assigned to one of the categories, with an admixture of others, and according to our basic “type”—really temperament or personality—we’re advised that we’ll get along with some categories of people better than with others. For instance, Builders have a lower divorce rate when married to other Builders than to other types. Fisher finds some evidence, too, that our basic types are determined in utero by the hormonal influences of testosterone, estrogen, dopamine, or serotonin, and extrapolates from other physical traits, for instance the crypts and furrows of the iris: “People with more furrows are more impulsive…. Individuals with more crypts…are more trustworthy, warmhearted, and tender.”

Fisher tells us that she herself is an EXPLORER/Negotiator, and you can find your own type, on the basis of her fifty-six item test that begins, “I find unpredictable situations exhilarating. Strongly Disagree, Disagree, Agree, Strongly Agree,” and includes such statements as “Regardless of what is logical, I generally listen to my heart when making important decisions,” “I have a vivid imagination,” and “I have more energy than most people.” The basic flaw or weak point of such instruments hardly needs pointing out: they all rest on the assumption that we ourselves are good judges of how we behave and feel, and are sensitive to the degree we feel it: very strongly, strongly, somewhat, only a little, not at all? My “only a little” may be what someone else would call “strongly.”

Luckily for us, my husband and I hadn’t taken the test forty years ago, for we wouldn’t have progressed beyond the initial e-mail; Directors (John) and Explorers (me) have a bad record together. Using Internet psychometrics as tools for really deciding whom to marry seems haphazard, even silly, and Fisher’s advice banal and obvious: “Know and like thyself,” “Seek a partner with whom you can be naturally compatible,” “Build connections with a new partner in natural ways,” and so on. Still, Internet dating does provide an occasion, a name or two, and a procedure for getting to know distant people who wouldn’t come your way in real life. Unfortunately if my tentative attempt on eHarmony is typical—I filled in the questionnaire and took it up to the moment I’d have to pay—all I had to show for it were a few e-mail addresses and a blizzard of spam.

  1. 1

    See M.D. Bramlett and W.D. Mosher, “Cohabitation, Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage in the United States,” Vital and Health Statistics, Series 23, No. 22 (July 2002). (84 percent, according to Cherlin.) These rates are drawn from the National Survey for Family Growth, part of the National Division for Health Statistics, but include only women from ages fifteen to forty-four years. We can assume the somewhat higher figure by including older age groups among whom marriage is common—or perhaps around 90 percent. Lori Gottlieb quotes the US Census figure that “one-third of men and one-fourth of women between 30 and 34 have never been married,” a number four times higher than in 1970 and a number possibly more germane to her subject. In general, because of differences in the populations sampled, it’s hard to get reliable overall figures, hence the generally used 50 percent divorce rate which may be lower for, say, white urban dwellers than for African-Americans, and is declining, as noted, among the college-educated.

  2. 2

    John Beebe, Analytical Psychology: Contemporary Perspectives in Jungian Analysis, edited by Joseph Cambray and Linda Carter (Brunner Routledge, 2004), pp. 83–115.

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