In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

Do Women Make More Romantic Compromises Than Men Do?

The age factor.

"Too many women throw themselves into romance because they're afraid of being single, then start making compromises and losing their identity. I won't do that." Julie Delpy

“The trouble with some women is that they get all excited about nothing; then they marry him.” Cher

Gender differences are hard to detect, as they depend on many factors. Nevertheless, I will propose here that in general, women are more likely to make romantic compromises at young age, whereas men tend to do so more at an older age.

An important factor in determining the readiness to make romantic compromises is how prepared we are to marry those we do not love. An overwhelming majority of people (over 85% of Americans) said that they would not marry someone with whom they were not in love and about 50% of Americans believe that they have the right to seek a divorce when their love fades (Fisher, 2004). While these attitudes express the profound wish of people not to compromise in love and to combine romantic love with marriage, many people nevertheless make romantic compromises. Are there gender differences in this regard?

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It seems that at younger age, women are generally more afraid to be left alone than men are—this may be due to biological reasons of wanting to conceive children and to socioeconomic reasons relating, for example, to work, lifestyles, and raising children at a younger age. When women do not marry when they are young, or they raise children as a single parent, it is harder for them to compromise on their way of living and they might also feel less urgent need for a partner, as they have already discovered that they can cope alone. At older age, men are more afraid than women are of being left alone—perhaps because men tend to die earlier and because they do not function as well as women do when they are older. There is also perhaps some measure of truth in the claim that men depend upon their partners to look after them; this would make old age without a partner seem a lonely and frightening prospect. In addition, women tend to have a more extensive and deeper set of friends, which means that life without a partner is perhaps less solitary for women.

I will now consider the hypotheses that: (a) women are more likely to make romantic compromises at young age, and (b) men tend to do so more in older age. In support of these premises, I will offer a few possible explanations for them (which are not mutually exclusive).

Dependency and romantic compromises

There are various empirical indications for the correlation between greater dependency (and lack of autonomy) and romantic compromises. An obvious example here is financial dependency. Thus, there is correlation between the rate of divorce and the rate of women going to work (as well as their greater earning power). An increase in the earning ability of women substantially increases the divorce rate. When the financial needs of women are less pressing, they can give greater weight to love and refuse to compromise on it. An increase in the earning ability of women enables them to leave an unhappy marriage (Backer, 1993).

A study undertaken in the mid-1960s found that men are more "romantically" oriented (and less romantically compromising), and that women are more "realistic" and willing to compromise -- 64 percent of the men, but only 24 percent of the women, said that they would not marry a person who possessed all the qualities that they admired, but with whom they were not in love. However, when this study was revisited some 20 years later, women were found to have grown significantly more romantic and had closed the gap with men. One important explanation for this change is women’s entry into the workforce: less dependent on the institution of marriage for their economic survival, women could now “afford” not to compromise and could marry for purely romantic reasons (Simpson et al., 1986).

Searching for a good parent

When people choose their marital partner, the issue of what kind of parent they will be is important. It is of greater significance to women; as they typically have a greater responsibility in raising the children, the type of father that these children will have has substantial ramifications for them. When a woman finds a man she likes, she often believes that if he is likely to be a good father, he might also be a wonderful romantic partner. Women are usually more willing than men to compromise in order to make their children happier. Compromising on love and on demanding careers are examples of compromises that women commonly make in order not to miss the “perfect father.” If indeed raising children is typically of greater relative significance for women than for men, then they will be more willing to compromise on love if they think it will provide a better future for their children.

Men typically adore their partners for their intelligence and success, but nevertheless they do not want their partner's success to consume time that she could spend with them. Some men take their wives to be a kind of substitute for their mothers and accordingly are envious of the time she spends on their baby. Women are seldom, if ever, envious of their husband spending time with their kids.

When women search for a husband, they also search for a good father for their children; when men search for a wife, they also search for someone who is likely to be a caring mother to him. However, for a man, the recognition that a woman would be a good “mother” to him is more connected to falling romantically in love with her; for a woman, the fact that a man is likely to be a good father is a lesser romantic factor. Accordingly, when young men choose a wife, they are less prepared than women are to compromise on romantic aspects.

When women get older and the kids are no longer around, they have more time to enjoy love and sex; ensuring that their kids have a good father is then of less importance and so their willingness to make romantic compromises might decrease. As men get older, their sexual desire becomes less intense and the need to be taken taking care of increases; they then become more ready to make romantic compromises.

A biological explanation

Helen Fisher, in her book The First Sex, suggested that as estrogen declines (unmasking levels of testosterone), older women do become far more independent (testosterone is linked with the need for autonomy). Moreover, as testosterone declines in older men (and they actually begin to make more estrogen as they age), this estrogen might contribute to men's tendency to become more "prosocial," more eager to make deep connections with others. So if older men actually do become more prosocial, and if older women do actually become more autonomous, both of which seem probable, then there is some biological support for the above hypotheses.

General considerations

It is more natural to compromise when you are older and weaker and have fewer choices and opportunities. So it seems natural that men are more inclined to make romantic compromises as they grow older. It is harder to understand why young women should make romantic compromises, when they have so many options from which to choose. My discussion will therefore focus upon women’s behavior

For a variety of biological, social, and historical reasons, young women often feel fragile and vulnerable, and hence they are more willing to make romantic compromises. For men, such feelings of vulnerability emerge more significantly when they are older and less certain of their health, virility, and security. At a younger age, women are interested in nesting and procreating and have greater need of a man to help them. Young men are fearful of assuming the responsibility and commitment involved in providing such help. Later on in life, women have less need to focus on the nesting instinct; some might wake up in mid-life and question the romantic compromises they have made, and decide to explore their own needs and ambitions. It's called menopausal madness.

The above views are supported when we examine at the gender differences with regard to the age of marriage. Women marry at younger age, and men are much more likely to remarry than women. Some estimates suggest that divorced men are up to 25% more likely to remarry than divorced women. Women are more likely to remain single after divorce than men. Among 45-64 year olds, the rates of remarriage among divorced men are double those of divorced women. One explanation for this gender gap is that men receive greater benefits from remarriage and that they are more willing to compromise on the value of the partner when they remarry at older age (Shafer, 2009).

There are, of course other reasons for gender differences with regard to romantic compromises—some of these are related, for example, to the type of society and culture in which one lives. Many of the old gender differences are undergoing changes in current society. A lot of women now feel that they don't need to compromise and do not even need a man in order to procreate.

It should be stressed that I have referred here to general tendencies and not to strict laws that apply to every woman and man. These generalizations might have the flavor of stereotypes, but they have some truth in them.

I have suggested discerning three major types of romantic compromises: (a) compromising on the overall value of the person; (b) compromising on the value of the person as a partner, and (c) compromising on the nonromantic activities within the given relational framework (see here). It seems that the above romantic compromises are mainly related to the compromise of the first type: people compromise on the overall value of the partner in order not to compromise on the third type, which refers to a comfortable living framework. In doing so, they may compromise on only some aspects of the second type, such as not enjoying a passionate love, but they will still gain some of the benefits of the second type, e.g., having a caring partner.

To sum up, there are good reasons to believe that women are more likely to make romantic compromises at young age and that men tend to do so more in older age. However, in our cyberspace society, where many gender differences are decreasing, this difference may be dwindling as well.

The above considerations can be encapsulated in the following statement that a lover might express: "Darling, I know that you consider me as a compromise, but in the future, it may be the opposite. If so, we shall be even and we can be happy for the rest of our lives."

Aaron Ben-Zeév, Ph.D., former President of the University of Haifa, is Professor of Philosophy. His books include: In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and its Victims.

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