As you may have heard, marriage is in a bad way. Supporters of procreative marriage are increasingly pressured to abandon their views, while liberals busily debate whether they should follow up on their recent victory by “expanding” marriage further or just by abolishing it altogether. Over here in the land of the still-sane, we’re in the thick of a frantic brainstorming session. Is there still a way to preserve this essential social institution? Can we keep the bottom from falling out entirely?
The good news is, America hasn’t lost interest in marriage. Though fewer and fewer are actually tying the knot, most people do still want to be married. By sowing widespread confusion about the nature of marriage, our society has ended up with many lonely people who would happily trade their sexual freedom for a more stable and committed love.
This is detrimental to everyone. Although the single life can certainly be blessed, society will be healthier if the majority marry and raise families. But even though the spirit is still willing (and the flesh still weak!), the path to the altar has become lamentably overgrown. Perhaps by clearing away some of the weeds, we could help more people to find happiness in love? Might this be a helpful step towards recovering the institution of marriage?
This idea underlies David Upham’s new book, Getting Hitched: Recovering the Basic Truths of Mutual Attraction. As the title suggests, it’s a marriage book. But it’s somewhat more concrete than, say, Ryan Anderson’s What Is Marriage? In one slim and readable volume, Upham offers a credible diagnosis of our widespread marriage confusion, and goes on to make practical suggestions for how the hapless and lovelorn can rediscover the joy of mutual attraction.
Why do modern men and women have so much difficult attracting one another, when both are happier together? As Upham sees it, our ideological commitment to egalitarianism has led us to willfully suppress some of the practical principles that “old wives” have appreciated for time out of mind. We want to believe that men and women are basically the same. Inconveniently, they aren’t. And by hiding from this most basic principle of romance, we have handicapped ourselves in our search for love and marriage.
Think of it as a kind of lovers’ false consciousness. Our compunctions about political correctness prevent us from acknowledging what we really want. Worse, they mislead us as to what the other sex really wants. Men are actually surprised to find that they don’t win the heart of a woman by listening sensitively while she complains about former boyfriends. Women tragically fail to recognize that neither promiscuity nor dazzling worldly accomplishments are their ticket to domestic bliss.
It’s a depressing state of affairs, but there’s good news too. Getting our romantic mojo back might be relatively easy, if only we can remember that boys and girls are different. We should also give ourselves permission to enjoy that fact instead of lamenting it. These steps might be tricky at the start for modern readers, but our natural inclinations are supportive of the project. Once we get going, we’ll probably find it’s like running downhill.
One nice thing about Getting Hitched is that it maintains an upbeat tone while still presenting some “hard truths” that our enlightened egalitarians would prefer not to see. Both men and women, Upham reminds us, are in a sense “hard-wired” with the desire to procreate. As biological creatures we have the natural urge to perpetuate our genes, and as rational beings we can see that families make life richer and more meaningful. Both sexes feel this desire to help bear and foster future generations.
That desire is realized, however, in different ways. Most significantly, men sire offspring while women bear them. That puts the sexes in different positions vis-à-vis their children. The childbearing process is far more onerous for the woman (biologically speaking), but she enjoys a naturally close relationship to her children (who she knows with great confidence to be her own). For a man, the biological contribution is quick, easy and enjoyable. But establishing a relationship to his children requires more deliberate effort, and on top of that, he has less natural guarantees that a particular baby really is his.
Modern innovations have softened these natural inequalities to at least some extent. Sterile sex is more readily available to both sexes, and childbearing is less dangerous than it used to be. Meanwhile, genetic testing makes it possible for suspicious men to establish paternity with confidence. These innovations have emboldened us to try to create a more egalitarian world. Unfortunately, our instincts with respect to attraction are not so easily suppressed. We still want what biology makes it rational for us to want, and our efforts to talk ourselves out of that have been less successful than we might hope.
In general terms, men are attracted to women who appear fertile, faithful, and suited to nurturing. Most women have at least some of the desired qualities, and accordingly, most men are at least moderately attracted to most women of childbearing age. Nevertheless, their preferences favor the young, the pretty, the sweet-natured and the chaste. Women, by contrast, are more naturally choosy than men. Carrying a man’s child is a substantial burden, so women’s instincts tell them to bestow this favor only on the truly worthy. They are attracted to superlatives: men who are tall, strong, rich, intelligent and accomplished.
These differences lead to much misunderstanding between the sexes. Bitter men accuse women of being snobs and gold-diggers, while women charge men with being hedonists who care for nothing but sex. There are half-truths underlying all of these accusations, and indeed, these truths of mutual attraction might seem quite unwelcome to some. Is the short-and-unaccomplished man doomed to lifelong loneliness? Must the intelligent and curious woman be urged to quit her studies and concentrate on her figure and her baking skills?
In the final analysis, things are not quite that grim. Men and women can be happy together, even if they are poor, ugly, or under (over?) credentialed. Marriage is for mortals, not supermen, and these truths of mutual attraction are not the end-all-and-be-all of happy marriages. Nevertheless, marriages will probably be happier (and more numerous!) if we acknowledge them for what they are, and use them to our advantage. The final chapters of the book offer advice for how to do this.
We all have our deficiencies, but why dwell on this when you can play to your strengths? Put your best foot forward by emphasizing those qualities that are pleasing to the opposite sex. At the same time, allow yourself to be pleased. Instead of looking to finding fault, make an effort to see those things that are good, attractive and admirable about the opposite sex. Romance by nature involves a bit of role-playing. Why fight it, when we’ll all be happier just agreeing to play our parts?
Recovering the truths of mutual attraction can also help us to be more generous to one another. Misjudging others is all too easy when we view them through the lens of our own sex. A woman who notices every man she meets generally is inclined to promiscuity. A man who pursues rich women is probably crass and calculating. But when we account for differences in natural attraction, we see that these truths don’t apply to both sexes in the same way. Men as a group are not sex-fiends, and women aren’t impossible to please. We can understand why these complaints arise, but instead of griping, let’s try to help each other realize better visions of manhood and womanhood.
Nothing Upham tells us is at all new. Indeed, that is the entire premise of the book: these truths are old as the hills, but have been conveniently (or inconveniently) buried under a mound of ideological egalitarianism. Even working with old material, though, Upham manages to achieve something quite refreshing. He talks about men and women without being unduly harsh to either, and avoids taking a stance in the endless war of Mars and Venus. This is surprisingly hard to do, and it’s rare to finish a book of this kind still believing that the author just genuinely wants men and women to be happy together. Upham manages this rare feat, and that alone makes the book worth reading.
The project of recovering marriage will require work on multiple fronts, and it won’t all be as easy as a fairy tale. Still, let’s not disparage fairy tales. It will help enormously if we can teach people to enjoy the good, old-fashioned pleasures of Boy Meets Girl. Getting Hitched is a good place to start.
Editor’s note: The image above is a detail from “The Marriage Proposal” painted by Frédéric Soulacroix (1858-1933).