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Are Husbands Out of Style—Or Out of It?

Vivia Chen

July 9, 2013

Embarassed_Groom © iofoto - Fotolia.comDo women still covet that blessed, awesome state of matrimony? Believe it or not, the answer is increasingly no (except, of course, for those traditionalists at Princeton—click here and here).

Economist Nancy Folbre noted this cultural shift in her article "The Declining Demand for Husbands," in The New York Times. One reason that fewer women are looking to get hitched, suggests Folbre, is that they finally feel they have economic power. In the past, women sought marriage more than men because they had few choices for survival:

Women are willing to pay a higher price for marriage than men if they have few alternatives, as when their opportunities for economic independence are restricted. An increase in the supply of women who want to marry drives the price of marriage down for men.

In other words, if more women than men want/need marriage, men will have the bargaining power. It's simple supply and demand. Historically, that meant men had superior property rights and got to pick and choose their mates. Think of all the homely, dull men married to smart, attractive women!

I've certainly seen that phenomenon. Ten or 15 years ago, almost every unattached single woman over 35 I knew seemed worried—even slightly desperate—about landing a husband. Despite professional or academic accomplishments, some thought of themselves as failures for not hooking a man. Some ended up marrying men who are neither very bright nor cute. A total bummer.

Now, with fewer women desiring marriage, "the terms of marriage move in favor of women," writes Folbre. That means women should have better bargaining power with their suitors and mates about how their relationship will work once they are married:

They are likely to receive a larger share of joint income and leisure time. Husbands become more likely to relinquish some decision-making power and do more housework and child care.

Sounds logical, right? Alas, real life doesn't always follow economic theory. Despite the fact that women are working and increasing their income, that change doesn't always show up on the personal front. Folbre notes:

The changing terms of marriage complicate the effects of women’s improved economic position. On the one hand, men should like the prospect of sharing income with a high-earning woman. On the other hand, they may find it difficult to adjust to a new social role."

What happens, unfortunately, is that people are still stuck to prescribed gender roles. Folbre cites research by Marianne Bertrand, Jessica Pan, and Emir Kamenica that "offer evidence that wives often try to enact traditional gender roles in an apparent effort to reassure their husbands that they are not a threat."

Where does this all lead us? Folbre suggests we are in a bit of a mess: Though fewer women want to get married, men don't seem that interested in changing the gender dynamics to make marriage more appealing. In economic terms, that means we have a highly inefficient system.

So will men (and women) get it—that the new world order demands more fluidity in gender roles? Or will we just roll inefficiently along until the institution of marriage peters out?

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I think that's there's plenty of social pressure still around on women to get married, especially when they are in committed relationships. Traditionally, it's the man who asks the woman to get married, but if there's a gender role reversal in incomes and heads of households, then that begs the question that if women still want to get married, should they now be the ones to ask?

What on earth? Marriage is about more than just 'getting a husband.' LIfe as a team is nice. I am suddenly a single mother, and it is day-in, day-out brutal and depressing. I HAVE a high-powered job, and struggle to find the energy to fake it all day with work and my child because I am so exhausted and crabby all of the time. I would love to get remarried to the right person. Honestly, absent that happening eventually, I have no idea what to do; I feel like I'm headed for a heart attack or other illness at this pace. I can't take care of myself handling all the demands myself. This article entirely ignores reality of if you have a family, going it alone is a terrible, terrible experience- unless you have some magical village of family and a coop to support you. I don't.

What women may have gained in "marital bargaining power" they have lost in other power. Men have less incentive to get married now as well with all these women who also just want to date and play the field.

Brings back that old saying: why buy the cow when you get the milk for free.

I find it frustrating and unsurprising that we always only hear about men who supposedly don't want to relinquish the old gender roles. It's not that this isn't true of many men, but it's also true that many women still want a man to take care of them financially, still want a man to be the one who knows how to fix things, to do the driving, to make the hard decisions. I also think there's a two-edged sword to the "greater role in childcare" that we always hear men are expected to play, namely, that many women don't want to relinquish control over childcare decisions and act like they have greater "ownership" of the child than the man. I'm not saying men don't have their failures in the new purportedly egalitarian world, I'm just saying that many women, too, want "equality" only on their own terms.

It may well be true, but they will be sad, lonely, and hurt at age 60. And alone.

Dan, I don't think you could've made your point in a worse way.

Healthy marriages have always been dependent on mutuality, not one being dominant over the other. This has been and always will be the case. Unfortunately many relationships fail to function this way, often times leaving the female in a subservient role.

As for "single" friends of mine in their 30's and beyond, both male and female, there lies a deep level of insecurity. As much as they'd like not to admit it, it's there, it worries them, and it's obvious. I live in San Francisco, and this is true.

You are a pretty smart chick. There is some buzz with some of my girlfriends on this topic emerging of late, except it is under a hushed breath.

While there is "evidence that wives often try to enact traditional gender roles in an apparent effort to reassure their husbands that they are not a threat," perhaps in some cases it has little to do with being non-treatening and more to do with enjoying a better sex life, as noted in your January 30, 2013 post. :)


Women seem to be a lot better than men when it comes to weighing all of these sneaky little factors.

I don't believe this article is true at all. Women in their thirties still feel a lot of pressure to get married and have kids. You can't change biology - women have a limited time that they're fertile. I do believe gender roles are shifting but men will always have the upper hand.

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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