Why it’s easier for affluent women to find Mr. Right

December 23, 2014

A single woman looks at bachelor's photos which are displayed at the French dating site 'adopt-a-guy' (adopte-un-mec) store in Paris

Economic inequality, accelerating since the late 1980s, is shaping American lives in every dimension — and finding a partner is no exception.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the pill and the leap in women’s labor-force participation rewrote the rules of the mating game, giving women many more options in the choice of spouse and the timing of marriage. But a more recent trend is causing the odds of meeting Mr. Right to shift dramatically across class lines.

Women of greater and lesser means are getting pushed in different directions when it comes to getting hitched. Affluent women are finding a larger pool of potential mates, while women further down on the economic latter have fewer choices — and often they decide that it is not in their interest to marry at all.

Values — and romances — are shaped by economic circumstances. Until women can count on things like affordable education and childcare, along with decent, stable jobs and a strong social safety net, pragmatism will likely tell them whether, or if, marriage is worth it.

If we continue to tolerate growing inequality, the scope and meaning of these changes to marriage and relationships will be profound. The first stage is already underway because both men and women are inclined to pair off with someone whose education level, income and status are similar to their own — a tendency that has grown in the 21st century.

Researchers call this “assortative mating.” Nature helpfully produces roughly the same number of women and men, but social conditions can wreak havoc on Mother Nature’s plans. Forces like population migration and mass incarceration can throw sex ratios off in real life mating pools. Even when the numbers are equal, income inequality can change the balance of men that women consider good catches. It can also influence their perception of what a good catch looks like.

A limousine pulls into the Tunnel of Love drive-though at the Little White Wedding Chapel in Las Vegas

American men and women are having different experiences of income inequality, according to data provided by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The loss of stable, blue-collar jobs and the explosion of giant paychecks in the male-dominated financial sector have created a wider income gap among men. The difference between the highest and the lowest earners is greater among them than it is among women. Women are less likely to command the truly stratospheric salaries, and there are more women than men bunched in the middle of the income distribution scale.

At the top, high status women are faced with a glut of men looking for a comparable resume. In America, gone are the Mad Men days of the boss marrying the secretary. Now he’s more likely to be interested in a dual-hedge fund wedding — and he doesn’t care if she can cook. So if you’re a female hedgie looking for a spouse, you can literally afford to be picky.

At the bottom, in contrast, women find slim pickings because chronic unemployment, economic uncertainty and a host of associated ills have left the ranks of suitable partners so thinned that many lower-income women have given up on marriage altogether.

The problems of poor women are creeping into the middle-income range. More successful women with a high school and community college degrees find themselves in a frantic race to find a partner in a dwindling group of equivalent men.

Unable to find a husband, these women are often choosing to have baby first. As of 2000, middle-income American women have their first child two years before getting married on average. Both men and women in the middle range tend to cycle through jobs and relationships. They are more likely to marry than the poor — but are also more likely than those with fewer resources to live together, marry, divorce and then do it all over with somebody else.

Women have pulled ahead of men in education and income at the low and middle levels. But the mismatch story is not just a tale of female fortunes rising as men fall behind. As historian Stephanie Coontz has pointed out, women still don’t make as much as men on average, and they have a higher chance of being poor. Marriage mismatch is more about how inequality creates both positive and negative conditions for committed relationships depending on class.

If you’re a single woman looking for a desirable partner, the odds are in your favor if you happen to be in the top 5 percent of the income distribution. Men at the top are competing for you — and they know they need to commit. If you’re in the middle range, you have fewer good matches. If you’re at the bottom, well, good luck with that.

It wasn’t always so. In the 1980s, a high-school graduate was more likely to be married than a college graduate. Now the opposite is true. Those in the top third of the income distribution are increasingly embracing marriage, while those with fewer resources are turning away from the altar.

Roman De La Torre, 28, lifts his bride Maria Elisa Posada, 28, off the floor as officiant John Pulice, 81, looks on, after  their wedding ceremony in Norwalk

For women, the marriage calculus is pretty simple: you can only reap the full benefits of today’s optimal marriage when your partner is an equal who pitches in and treats you well. Marriage is increasingly organized to fit people with ample means — the more you earn, the better your chances at making love last.

Researchers find that in mating markets where men outnumber women, relationships tend to be more stable and higher in quality. On the flip side, when there are fewer desirable men, those sought-after fellows tend to play the field instead of committing. Women in such skewed mating pools have babies out of wedlock because it makes sense — given limited resources — to invest in themselves and their children rather than trying to make a marriage work with a guy who might not only be broke, but prone to problems like alcoholism and violence.

The more culturally conservative men at lower income levels may resent the idea of a female breadwinner. Those without work aren’t too keen to do the dishes. In fact, laid-off men do even less housework than before.

For a low-income single woman, especially one with a child, marrying may feel more like a burden than a relief. It’s not that they don’t want to marry; they can’t afford the risk.

But Ms. Moneybags knows that if she marries a man with similar means, she will have the resources to do things like hire nannies, pay for good schools and seek therapy if they hit a rough patch.

Those in the upper third of the income distribution, though not as secure as those at the very top, still have a good chance of getting together and staying together. But they may need to wait and see how careers and incomes pan out, and shore up their own resources in the meantime — women enjoy an income premium of more than $18,000 a year if they marry after 30. If college women choose casual hook-ups over boyfriends, they’re just being practical: Early marriage comes with penalties.

So what does all this mean for society? Surely, not everyone should be married. But stable long-term relationships provide many benefits to partners and children. There are social costs to single motherhood, and an excess of frustrated young men unable to find spouses and start families can only be a recipe for social unrest.

Conservatives talk as if a change of values is the answer, so they chastise lower-income women for their man-spurning ways and tell less affluent men to stop loafing and get a job. But the best way to ensure that women few marriage as a risk worth taking is to confront the high rate of inequality.

We can do this. Economist Thomas Piketty and researchers like June Carbone and Naomi Cahn, authors of Marriage Markets: How Inequality is Remaking the American Family, have shown that this problem is neither beyond our understanding nor our control. We can insist on laws and policies that better meet our current challenges, like higher minimum wages, stronger unions, and changing the tax code so that it does not favor the wealthy.

But we have to read the writing on the wall: human pairings, if they are to be lasting and satisfying, or even form at all, require an adequate pool of people with stability and security.

That’s the way love goes.


PHOTO (TOP): A single woman looks at bachelor’s photos which are on display at the French dating site ‘adopt-a-guy’ (adopte-un-mec) store in Paris, September 12, 2012. REUTERS/Jacky Naegele

PHOTO (INSERT 1): A limousine pulls into the Tunnel of Love drive-though at the Little White Wedding Chapel in Las Vegas, Nevada, July 7, 2007. REUTERS/Las VegasSun/Steve Marcus 

PHOTO (INSERT 2): Roman De La Torre, 28, (R) lifts his bride Maria Elisa Posada, 28, off the floor as officiant John Pulice, 81, looks on, after their wedding ceremony in Norwalk, California, December 12, 2012. REUTERS/Lucy


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I think there is something grossly wrong with the orientation of minds and also with the buildup of social and family structure. Now when there is a lot of interaction among peoples and cultures across oceans, why can’t we learn from one another. I don’t believe that many so called educated people are really educated enough to go into the deeper philosophies of life, of social and moral realities. This is one aspect of the problem. The second more horrible aspect is the hatred created among nations and among religions by the vested interests. They have built up such a wide gap that every religion and culture views the other as a threat to their values and thus in fact strengthen those groups who protect their economic benefits. The contents of above articles clearly spells out the problems created by socio-economic structure. It is imperative that people start thinking out of the box and try to address the issue from its roots. The solution, I believe, lies in falling back to the origin and to those superior human values which once used to the pride of all humans. Even today they hold very high value and can bring back happiness, contentment and purer way of life to the society. Thank you for your time to complete my post.

Posted by KhalidMunir | Report as abusive

This is a joke, right? Maybe you should write a story on something less obvious, like Race Car Drivers Prefer Faster Cars, or More Rainy Days Per Year in Seattle Than in Death Valley?

Posted by Tarheel72 | Report as abusive

Major spin going on here. “Women in such skewed mating pools have babies out of wedlock because” they think that they can force the guy into getting married. It might be hard for an affluent female writer to believe, because she has plenty of options, but there are women out there who see a child as nothing but a means to an end.

Posted by erikrw | Report as abusive

Why would we want poor or lower middle class people to have children? Are we in need of people so desperate for money that we can make them slaves? I grew up poor and did not have children. I am no longer poor. Our whole society seems to depend on the forced labor of poor people. All I saw then and all I see now is the cruelty of the endowed class. What internal flaw or unfulfilled desire makes people such selfish and greedy creeps?

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

Does anyone proofread these articles? What is this supposed to mean?

“But the best way to ensure that women few marriage as a risk worth taking is to confront the high rate of inequality.”

Posted by euro-yank | Report as abusive

Perhaps it is not so much income disparity that is the problem here as education disparity. I think that similar education is more important in compatibility than income. Of course, disparity in education is rather highly linked to disparity in income. Moreover, with budget cutters always attacking funding for public education first, the problems cited by the author will continue to increase.

Posted by QuietThinker | Report as abusive

It is easier to do anything if you have affluence on your side.

Posted by NBE | Report as abusive

Warm, sensitive, athletic, professional man seeks the company of an intellectually attractive woman. Loves sunsets, puppies, cuddling, and long walks on the beach at sunset sipping a dry red.

Posted by norcalguy101 | Report as abusive

No surprise here! Women almost never marry “down.” So why should a wealthy, over-achiever marry a solid man who earns less?

Plus, this paradigm always existed in the gay male world. The only exception were men who were insecure and needed to play the role of Daddy to a younger man. However, a gay man of financial means, in my experience, looks for similar men. Men, gay or not, have been raised to pay their own way. A gay man is rarely a househusband. Now that marriage equality is the rule rather than the exception, a study on how this new legal environment has had an impact on gay coupling would be interesting.

Posted by Candide2 | Report as abusive

“So what does all this mean for society? Surely, not everyone should be married. But stable long-term relationships provide many benefits to partners and children.” No, but healthy and stable relationships can provide benefits to partners and children. But so can wealthy, healthy and stable single parents. Higher minimum wages, stronger unions, and changing the tax code alone will not do it; valuing caretaking and offering support for all caretakers (not everyone has or wants kids, but many of us care for aging and ill parents or spouses) would help a lot.

“an excess of frustrated young men unable to find spouses and start families can only be a recipe for social unrest.” Not so sure about that, but I’m positive “an excess of frustrated young men” unable to find decent-paying jobs and opportunities might indeed lead to social unrest. So more affordable education and apprenticeships would help, too. Marriage isn’t necessarily the answer.

Posted by vlarson | Report as abusive