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Answering (And Understanding) Where The “Good” Men Have Gone

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Human beings are social creatures. We’re biologically wired to pursue social and emotional bonds. It’s one of the most fundamental traits for being human. Being a fan of romance, I certainly appreciate it. For that same reason, though, I think it’s telling when people encounter barriers in seeking those bonds.

In recent years, one particular question has been asked any number of ways. It’s often asked in many different contexts, which in turn inspires many different answers. The implications are still the same.

Where have all the “good” men gone?

Now, I put “good” in quotation marks for a reason. I hope that reason becomes apparent soon enough because adding that qualifier to the question frames it as a blanket statement about an entire gender. As a man, who sees himself as “good” by most standards, I feel I have a personal stake in addressing this question. However, I suspect the answers I provide won’t go over well with certain women and even a few men.

Before I answer, it’s important to add a specific context to what makes a man “good.” When the question is often asked, it’s often done from the perspective of women seeking men for marriage. We no longer live in an era where women have their spouses chosen for them or must seek marriage as a means of survival. Despite what some regressive individuals may say, I believe that’s an objectively good thing.

The complications arise when we start to establish the criteria of what makes a “good” man worthy of marriage. Most people, regardless of gender, understand there’s a difference between the person you hook up with and the one you marry. Ideally, this is a person you want to share your life with, for better or for worse. This is someone you genuinely love and go out of your way for.

The primary reason why this question is being asked, namely by women seeking a male spouse, is because they’re having an increasingly difficult time finding someone who meets that criteria. It shows in the data. According to Pew Research, about half of the adult population in America is married, which marks significant decline compared to what it was 50 years ago.

There are many theories as to why this is occurring, some more offensively absurd than others. Even the not-so-absurd theories have become mired in gender politics, which has a tendency to denigrate everyone in the grand scheme of things. I certainly have mine and I don’t think the answers are simple. Every person is different. People are complicated, in general, and so are the societies they live in.

However, this question about “good” men frames the issue a problem ascribed to men. It implies that the issue has nothing to do with a the overall desire to seek long-term romantic bonds. Like I said before, humans are emotional creatures wired to seek romantic bonds. The problem is that the men worthy of such bonds just aren’t there anymore. That’s why women are asking the question to begin with.

As a man, who hopes to one day find someone to marry and love with all my heart, I can offer my take on the answer. Simply put, those good men exist. They’re just not where you’re looking to find them. Even if you are, you might not even realize that those men are good because you don’t give them a chance.

Now, I understand that answer is basic and simplistic. It’s the sentiment of one person who just happens to contemplate romance than most straight men are likely to admit. Everyone’s situation is different, but there is a bigger forest to see and my opinion is only one of those trees. To see that forest, it’s necessary to understand the question better.

Thankfully, there has been research done on this topic. According to a study done in the Journal of Marriage and Family, a major factor driving this question could be a combination of demographics and math. To understand how, this is how they compiled the data.

Focusing their analyses on single heterosexual women, the researchers used data from the American Community Survey (2008-2012; 2013-2017) to predict the likely characteristics of these women’s husbands if they had husbands and then compared those characteristics to what’s actually available in these single women’s dating pool. More specifically, the researchers generated “synthetic spouses” for the single women in their sample by first matching them with demographically similar women (e.g., same race, education, military status, income) who happened to be married. The “synthetic spouses” were designed to reflect the characteristics of the husbands of the similar-married women. Thus, assuming women of similar demographics are looking for similar characteristics in their partners, this method offers a starting point for documenting the characteristics single women might be looking for in a partner.

The long and short of it is simple. The women in the study had criteria for the kind of man they want to marry. However, when that criteria was applied to the male population, there was a significant disparity. Over half the male population was eliminated on the basis of income alone. Essentially, the supply of men who meet this standard for marriage is not sufficient to meet demand.

That’s not to say that it’s the fault of women for having standards that are too high, although I know some have made that argument. While I agree that there are some women who make wholly unreasonable expectations of men, I think they’re the minority. I would argue those changing standards have less to do with gender politics and more to do social and economic factors.

Both women and men are able to be more independent today than they were 50 to 100 years ago. A basic consequence of independence is that you can afford to elevate your standards. When you have the money, time, and resources, you’re less likely to settle for less. It’s the same reason why you willingly pay extra for a better phone or faster internet if you have the means.

A much bigger factor, in my opinion, has to do with the economics and imbalances in marriage. Over the past several decades, the wealth gap has grown and the ability to make a comfortable living, which the women in the study prioritize, is getting considerably difficult. For a man, especially if he doesn’t have a college degree, it’s getting harder and harder to meet those criteria.

At the same time, the investment in relationships has only grown. It’s no longer enough to be a steady, dependable partner. Along with our newfound independence, men and women alike seek something greater from their spouse. That something often requires money, time, and resources. Between student loan debt and the rising cost of living, those assets have become increasingly scarce.

On top of that, the price of failure has gone up considerably as well. While both parties suffer significant loss when a relationship or marriage fails, men tend to take a bigger hit from a material standpoint. Between alimony laws and child custody, men stand to lose a lot if they don’t measure up to the woman’s ideals of a good spouse.

None of this even attempts to factor in the effects of other trends in gender politics, such as the anti-harassment movement. The criteria for a “good” man doesn’t even matter if it becomes overly difficult to be intimate with someone without fear of being accused of something. Even without such complications, the underlying question still evokes troubling answers.

Those answers still aren’t complete. There are still going to be women out there who cannot find a suitable partner for reasons beyond her control. There will also be genuinely good men out there who struggle just as much to find a partner of their own. As a romantic, I believe love does inspire people to make these connections, even when we insist on making it more difficult.

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The (Unequal) Gender Politics Of Divorce

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There are a handful of words that evoke a special kind of dread. I’m not just talking about racial slurs, crushing insults, or George Carlin’s famous seven dirty words. There’s one word that evokes dread that transcends race, gender, and political affiliation. That word is divorce. I’ll give everyone a moment to stop cringing.

I can personally attest to the impact of that word. I have many close friends, relatives, and family members who have gone through divorce. I’ve seen, first-hand, how devastating it can be to individuals and their family. It can be every bit as devastating on children as well. While there is certainly a benefit for spouses and children who escape an abusive relationship, there can still be lasting scars.

Most people agree that divorce is a pretty traumatic experience. It is very much the antithesis of the love, connection, and intimacy we seek in others. It is against everything I generally write about on this website. However, divorce is a significant part of our society.

At this point, it’s worth pointing out that the old “half of all marriages end in divorce” saying is not in line with the data. According to the National Center for Family and Marriage Research, the divorce rate in 2015 was 16.9 divorces per 1,000 marriages. That actually represents a significant decline since the 1980 when the divorce rate was nearly 23 per 1,000 marriages.

Whatever the rate is, the effects of divorce are still devastating and heartbreaking. Those effects also get lost in a lot of doom-saying surrounding marriage and the state of the family, which is often led by religious zealots and reactionary pundits. Beyond even the tragic and painful stories surrounding divorce, there is another element to it that often goes overlooked.

Unfortunately, it has to do with gender disparities and I’ve learned in the course of writing about this topic, this often brings out some heated debates. I expect that to hold true more than usual on this issue because it’s already so emotionally charged. On top of that, there’s plenty of data to show that when it comes to marriage and divorce, men and women are not on the same page.

The first major indicator of that disparity is shown in who does the proposing. Even in today’s more progressive climate, men are still the ones who propose 90 percent of the time. Despite the many running jokes about men being afraid to commit, they’re still the ones who pop the question. While more and more women are starting to propose, this gap is still significant.

The second indicator, which I’m sure is going to inflame ongoing gender conflicts, has to do with who initiates divorce. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, 80 percent of divorces are initiated by women. Again, that’s not a trivial gap. That implies there’s a major disconnect at work and it’s not getting better, even as more people remain single.

The reasons for women initiating divorce are many. I don’t want to get too deep into them, but there are many conflicting narratives. There are those who see marriage as a tool of patriarchal oppression and divorce is tool of liberation. On the other side are those who claim marriage is just an institutional tool that women use to exploit men for resources with divorce being the oversized sledge hammer.

With the added complication of no fault divorce, alimony laws, and child support, there are more legal mechanisms than ever to rub salt in the wound that is divorce. It’s not enough for a relationship to end and for romance to fade. Involving lawyers and lawmakers adds multiple layers of heartbreak and frustration to the mix.

This is where the gender divide can get especially hostile. On top of the disparity in who proposes and who divorces, there’s also a significant divide in how these laws affect each gender. Even though women have gained much more economic independence over the years, 97 percent of the ex-spouses who receive alimony after a divorce are women.

Add the ease of no-fault divorce into the mix and there’s a painful incentive for women to initiate divorce. If the choice is staying in a boring marriage or leaving with some money without having to prove any wrongdoing, then who could blame someone for taking that option? It’s still heartbreaking and hurtful, but people are going to respond to incentives, regardless of gender.

It certainly hasn’t helped gender relations. Many unabashed misogynists will cite how many women receive alimony and use that to claim that all women are manipulative psychopaths who only see men as a wallet or a sperm bank. Those kinds of generalizations are crude, but when you can cite real-world cases of unapologetic gold digging among women, it’s easy to see where that hatred comes from.

Personally, I don’t believe that hatred is justified. Most men don’t see women with that kind of hostility. In principle, alimony exists to protect women who would otherwise be in poverty after divorce. That is reasonable and well-intentioned. In practice, though, it’s a legal tool that can be abused and further foster hateful attitudes.

The data for who gets primary custody of children is just as striking. According to Census data, 82 percent of mothers get custody after divorce. That same set of data also notes that this stat hasn’t changed much over the past 20 years. That, in my opinion, is the most frustrating aspect of this issue.

Despite all the other changes and trends we’ve seen in recent years with feminism, men’s rights activism, and evolving trends in marriage, there hasn’t been much change in the overall narrative. Even as feminists bemoan patriarchal oppression and men’s rights activities protest gender-driven injustice, the rhetoric rarely translates into meaningful change.

I understand that some relationships are just doomed from the start. I also understand that the nature of romance is changing in accord with culture, society, and law. However, the lack of change in the fundamentals of how we pursue marriage and manage divorce is confusing and even a little infuriating.

Women seek, and have gained, a great deal of rights and protections in pursuing their own path within a more egalitarian society. At the same time, they still hold onto traditions surrounding relationships. They still expect the man to propose and to support her in the event of divorce. I doubt that’s out of malice. This is just what we, as a society, consider normal.

At the same time, men are pursuing their own brand of rights and protections within this society. Issues like father’s rights and reforms to family courts all have a place in pursuing a more equitable system. Even so, men still expect women to play a certain role within a relationship while assuming too much about their own role.

It’s an untenable situation. Society is guiding the genders in one direction while they’re pulling towards another. The old narrative surrounding divorce is just not compatible with the one that’s emerging. The situation today is very different than it was in 1908. Laws, culture, and even the economy are changing the factors that guide divorce. The only thing that doesn’t change is the pain of a broken relationship.

As it stands, men and women both seem to want more equality in the tragic realm of divorce. However, they each seem to have very different ideas of what constitutes “equality.” The narrative, as it stands, is built around men pursuing women and women deciding when that pursuit is over. Anything that deviates from that is seen as abnormal or absurd.

Every relationship is different. Every individual is different. There are probably some women out there who divorce out of blind hatred and there are men who marry women they have no intention of loving for the rest of their lives. There are plenty of vindictive people out there and divorce is a weapon that needs no sharpening.

The late, great Robin Williams once said that “Divorce is like ripping a man’s genitals out through his wallet.”

Feminist, Gloria Steinem, once said “You become a semi-non person when you get married. The surest way to be alone is to get married.”

These attitudes nicely reflect the current gender divide when it comes to divorce. Until that gap is narrowed, the heartbreak and hatred inspired by divorce will only get worse. Men and women have enough reasons to clash with one another. Divorce just makes it worse by giving that animosity legal powers.

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