Stop Listening to Advice About When to Get Married

The Atlantic

We're deep in the late-late stages of the aftermath of "Princeton Mom" Susan Patton's advice to Princeton undergraduate women that they should do their very best to snag a husband in college because it does not get better (or so she says). But what strikes me most about her advice is not that she had the retro-audacity to tell a bunch of college-aged women that they should focus on their Mrs. degrees above all else (hello, warmed-over Lori Gottlieb, et al.). Nor am I floored by the many, many blog posts and articles and news programs that have been spun out of her advice-giving, advice which goes against the statistical realities for college-educated women with regard to marriage (i.e., educated women who marry later tend to stay married and have happier marriages). None of what's happened with this story is surprising, really, because it happens again, and again, and again. It seems a certain group of women are always giving advice to other women about how and when to get married—in books, in movies, in magazine articles, at luncheons and brunches and dinner parties, in public and in private.

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The women who choose or are forced to listen to said advice have a few options for how they might react to it. They can feel bad because they have failed to live up to said advice; they can feel outraged because they do not want to (and in fact, don't want to be told what to do, particularly not when the advice is so regressive). They can defend their own ways of life, with opinions and research. They can ignore it. They can, perhaps, feel content or self-righteous because someone has justified their way of life. This is a weird Internet knitting circle, isn't it, full of judgment and wary stares, defensiveness and jealousy, and lots and lots of sharp points, but very little happiness. Does any of this advice really change anything? Doubtful. Have women, as a general group, even asked each other for such advice? Individually, maybe, but hardly as one entity. Is there any advice, in all of human reality, that really fits one size, for all? I don't think so. And yet will busybody types keep giving you their advice, not because you asked, but because they think they know best? Always, forever, into perpetuity, until the end of time.

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So why all the Sturm und Drang about it? I spoke to NYU sociology professor Eric Klinenberg, author of Going Solo, a book about how many people today are choosing to live alone, to get his take on why advice from people like Patton always seems to rent us asunder (or just make us mad!) no matter how often we hear it, or something like it. "I always find it interesting when moralists feel compelled to give advice that runs counter to the ways we live now, and this case is especially intriguing, because the speaker is so out of touch," he said, bringing up the research realities I mention above. (We react with anger because it's not a reality for most of us, nor do we feel it should be.) "The age of first marriage is now higher than ever, particularly among people who graduate from elite schools such as Princeton," he says. "In general, that's not because highly educated women can't find qualified spouses. Most of the women she's advising here have personal and professional goals that are more easily achieved when they're on their own, able to control their own time and space. They're still developing, after all, and they may decide that they're better off experiencing the world as a single person for awhile." As single people, perhaps we are defensive of our space and time and energy; we do not want to be pushed into an institution that has historically limited those things; we certainly do not want to be scared into marriage. And if we do want to marry, chances are, it's not because it was approved by some lady in the letters-to-the- editor page of The Daily Princetonian.

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It bears mentioning that the decision to marry is a very different thing for those with money and education than it is for those without. That Susan Patton was talking to educated women of means, women who can, given the luxury of their lives and educations, choose essentially whatever they want, in terms of what they hope to achieve, whether they marry or not, is important. These women are some of those who need her advice the least. That makes her comments to them particularly retroactive.

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Advice in itself, though, often relies on history to determine how we should behave in the future. The problem is that marriage is changing, and, in this case, the advice is not. Stephanie Coontz, a professor and author who has written extensively about marriage and gender roles, told me that marriage has become both more optional and more individualized in the last 150 and 50 years, respectively, with more and more equality and mutuality between partners. But there is something that remains, and that's why we get the sort of advice Patton shares. "The notion hangs on that women need and want marriage more than men, and that although men initiate relationships, it is women who control the timing and emotional temperature. Hence all the advice about how to do that." There has been a change in the tenor of the advice, though: "It's interesting that the advice has shifted somewhat from how to please a man to how to ensure that you are happy in the relationship, but the old theme of 'do this or you might miss out' is still there." This is a kind of progress in the marital-advice cycle, if not enough. "It used to be do this now or you will never marry," says Coontz, "but she added the new twist of 'do this or you will never marry a man as smart as you.' Which is 1) wrong, and 2) extremely elitist in its assumption that Prnceton grads are so much smarter than the other college grads that these women will meet after graduating and entering the workforce."

There is a kernel of truth, though, and maybe that's what gets us going, too. "Once you no longer meet your mate in high school or in college, with the rising age of marriage, it does become harder to find a readily visible pool of potential dates or mates. So there is some legitimate anxiety," says Coontz. But before you spin out about that, know this: "College-educated women do manage—they are more likely now to marry than any other group of women, even though they marry later. And they are less likely to divorce when they do marry, so they must be doing something right."

As someone who's written frequently on the subject of marriage, I certainly don't think it's wrong to keep talking about the way we do these things today. I think it's a key part of determining who we are, and who we want to be. At the same time, the way we feel about these life milestones has changed immensely and continues to shift. We're all trying to keep pace with these changes and figure out how to do things best for ourselves, but we only have the past to go on; the future remains uncharted. And perhaps that's why Patton's advice gets us, too. Still, focusing on old-world outrage-worthy mantras like hers seems to divert our time and energy from the greater discussion that might involve the bigger, better, and more important questions. Like, not "at what age should a woman marry?" but maybe, "What is love and what should a successful relationship be in this day and age?" Not "If I choose not to marry or have children am I ruining society?" but instead, "How do we make ourselves, and, if we decide to pair up, our partners, happy in the lives we're living, and in the futures we hope to have?" If we could take the fear out of it, it would be a better discussion.

Will the marital-advice cycle ever end?, I asked Coontz. Probably not entirely. "I do think that it's human nature to want to give advice," she said, adding that she considers it a benign activity in origin "sort of like sharing food in band level societies" though it "can easily slide into excessive pushing." The advice could get better, though. "What would be good is if the advice could actually be based on accurate research instead of recycled anxieties and stereotypes, offered to men as well as women, and presented in humility, recognizing that not everyone shares the advice-givers' needs, tastes, and preoccupations!" she said.

That would be nice, indeed, as would the acknowledgement that a lot of things just have to be figured out for every individual, him or herself, or together, if it's a question of that. And for those of us working on figuring things out, here is my advice, which you can take or leave: Don't worry about what some Princeton Mom, or anyone else, has to say. You have to do you, in marriage, as in life.

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