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Is There a Widening Rift Between Men and Women?

On political choices and choices in love.

It has been suggested recently that men and women are drifting apart. Women are said to be more likely to lean left and to reject traditional ideas of (heterosexual) male-female relationships than men are. Men, on the other hand, are allegedly dissatisfied with recent societal changes and resentful about their loss of status. It is said also that these changes in preferences and outlook may spell doom for marriage.

Cottonbro studio/Pexels
Man and a woman sitting at opposite ends of a couch.
Source: Cottonbro studio/Pexels

Is this true?

In some ways, the genders are more integrated than ever. Most children go to mixed-gender schools rather than schools for girls only or boys only. Something similar is true of occupation. When the National Association of Realtors was founded in the US in 1908, membership was exclusively male. Today, the ratio of men to women real estate agents is close to 40% to 60%. Again, at the turn of the 20th Century, less than 5% of law professors were female, but today, 33% are. This suggests that both men and women interact a lot more with others of the opposite gender than people from previous generations did and talk about a wider variety of issues with each other. It would be surprising if more mixing went hand in hand with divergence in outlooks, though it is possible that outlooks converged in the past because, even though men and women rarely talked to each other, everyone embraced gender segregation.

Note, however, that informal norms favor more mixing today than they did in the past as well, and people take advantage of changing norms in their private choices. When I was a child, for instance, a married person who claimed to have an opposite-gender friend was likely to be suspected of having an extra-marital affair. Men’s interactions with women and women’s with men tended to be limited to time spent with a spouse and blood relatives, or occasionally with colleagues at work but not in private. Not today.

It is true that there are some correlations between gender and voting patterns, but they are not strong enough to support the narrative I began with. For instance, in the 2022 midterms in the US, 54% of men and 48% of women voted for Republican candidates. The gap is small and smaller than the 9 point gap in the 2018 midterms, though some of the narrowing has to do with differential turnout. Other election cycles show similar patterns. Correlations with educational attainment and race are bigger than correlations with gender. There is a large gap in voting preferences among young men and young women (ages 18 to 29), but that gap shrank between the 2018 and 2022 midterms.

What, then, gives rise to the impression of a widening gulf?

I wish to suggest that the real story is complex and, perhaps, more interesting. I cannot comment on every important aspect of it here, but I will give a few highlights.

Changing standards

Thanks to economic and technological progress, we need each other considerably less than we did in the past. This is true at the level of community and extended family, but it is also true at the level of romantic partnerships. While it is wonderful to be happily married, a working professional does not need to be married to have a good life, particularly, in a large metropolitan area, which is where the overwhelming majority of people live (83% in the US, for instance, up from 64% in the 1950s; in France, 81% of the population was urban in 2022). Marriage is a gamble that may turn out to be worse than singlehood. When singlehood was highly undesirable, many “settled” for what they saw as subpar choices. Today, a large number of people are unwilling to share their lives unless they find an outstanding match. Since excellent matches are difficult to come by, both men and women fail in their search and may get the impression that there is a problem with the dating pool today. Given that people seem to have found it easier to get married in the past, an observer may conclude, reasonably, that men and women are drifting apart. What may get missed here is that it is unlikely most in the past married because they had better prospects. Likely, singlehood being then highly undesirable, what we today may consider a subpar match was seen as good enough.

“Too many” options

Another point is worth mentioning. The liberalization of norms has led to a proliferation of domestic arrangements, and this may make choice more difficult. Do I want to marry or just have a committed relationship? A monogamous one or an open one? (More men than women, on average, prefer a non-monogamous relationship, and that goes against the narrative which portrays men as the ones embracing traditional marriage.) Do I want children? Do I want them now? Such questions did not arise for people in earlier times. There was one type of marriage, and experimentation in this area was highly discouraged. Most people acted in accordance with social expectations.

I do not wish here to exaggerate the extent to which earlier generations embraced social expectations of marriage unquestioningly. Consider, for instance, a passage from Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, a novel published in 1928:

She was married, true; but if one's husband was always sailing round Cape Horn, was it marriage? If one liked him, was it marriage? If one liked other people, was it marriage? And finally, if one still wished, more than anything in the whole world, to write poetry, was it marriage? She had her doubts.

What does seem true, however, is that if a large number of people had thoughts along such lines, they kept those thoughts to themselves. Woolf's character is atypical for her time.

Pinning dissatisfaction on a gender rift

I said above that singlehood today is better than it was in the past, and that this has two consequences: a larger proportion of people opt to remain single; and, standards having risen, a larger proportion of those looking for a committed relationship are dissatisfied with what they find. When we are dissatisfied, we tend to look for a cause, and we may end up finding culprits in the wrong places, in a version of what Freud once called “displacement.” We are particularly likely to mislabel the causes of dissatisfaction when the real causes would be too painful to acknowledge. For instance, a person may not want to think of him or herself as not having what it takes to attract a highly desirable partner or else conclude that when standards go up, only a small minority of us are likely to be seen as desirable. (Interestingly, even thinking we are not fortunate enough to meet the right person may be painful, as we may feel “slighted by the Universe.”) It is easier to find fault with societal changes or other people.

Where does all this leave us?

I began by noting that some, moved by the story of a widening gender rift, have expressed fear for the institution of marriage. I suggested that the perception of a rift has causes other than evidence of an actual rift. This does not mean, however, that the future of marriage is not in question. It may well be, just not for reasons that have to do with a gender divide on political or social questions. If I am right, the main issue is that singlehood is a competitive option. The marriage option often gets outcompeted.

How good or bad this is can be debated and is a topic for another occasion. What I will note here is that we can easily raise the marriage rate by adopting social rules that make it extremely unpleasant to remain single, but that’s hardly a way forward. The other option is to make marriage more attractive. It is not easy to say how, but I will share one thought in closing. For most of us (barring cases such as people with Schizoid personality), love and intimacy are highly desirable. For reasons I explain elsewhere, love involves commitment, and marriage remains the dominant—though not the only—way to make and communicate commitment. This, then, is a key attraction of marriage: marriage gives us a chance at love.

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