Marry Him‘s Bad Math

Marry Him by Lori Gottlieb

I haven’t read Lori Gottlieb’s Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough, but I did read the Atlantic article it was based on. It struck me at the time as one of those all-too-common cynical gambits in the magazine features business that makes me not-so-sorry that there probably won’t be any magazine feature articles in 20 years. The basic idea is to take a thesis that’s ambiguous between the trivially true (some women would do well to be somewhat less picky about the men they date) to the sweeping and offensive (feminists are blinding you ladies to the fact that you need to marry the first halfway decent man you can find before your ovaries shrivel!!!!) precisely because pushing the envelop beyond what’s defensible will create more “buzz.”

Meanwhile, the article was striking for a dearth of specific engagement with relevant statistics. And according to Jessica Grose’s review expanding the argument to book-length didn’t resolve this problem:

Gottlieb spends more than 300 pages trying to convince us that there is an unhappy army of spinsters just like her—lady lawyers, doctors, and graphic designers regretting their fussiness. And this army, she argues, is responsible for our national marriage crisis: Is this “why the percentages of never-married women in every age group studied by the U.S. Census Bureau (from 25-44) more than doubled between 1970 and 2006?” she asks.

As Grose argues, overly picky women can’t be the cause of growing spinsterdom among educated professional women because there is no such trend:

The new research has more good news for college grads. Stevenson said the data indicate that modern college-educated women are more likely than other groups of women to be married at age 40, are less likely to divorce, and are more likely to describe their marriages as “happy” (no matter what their income) compared with other women. The marriages of well-educated women tend to be more stable because the brides are usually older as well as wiser, Stevenson said. Researchers have long known that the older people are when they marry, the more likely that the marriage will last.

Back to Grose:

About 80 percent of female college grads ages 30-44 have been married at some point, compared with 71 percent of women who did not graduate from high school, according to the latest Pew research. The marriages of college grads are also increasingly stable. From the 1970s to the ’90s, rates of divorce fell by almost half among college-educated women, but they remained high among women with less than a four-year degree. If there’s a crisis in marriage, it’s because the least educated and poorest women are no longer getting married.

Growing family instability among working class Americans is a real phenomenon and it’s worth trying to increase our understanding of it. It appears to be an important driver of growing inequality, and perhaps an impediment to education-driven upward mobility. At the same time, it arguably reflects the empowerment of working class women over the past 30-40 years to the point where they’re no longer as compelled to put up with unsatisfactory situations. For book-sales purposes, it’s more useful to try to gin up panic about the sort of educated people who are likely to buy books, but there’s nothing doing here.