I come late to this topic, but perhaps better late than not at all.
A short op-ed in Forbes Magazine last week aroused a justifiable storm of criticism across the blogosphere. Written by editor Michael Noer, the piece was entitled Don't Marry Career Women. Among Noer's gems of wisdom:
Guys: A word of advice. Marry pretty women or ugly ones. Short ones or tall ones. Blondes or brunettes. Just, whatever you do, don't marry a woman with a career.
For our purposes, a "career girl" has a university-level (or higher) education, works more than 35 hours a week outside the home and makes more than $30,000 a year.
If a host of studies are to be believed, marrying these women is asking for trouble. If they quit their jobs and stay home with the kids, they will be unhappy (Journal of Marriage and Family, 2003). They will be unhappy if they make more money than you do (Social Forces, 2006). You will be unhappy if they make more money than you do (Journal of Marriage and Family, 2001). You will be more likely to fall ill (American Journal of Sociology). Even your house will be dirtier (Institute for Social Research).
Amanda, Jill, and the Happy Feminist do a superb job of taking down Noer's risible thesis from a variety of perspectives. I won't try and duplicate what they've done, and I recommend their posts with enthusiasm. I am pleased that Forbes has added a rebuttal piece by its Silicon Valley bureau chief, Elizabeth Corcoran, entitled Don't Marry a Lazy Man.
What annoyed me so much about Noer's essay was his assumption that men ought to see marriage as a way to make their lives easier. I haven't read most of the research to which he refers, but for the sake of discussion, I'll grant that it's accurate. (Others more willing to wade through sociological treatises can share their thoughts on this.)
As any responsible historian will tell you, marriage has meant different things at different periods in our history. For educated, prosperous professionals, marriage has never been less "necessary" as a means of survival. Never before have so many women been less economically dependent upon their potential husbands. This is, from a feminist standpoint, good news. For some, it heralds the end of marriage. Social conservatives who long to preserve a traditional understanding of marriage worry about women's increased autonomy; some feminists who are suspicious of the institution of marriage altogether long for what they hope will be its inevitable demise.
But I'm going to argue that marriage -- particularly marriage between two individuals who have sufficient resources to make their union a choice rather than a necessity -- is a great and powerful vehicle for personal transformation and growth. This is perhaps especially true for men. Noer gets this magnificently wrong:
In classic economics, a marriage is, at least in part, an exercise in labor specialization. Traditionally men have tended to do "market" or paid work outside the home and women have tended to do "non-market" or household work, including raising children. All of the work must get done by somebody, and this pairing, regardless of who is in the home and who is outside the home, accomplishes that goal. Nobel laureate Gary S. Becker argued that when the labor specialization in a marriage decreases--if, for example, both spouses have careers--the overall value of the marriage is lower for both partners because less of the total needed work is getting done, making life harder for both partners and divorce more likely.
From a pro-feminist standpoint, there are few greater enemies of social progress than marital "labor specialization." Relationships built on mutual dependency and need (wife needs financial support, husband needs dinner cooked and baby's diaper changed) do little to challenge either party in the relationship to develop their full human potential. The feminist ideal is one in which marriage becomes a supportive framework in which both men and women can become competent in a wide variety of arenas both in and out of the home. A rigid belief in "labor specialization" robs both sexes of the chance to complete their own journey of transformation into the best people they can possibly become.
It's not surprising that women who have careers and incomes of their own seek divorce more often. After all, women who do rely largely on their husbands for financial support have far more incentive to stay in an unhappy, emotionally empty, or even abusive marriages than do their sisters who have independent resources! And of course, the fewer financial and educational resources a woman has, the more power she cedes to her husband. Men who know their wives can afford to leave them have a potentially powerful incentive to continue to work at the marriage that their brethren who control their family finances do not.
All marriages experience some sort of labor specialization. One spouse might do the dishes one night, while the other feeds and cares for the pets. Things get done faster when the various day-to-day obligations of living are shared. But the greatest potential for growth comes when those burdens are regularly switched.
The goal of a marriage is not comfort, but growth. It might be more comfortable for some men to work outside the home but never do a load of laundry; some women might be more comfortable handling all the cooking but never pursuing a profession in the wider world. But when we only do what is comfortable, we atrophy. If we only lift the weights that are easy to lift, we will never build muscle. If we only run until we begin to sweat, and then stop, we will never finish a race. If we only do those tasks that our culture, parents, or peers suggest that those of our gender ought to do, we never become the complete human beings we have the chance of becoming.
My advice to men: marry a woman (or a man) who is going to push you. Marry a partner who will accept your pushing in return. Traditional gender roles are easy and comfortable (particularly, perhaps, for men.) Marry someone with whom you can do things you've never done, so you can become what you've never been, and have things you never thought you could have.