Popular stereotypes assert that men are afraid of romantic commitment—that women are desperate for marriage but men are reluctant to give up the freedom of bachelor life. This trope surfaces repeatedly in popular culture. The dating website eHarmony even offers women advice in dealing with men who avoid commitment (eHarmony 2012).
But is there much truth to this stereotype?
Maybe not. In stark contradiction to the stereotype of men as commitment-phobic “players,” Pew Research reports that young adult women and men are equally likely to want to marry (Pew 2013); to say that having a successful marriage is one of the most important things in their lives (Pew 2012); and to state that love is an important reason to get married (Pew 2013).
This is supported by my own analysis of the third wave of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health), a large, nationally representative survey of about 15,000 young women and men (average age 22). I find that 82 percent of men and 84 percent of women report that being married someday is “very” or “somewhat” important to them. In addition, young women and men differ little in reported relationship commitment. Among those in romantic relationships, 83 percent of men and 88 percent of women report being “completely” or “very” committed to their partner. Similarly, 51 percent of men and 57 percent of women are “almost certain” that their current relationship will be permanent. Even in the early twenties, well before the average age of marriage, men (and women) report high levels of commitment and often anticipate lifelong unions. Nor do men greatly outnumber women among the least committed cohort—only 5 percent of men and 3 percent of women are “not at all” committed to their current partner while 5 percent of men and 4 percent of women think there is “almost no chance” that their current relationship will be permanent.
Gender differences do exist among young adults in the Add Health data, but they do not indicate an insurmountable rift between women’s and men’s desired romantic trajectories. For example, I find that young women are more likely to state that they would like to be married now—that is, at the time of the interview: 31 percent of women and 20 percent of men in Add Health Wave III. But although women may, on average, desire making family transitions sooner, this does not mean that couples’ desired timing would conflict—in part because women tend to partner with slightly (about two years) older men (Pew 2011).
What about the stereotype that men more often leave their wives than the reverse? Actually, women are more likely than men to initiate divorces (Kalmijn and Poortman 2006). In addition, there is little difference in which spouse has an affair preceding a divorce (England, Allison, and Sayer 2014). If anything, men ought to desire getting and staying married more strongly than women—their health, happiness, and longevity depend on it (Harvard Health Publications 2010). Wives, more than husbands, encourage spouses’ healthy behavior (Reczek and Umberson 2012), although marriage, and to a lesser extent cohabitation, is associated with better health for women as well (Wu et al. 2003).
The data suggests that commitment, love, and marriage are strongly desired—and good for—both women and men. The “sex wars” over men’s supposed fear of commitment are simply not evident. Undoubtedly, some men do fear or avoid commitment—but so do some women.
So why is the stereotype of male commitment phobia so common?
To some extent, it may be fueled by the double standard of sexuality which encourages men’s sexual expression while penalizing women for equivalent behavior. In addition, scaremongers often advise women of the difficulties in “securing” a husband, and the dangers of focusing on education and career (for example, Susan Patton 2013). Intentionally or not, this functions as reactionary social control, redirecting women’s energy away from public accomplishments and back toward family. It’s time that we abandon inaccurate (and sexist) stereotypes and support women and men in finding success and happiness in all aspects of life—including career, romance, and family.
EHarmony, 2012. “Why men avoid commitment.” http://www.eharmony.com.au/relationship-advice/dating/2012/04/why-men-avoid-commitment
England, Paula, Paul D. Allison, and Liana C. Sayer. 2014. "When one spouse has an affair, who is more likely to leave?" Demographic Research 30:535-546.
Harvard Health Publications. 2010. “Marriage and Men’s Health.” http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletters/Harvard_Mens_Health_Watch/2010/July/marriage-and-mens-health
Kalmijn, Matthijs and Anne-Rigt Poortman. 2006. "His or Her Divorce? The Gendered Nature of Divorce and its Determinants." European Sociological Review 22(2):201-214.
Patton, Susan. 2013. “Letter to the Editor: Advice for the young women of Princeton: the daughters I never had.” http://dailyprincetonian.com/opinion/2013/03/letter-to-the-editor-advice-for-the-young-women-of-princeton-the-daughters-i-never-had/
Pew Research. 2011. “Barely Half of U.S. Adults Are Married – A Record Low.” http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2011/12/14/barely-half-of-u-s-adults-are-married-a-record-low/
Pew Research. 2011. “For Millennials, Parenthood Trumps Marriage." http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2011/03/09/for-millennials-parenthood-trumps-marriage/
Pew Research. 2012. “A Gender Reversal On Career Aspirations.” http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2012/04/19/a-gender-reversal-on-career-aspirations/
Pew Research. 2013. “Love and Marriage.” http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2013/02/13/love-and-marriage/
Reczek, Corinne and Debra Umberson. 2012. "Gender, health behavior, and intimate relationships: Lesbian, gay, and straight contexts." Social Science and Medicine 74(11):1783-1790.
Wu, Z, MJ Penning, MS Pollard, and R Hart. 2003. ""In sickness and in health" - Does cohabitation count?" Journal of Family Issues 24(6):811-838.