Dispatches

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Other Oscars by Michelle Tea

You’d think that the authors of books titled Why There Are No Good Men Left and Confessions of An Ex-Bachelor: How to Sift Through All the Game Players to Find Mr. Right (Barbara Dafoe Whitehead and William July II, respectively) would have something to argue about. But they didn’t. They loved each other. I, however, was skeptical about their emphasis on the institution of marriage. I spoke with them about motorcycles, ax-murderers and other obstacles facing the commitment-minded. I asked them why anyone was commitment-minded anyway. Then they gave me dating advice. — Carrie Hill Wilner

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Nerve: Could you both explain your basic arguments? Barbara, let’s start with you.
Barbara ["Why There Are No Good Men Left"]: I began with the idea that so many young girls — women who are well educated, successful in their careers — were complaining that there were no good men left to date and possibly marry. I wanted to figure out whether their feelings had merit. What I found was that there’s been a huge shift in the mating system that makes the search for a mate longer and more difficult, especially as they get older.

Any particular reason why that is?
Barbara: A few specific reasons. One has to do with the way that women have zoomed into higher education. They’ve overtaken men. There are more educated women in prime marrying ages than there are men who will match well with them. So that’s the number-one thing. Number two is that women today want to spend time enjoying the single life, almost as much as the men that William talks about, maybe even into their late twenties. Then, when they hit the conversion point — where they suddenly realize that they have relationship fatigue and they’re looking for a life partner — they begin to feel as if there are no good men left.

William, how would you explain the basic premise of your book, and what do you make of Barbara’s claims?
William ["Confessions of an Ex-Bachelor"]: I totally agree with that, actually. Women are more educated than they were previously, they’re earning more than they were previously, and that changes the way women look for a mate. They’re not selecting a mate for survival purposes or social positions.

Men are really behavior-oriented, so unless they go through specific rites and rituals, in their minds they’re still single.

In my book, I’m looking at the ways men avoid commitment, and how some of those games and avoidance techniques play on the traditional expectations women have for relationships. "Why buy the cow when you get the milk for free" is still something you hear today. Say, for example, a woman wants to take a relationship to a new level and make a commitment. A lot of younger guys don’t want to do that because they’re getting all of the advantages and benefits of a relationship, without being in a relationship. Nowadays, they may be dating a woman who is willing to help them pay bills, a woman who has a nice house, who doesn’t need you for anything other than companionship or sex.

You both see cohabitation as a blow to marriage. What’s your take on it, William?
William: A lot of men cohabitate because it’s short of making a commitment. There’s an irony there, because they end up taking on the responsibilities and social roles that they’d actually have in a marriage. There’s something about the actual bond of being married — by withholding that, they feel like they still have an exit door.

Barbara: I’m fascinated by this, too. In my book, I write about how men and women have different ideas about living together. Women tend to see relationships as developmental: they move up to the next level. Moving in together is a big step up the ladder toward full commitment. I think men are really specific and behavior-oriented, so unless they go through specific rites and rituals, in their minds they’re still single and looking. It’s a big psychological difference.

Barbara, this is for you: how do we create something that’s responsive to women’s desires to get married — which I’m not sure is innate — and the male prowling instinct?
Barbara: This is the eternal question. No society leaves men and women wandering around all by themselves. But you can’t legislate a new kind of marriage, you can’t order it from the pulpit. Change happens gradually and incrementally. It’s sort of a trial-and-error thing: people figure out what is satisfying as a group. A trial marriage may be necessary to avoid divorce: that’s an example of a responsive social change.

William, you’ve explained how women, as individuals, can secure a marriage-minded man. Barbara, you’re trying to describe a general social change. What do you think about each other’s approaches?
Barbara: Well, I admire William’s book a lot, because it’s very concrete. All the time, I’m asked, "Well, okay, now I understand some of the sources of my frustration, but what can I do about it?" Most women want to find a soul mate, and they want to be optimistic about their chances of doing so. William makes the point that you have to be activist without being desperate. You have seek out opportunities, but not those opportunities that make you miserable. I don’t want to say, “You have to put yourself out there,” but you have to enjoy what you’re doing.

You have to be activist without being desperate.

You use the term “soul mate.” Why do you think that’s a term that’s so enduring?
Barbara: I think it speaks to this desire that people have for emotional intimacy, a friend, someone who sticks with them through the good times and the bad, someone they can connect with at some deeper spiritual and emotional level, as well as physical.

William: I think people are looking for a soul match, and within that term is what we talk about when we say "soul mate". I try to discourage people from believing that only one person will ever be right for them. That’s not very logical, and it sets you up for failure. However, if you’re looking for real, enduring, true core values and you try to match with people on that level, you increase your field of eligibles exponentially. I do believe in a soul mate, but I don’t think it’s about that person being “the one.”

What do you think the role of impulse in this search is? You know, jumping on someone’s motorcycle as they ride through town?
William: In psychology, we separate romantic love from long-lasting love. The motorcycle guy is more of a romantic love, which is based on excitement and visceral reaction. Which is legitimate — that’s what attracts people together for mating purposes, at least. But if you’re going to have a long-term relationship, it has to go to a much higher level than that. So I think impulse is just that: impulse. I think it’s genetic wiring.

So you wouldn’t advocate throwing yourself into random exciting situations, letting the chips fall where they may? Like getting on that motorcycle. Which is obviously my hang-up, and I’m sorry.
William: You know, it depends what the person is looking for. If you’re looking for a soul match or soul mate by getting on that motorcycle, I don’t think you’re stacking the chips on your side of the table.

Barbara, you seem to be talking about a specific group of American women who are very educated and professionally driven. William, you talk a lot about single mothers, which I think is great. Barbara, do you think your observations hold true for them, and for groups your study didn’t directly address?
Barbara: Although I certainly agree they aren’t representative of the broad mainstream, I did want to look at these women because they are such cultural trendsetters. A lot of women are focused on this soul match connection. It’s very much promoted in the media, it’s in people’s hearts and minds. And even women who are not highly educated or big earners are quite likely to be in the work force. They see themselves as independent, and not reliant on a man for economic support or social standing. I think that shift is cross-cutting.

William: To say "revolution" would be cliché, but it’s almost a revolutionary shift taking place. It’s interesting how subtle it is, but we’re looking at a complete change in how we view relationships right now. It’s really going to be interesting as the next generation gets to dating and marriage age.

Regarding how people are living pre-marriage, William, you talk about men going through a phase in which they want to have an exciting sex life and career — they’re not focused on marriage. Do you think that applies to women as well? Do you think of these phases are healthy?
William: Yeah, I definitely think they apply to women. As for it being healthy, it depends on the extent. It’s good that you take a stage of your bachelorhood to figure out who you are and what you want to do. But some guys don’t convert. They get addicted to the fact that they can get everything they want without being in a relationship. It can be a double-edged situation.

What’s your take on online dating and its role in this new social order?
Barbara: It’s gone from the margins to the mainstream in about two years, and it’s another one of those monumental changes in mating and dating. Technology is changing the way people meet each other, and how they go about conducting — well, this is an old fashioned word — courtship. I think it’s huge, and I think its impact will only grow across the entire age spectrum.

William: I totally agree. I think it’s a wonderful idea. A couple of nights ago, I posed that same question to two of my psychology classes. In one class, half the people didn’t like the idea. The stigmas came up: “Oh, you’re gonna meet an ax murderer. It means you’re desperate. You should just let the natural process take place.” In the other class, a lot of people were doing it and loved it. The stigmas aren’t very logical: you’re just as likely to meet an ax murderer at the supermarket, if you’re looking to meet people there. And people who date online aren’t desperate, they’re smart. The three things that bring people together are physical attraction, proximity and similarity. If you’re online, you’re cutting straight to similarities. You’re not going through fifty bozos, wasting your time going out to dinners and movies.

Despite all the risks, the high divorce rate and the acknowledged difficulties with marriage, people still want it.

Ax murders aside, don’t you think that when initial interactions are conducted over the internet, there’s a lot more room for duplicity?
William: No, I mean, you can meet all kinds of duplicitous people anywhere. The aggressive Romeos, the guys who are full of crap, are always out there.

Barbara: I have a dissenting view here. Maybe it reflects the women I’ve talked to. I agree with what William said: online dating expands the mating pool, and if you’re smart, you can tailor. But I do think you have to work harder to verify what people say about themselves. One person told me that she and her friends have worked out a routine when she meets someone through online dating. Their first date is for coffee at Starbucks. One of her friends calls her cellphone. And she’ll say something like, "Oh, that memo can wait until I get back to the office,” or, “Emergency — I’ve got to go.”

I’m very familiar with that. My friends and I have a rule: subtract two points from everyone’s photo. If they look like a nine, they’re really a seven.
[General laughter]

The big question: why marriage? If things are changing, and it’s not an economic necessity, instead of rethinking the process and trying to salvage the institution, why don’t we dramatically rethink the institution?
Barbara: I would say that despite all the risks, the high divorce rate and the acknowledged difficulties with marriage, people still want it. I always say to my daughters, there’s never been a better time in the history of the world to be a single woman. But even independent, economically self-sufficient women do seem to want someone with them over the long haul. And now other groups who’ve been denied — gays, priests — want marriage as well. I do think that if you look at the history of marriage, it’s far more flexible and receptive to various kinds of change than you might think. There’s a lot more equality, better communication. People are waiting longer, so there’s a maturity level that wasn’t present when people were forced to marry as soon as they got out of school.

If it’s an institution that people ultimately want so much, why are guys so scarce?
Barbara: [chuckle] William can take this.

William: It’s the process of getting there that’s the age-old question. I think men and women both want to be married. That’s why the institution survives. I think people have to mature — both men and women — in order to fulfill the roles the institution requires.

Okay, but why is that institution and those roles so essential?
Barbara: I have one idea here. In American society, there is a high emphasis on personal autonomy and independence. People move around a lot; their roots are fairly shallow. People have ten or twelve jobs in a lifetime. I think we’re hardwired to want stable relationships in the midst of all this dynamism. And there is this idea of someone you have a common history with, and often share the experience of rearing children so you have relatives. That’s an important anchor, especially when it’s so hard over the long term to connect with other people.

William, what’s your take?
William: If we seek out these relationships because we’re social beings, then the marital relationship, in some way, represents the fruition of everything we can be.

You want to take a shot at telling me what that fruition is?
Barbara: [laughs loudly]

William: I don’t really know. There’s something about the process and the byproducts of the process: having children, all the things that Barbara said. But underneath is some intangible we can’t identify. That’s what drives us, after having a terrible relationship, to heal the wounds and jump back in the water.

You have to screen people to see where they are in their lives.

Barbara: In a colloquial sense, people say, "My wife is always in my corner," or "We have a best-friend relationship, I can tell him anything." It’s hard to pin down; it’s a special relationship that isn’t easily replicated.

I’m going to throw some aspects of my love life at you. William, I want you to tell me what you think I could be doing better, and Barbara, I’d like you to tell me where this is coming from socially. I’m in my twenties, I’ve been dating around. I’m not looking to get married anytime soon. But even when I don’t require commitment on any serious level, people disappear. I’ll go out with a guy three times, things will seem to be going fine, and they’ll vanish. It’s happened to all my friends, and this is something that’s considered totally acceptable.
William: Disappearing act, that’s what I call it in the book.

How do you think one can prevent it, or at least get a decent explanation out of someone, and why do you think that’s become acceptable protocol?
William: Let me ask you a question. If you’re in a no-commitment stage right now, why are you concerned about that?

I guess it’s disorienting when someone you’ve been getting friendly with disappears, no matter where you see the connection going.
William: I was really asking you so you could ask yourself that. The answer will reveal something to you. From my perspective, the guys you’re meeting are in that first raw stage of bachelorhood. They’re out of college, they’re free, they’ve got money for the first time…

Well, not that much —
William: A high discretionary income. They can spend it on themselves, they’re playing with new toys, and to them, women are a large part of those new toys. I’m not saying that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but that’s that stage they’re in. That disappearing behavior, it’s part of the stage. So be forewarned, that’s what you’re dealing with.

Is this a problem that’s impossible to get around?
William: The only thing you can do is avoid guys in that stage of bachelorhood. That may or may not mean dealing with guys who are a little older. You have to screen people to see where they are in their lives.

Barbara: Can I ask you a question, Carrie? I’m getting intrigued by this. Have you ever disappeared from a guy? Are there ever occasions when somebody you’re going out with fails to interest you, and you’ve given him no explanation?

Not quite as drastically, but I’ve definitely made abrupt cancellations.
Barbara: And do you say, “I’m sorry, this is not going to work,” “I won’t see you there,” “I can’t make it”?

Well, I try to get by with explaining as little as possible. Usually the explanation I have will be offensive. So . . . um, yeah, I guess I’ve been known to vanish myself.
Barbara: I do think sometimes that it would be good if people could be polite to each other.

That’s really all I’m asking. Do either of you have any suggestions how to encourage an “I’m not gonna be there” phone call?
William: Well, it can be done, but it’s a tricky thing. There are parameters you can set with a guy so he’ll know, "This is a woman I have to call if I’m not gonna show up." You’ll have to decide early in these conversations with guys. You know these innuendo games that are played between people when they meet each other: you’re setting up little protocols. And guys are always guessing protocol. From the outset, they’re always saying, "How long is it gonna take to get her in bed? What kind of things is she gonna respond to?" They’re always trying to push those parameters. You have to be aware of those things, and you have to decide where you’re going to set those fences.

But how do you set them? If I were sitting with someone on our first date and said, “Hey, by the way, if you ever call me at four in the morning, I’m going to hate you forever” …
William: I call that the rock on the table. "I’m looking for a serious commitment." Boom. No, I’m not saying to do that. It’s more about the subtle games people play with words. Tell a story about a guy who called at four a.m., who you thought was crazy. Or say, "You know, there’s no reason anybody should call anybody past three o’clock." There are subtle ways to incorporate it.

Barbara: Yeah, there’s a fine line between being friendly and setting boundaries you want him to respect. That’s hard. I think telling stories is a good idea.

There’s a gap between when women are ready and when men think they’re ready.

I think people should just wear T-shirts proclaiming their views: I am using you. Then there would be no misunderstandings.
Barbara: [laughs] This is interesting: a study found that a high commitment period for most college-educated men is from ages twenty-eight to thirty-three, and for men who go to graduate school, a high commitment period runs from ages thirty to thirty-six. So maybe we should just wear T-shirts that say “high commitment.”

Yeah, they could change color and be connected to your brain.
William: That’s great. It points to the whole idea that for men, marriage is based on when we feel like we’re ready to provide and protect. Even though that social role is changing it’s still very ingrained in this generation. But we could spend another hour on that. [laughs]

Barbara: I think that’s absolutely right. And because there aren’t so many pressures on guys to grow up real fast and take on the family role real fast — which I think is probably a good thing — some of them prolong it for quite a long time. There’s a gap between when women are ready and when men think they’re ready, and that’s another story too.

I read somewhere that because girls physically mature faster than boys, there’s something like a four-year age gap. So do you think part of the reason women have these problems is that they’ve spent most of their lives with guys who are exactly their age?
Barbara: That’s an interesting idea.

William: It’s possible. If you look at the marriage gradient theory, it states that women tend to marry men who are older, among other things. You may have a good point there.

Just a thought. And I’d like to start a line of "High Commitment" T-shirts. They sound like they’d catch on with schoolgirls in Japan or something.  


to buy Confessions of an Ex-Bachelor,
click here.

to buy Why There Are No Good Men Left,
click here.

© 2003 Nerve.com



ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Carrie Hill Wilner is a Manhattanite by birth and breeding. Still, she has lived in a lot of places and done a lot of things, and will probably live in others and do more. She is pretty sure she graduated from Columbia, but they never sent her a diploma.