After years of shows on breaking up, Oprah is moving on to shows about making up. In a recent program, she separated her studio audience into two sections—men and women—and invited the sexes to talk to each other across the divide. The women launched into an attack. "Why can’t you guys be more vulnerable?" "Why are you afraid to commit?" The men counterattacked. "You’re trying to turn us into wimps." "You don’t respect us as men." Oprah, always the diplomat, searched for ways to bring the two sides closer together.
Oprah isn’t the only one engaged in gender diplomacy. A slew of new books focus on healing men and women’s fractured relationships. Barnes & Noble’s "relationships" section overflows with titles like We; Soul Mates; New Intimacy; and How One of You Can Bring the Two of You Together. John Gray, author of the wildly popular series on gender differences, Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus, is now intent on uniting the two in Mars and Venus Together Forever.
But these peacemaking efforts are too little too late. The war between the sexes is not winding down—hostilities are spreading. Men and women’s intimate relationships are antagonistic and troubled. Their unions—formal or informal—are ever shorter and more fragile. Even one-night stands often don’t last the night. And conflict is as much a part of intimate life today as roses on Valentine’s Day.
The talk-show celebrities and self-help authors don’t seem to grasp what lies behind this intimate warfare. The trouble between men and women is not a matter of miscommunication or misunderstanding and thus cannot be resolved by decoding sex differences, practicing communication skills, or learning conflict resolution. The source of the strife runs deeper, in a fundamental and probably permanent change in the way we mate.
Every society has an institutionalized mating system to guide men and women as they pair off. Mating regimes vary across eras and cultures—ranging from stately diplomatic negotiations between families to mock or real bride capture—but each tends to be fairly stable over time. In Western societies, the dominant mating regime has long rested on romantic courtship leading to long-lasting marriage. But all that is now changing. Courtship is dying; lasting marriage is in crisis.
But this is only half the story, for we are witnessing one of those rare events in social history: the rise of a new mating regime. Writing in the late 1970s, Lawrence Stone, the distinguished Oxford historian of family life, saw signs that the existing marriage and family order might be giving way to a "new, more loosely structured, less emotionally and sexually cohesive, far more temporary" set of arrangements. Two decades later, his forecast seems to be coming true. Men and women come together for sex and reproduction with far less demanding requirements for cooperation and commitment than in the past.
Key to the new mating regime is the diminished role of marriage. Though the majority of Americans will marry at least once, the marriage rate among unmarried adults has nevertheless declined by a third between 1960 and 1995. And marriage in the new regime looks very different from traditional marriage. It is no longer a nearly universal rite of passage between adolescence and adulthood, since Americans now postpone first marriage until their late twenties (25 is the median age for women, 27 for men). Typically, they live together before they marry or as an alternative to marriage, they exit marriage through divorce rather than death, and they often cohabit again after a divorce. In the new regime, marriage no longer looms like Mount Everest on the landscape of adult life. It is more like a hill that people can choose to climb, up and down, once or twice in a lifetime, or bypass altogether.
Cohabitation, rather than marriage, is the distinctive union of the new mating regime. Almost two-thirds of young adults born between 1963 and 1974 began their partnered lives through cohabitation rather than marriage, compared with only 16 percent of men and 7 percent of women born between the mid-1930s and early 1940s. Children are now increasingly living in families with cohabiting couples. In 1998 about 36 percent of unmarried-couple households included a child under 18, compared with 20 percent a decade earlier.
As a result, the status of boyfriend and girlfriend has moved out of the social shadows. Newspapers respectfully identify individuals as boy-friends and girlfriends, as do court and school documents. The most recent edition of Emily Post’s Etiquette spends pages on how to introduce live-in boyfriends and girlfriends to friends, parents, and teachers and—another sign of the times—how living-together couples should announce their breakup to their children and polite society.
The new regime encompasses how men and women come together, how they break apart, and what happens in the aftermath of a breakup—or, to use the argot of the young, who now live under the new regime: hook up, break up, and get even. The hookup is a brief sexual relationship with no strings or rings attached. It can be shorter than a one-night stand or longer than a fling. It may lead to a living-together partnership. But sooner or later (usually sooner), the hookup ends in betrayal and abandonment and thus to breakup. The breakup is filled with passion in one or both partners. Leave-taking triggers a torrent of hot emotions—anger, jealousy, hatred—followed by competing fantasies of getting back together or getting even. Finally, the fiery passion subsides and the fantasies fade, leaving behind regret and resentment.
The new mating regime has not spread evenly across the society and perhaps never will. Ethnic traditionalists and the religiously orthodox may well adhere to the old ways. The affluent and the well-educated will use their resources to minimize costs and maximize benefits of the new arrangements. But so far, the new mating regime seems to have advanced furthest among two socially important and culturally influential groups: the never-married young, particularly those on the lower two-thirds of the socioeconomic scale, and blacks of all ages and socioeconomic levels.
Today’s teenagers are the first generation to come of age under the new rules. They know little of romantic courtship and even less about marriage, having seen so few good examples. Gone are friendship rings, double dating, going steady, the slow buildup to the first "I love you," and the anticipation of the first kiss. Gone is any reasonable expectation that a sexual relationship carries with it the promise of marriage. Instead, teens party in comradely coed groups and "hook up" for sex.
The first hookup occurs as early as 12 or 13 for some adolescents, and by the late teens most boys and girls have had sexual intercourse, as has been the case for the last decade or so. In virtually every culture, first sexual intercourse is a milestone in women’s lives, heavy with symbolic and emotional significance. Girls want their "first time" to mean something. But today’s sexual hookup is rarely a magic moment. And the fast-growing popularity of oral sex, or "fooling around," as it is now known, is hardly designed to fulfill teenage girls’ romantic fantasies. Teenage girls want love, with roses and candlelight, with tender words and gentle gazes under starry skies—not this.
Romantic love is disappearing. Girls are getting more "naked, loss-filled sex," in the words of one teacher, but less love. Researchers at the University of North Carolina studying boy-girl relationships among young teens, for example, found a small percentage of kids who had had sex with a partner but had never kissed, held hands, or said "I love you" to that person.
By the time they leave their teens, many young single women have experienced at least one round of hookup-breakup, and they carry its emotional baggage (not to mention the misery of an occasional sexually transmitted infection) into their twenties. By then, many are wary of men. A colleague of mine recently received a letter from a 24-year-old woman who described herself as a "Christian and not a raving feminist." Her early sexual experiences with men, she wrote, had been so miserable that she had been led to "reject marriage, despise men, and decide to become a single parent."
Whereas fully 93 percent of women born between 1933 and 1942 married before ever living with their partners, today cohabitation precedes over half of all first marriages. Among unmarried women aged 25 to 39, about half have lived with an unmarried partner at some time in the past, and roughly a quarter are currently living with a partner. Nearly half of the cohabiting unions among couples in this age group include children.
Cohabiting unions are more common among the 70-odd percent of today’s 25- to 39-year-olds who lack a college degree than among college grads. According to University of Chicago sociologist Linda Waite, who has examined cohabiting patterns among young adults, this represents a significant shift: it was college students who pioneered cohabitation during the 1960s and l970s. But 15 years later, 45 percent of female high school graduates were cohabiting as a first union, compared with 24 percent of female college graduates.
Recently my colleague David Popenoe and I surveyed attitudes toward cohabitation among a small group of never-married, non-college, middle-middle-class twentysomethings in New Jersey’s suburban Bergen County. These young men and women saw cohabitation as a way of "finding out the truth" about a partner in the daily routine of a shared household. By contrast, the old courtship practices—where couples got to know each other through dating, spending time together, and getting to know each other’s families—involved putting up an idealized front, they said. Cohabitation, some said, is also a way to test yourself to find out if you are mature and responsible enough for marriage.
In one particular, however, the attitudes of the men and the women we surveyed differed notably. Women were much more likely to believe that it took only a few months to find out what they needed to know and gauge whether the relationship would lead to something more permanent. The young men said they would be happy to cohabit indefinitely. These beliefs produced clear signs of mistrust. The men thought women were living together to "push for weddings"; the women thought men were cohabiting because "guys want to have their cake and eat it too."
Especially striking among the women in this group was the sharp contrast between their general outlook on life and their past histories with men. Overall, these women were happy with their lives and optimistic about their futures. None seemed to suffer from any severe problems or pathologies; all wanted to marry and have kids someday. But their past relationships with men had not been happy. One young woman, while still in high school, had run off with an older man who then ditched her. Another had lived with a man for over a year—until he announced that he was marrying someone else at the end of that week. Two women had had cohabiting relationships of more than a year’s duration, which had ended. Several said that they had close friends who had been beaten up or stalked by boyfriends. We asked the women to choose one of two statements that more closely represented their views: "The biggest problem facing young people in their twenties today is getting ahead financially and achieving economic independence" or "The biggest problem facing young people in their twenties today is finding and keeping a loving partner." A majority agreed with the second statement. One young woman added, "It’s the keeping that’s the hard part."
Because hookup-breakup breeds sexual jealousy, especially an outraged male sexual proprietariness, it can be an incubator of violence. Women are at greatest danger when they seek to break off their intimate relationships or when they have another sexual relationship or both. At the shadowy margins of the hookup-breakup regime, therefore, we find enraged men who stalk, batter, and kill partners who try to leave. In 1992-93, according to the Justice Department’s National Crime Victimization Survey, current or former boyfriends committed 55 percent of all violent crimes by intimate partners; husbands accounted for 31 percent, and ex-husbands 14 percent. The prevalence of cohabiting unions in the new mating regime is not likely to bring down the level of domestic violence. According to Linda Waite, cohabiting couples are 1.8 times more likely than married couples to report episodes of hitting, shoving, and throwing things, even after controlling for income, race, education, and age.
The female style of getting even in the aftermath of a breakup is less violent and deadly. Women content themselves with revenge fantasies to exorcise their jealousy and anger. In the hugely successful movie Waiting to Exhale, one of the heroines ends her affair with her lying and cheating lover by dumping a pitcher of ice water in his lap—a postmodern twist on the classic movie revenge of dumping water on a man’s head. Popular female buddy movies like Thelma and Louise feature more lurid fantasies, including blowing things up and blowing men away. In Boys on the Side, a woman takes a baseball bat to her abusive boyfriend’s head, ties him up, and hits the road with two gleeful female buddies.
Greeting-card companies have spotted the new trend. Not long ago American Greetings ran a full-page ad in fashion magazines introducing its male-bashing "Thelma and Louise" cards. The advertisement included a sample greeting card that read: "Men are always whining about how we’re suffocating them. Personally, I think if you can hear them whining, you’re not pressing hard enough on the pillow."
A new genre of self-help books devoted to the art of female revenge—the dump book—includes such titles as: Dumped: A Survival Guide for the Woman Who’s Been Left by the Man She Loved; The Heartbreak Handbook; Getting Over Him; How to Heal the Hurt by Hating; and The Woman’s Book of Revenge: Getting Even When "Mr. Right" Turns Out to Be All Wrong. The basic message of these books is that getting dumped is now an everyday event, so there is no point in getting depressed every time you break up and risking turning depression into a way of life. Instead, the books counsel, you should learn to master the experience of getting dumped. It’s no big deal once you get the hang of it.
Unlike soppy self-help books on divorce, dump literature is playful and funny. Forget all that therapy stuff about grieving and recovery, it counsels. Get a grip on yourself, girl. Get over him by getting even. Turn your pain into anger. "The more you express your anger," writes one author, "the less anxious and depressed you will feel." But don’t go doing anything illegal or violent, the dump books warn. Revenge should be witty and original, something like the old art of banter—"smart revenge," the dump books call it. The standard for smart revenge is that it should make women laugh and men fume: try cutting the crotch out of his designer suits, sending all his clothes to the most expensive dry cleaner in town and mailing him the claim check, or stuffing baby shrimp into his curtain rods. One book counsels creating an "Ipcress File" of incriminating evidence—letters, bills, tax returns—and using this file to inspire fantasies of all the harm you could do if you chose. "There are photographs you could send to his new girlfriend if you wanted to," the author chortles.
If this advice sounds like junior high, it should. The pattern of hookup-breakup is adolescent, and perpetually so. Whereas marriage was a rite of passage, escorting young people into the sober responsibilities of adulthood and parenthood, hookup-breakup, with its suspension of adult responsibility, is a cycle. It repeats endlessly. It is for young and old alike. That’s why adult children are now asking advice columnist Ann Landers whether it is okay for their visiting 65-year-old mother to sleep in the same bed with her new boyfriend, and why there are dating services and relationship books for the 50-and-over set.
The hookup-breakup cycle spirals downward. Each successive relationship starts out at a lower level of trust and commitment than the one before. Lower commitment leads to cheating. Cheating leads to lying. Lying leads to mistrust. Mistrust leads to breakup, and so on. And mistrust is almost inevitable, since the hookup-breakup mating regime is so often based on a lie. It requires women to feign a lack of interest in marriage in order to "keep a guy." One seasoned practitioner of breakup explains: "My dates usually liked me because they sensed that I didn’t care too much about finding a husband." Since the new regime rewards women for their lack of pickiness about partners, little wonder that we see a growing crowd of estimable women who unerringly fall into bed with losers and louts.
Firmly as the new regime has taken hold among the young, especially the non-college majority, it is even more advanced among African-Americans. Statistical evidence abounds in Orlando Patterson’s essay on the relations between the sexes in his recent book, Rituals of Blood, which paints a detailed picture of the intimate lives of black Americans. They are single for much of their lives. A very high percentage will never marry. Their unions are fragile and often fleeting. The first living-together union of black couples is less likely to lead to the altar than the first cohabiting unions formed by white couples. (Sixty-six percent of white women’s first cohabiting partnerships result in marriage, compared with 49 percent of black women’s.) Those black couples who do marry have extremely high rates of divorce, and those who stick it out have strikingly high levels of marital dissatisfaction. In short, according to Patterson, black men and women have the worst of both worlds, simultaneously the most unpartnered and the most unhappily partnered people in the entire society.
Among blacks, the cycle of hookup-breakup begins earlier and continues well past adolescence. Females begin to have sex at earlier ages than other females, but compared with white and Hispanic teenage girls, black girls are also the most likely to say that they did not want to have sex when it happened.
Black men and women clearly have profoundly different beliefs about infidelity—the No. 1 marriage wrecker. You can see it in their behavior. Among all groups, marital fidelity is rarer among men than women, but for blacks, the gap is significantly larger. The percentage of currently married black men who report being unfaithful is two and a half times higher than the percentage of married black women who say they have been unfaithful. NBA basketball superstar Charles Barkley puts it this way: "My wife is married. I’m not." For black women, these differences can lead to embitterment and disaffection from men and marriage. In their twenties, black women place a higher value on marriage than any other group of women in the society, but by the time they have reached the end of their thirties, they are the least likely of all women to have faith in marriage.
Most black women, whether they marry or not, are destined to spend most of their adult lives single, Patterson reports. As for black men, until they reach 40, most will experience long periods as singles or in brief relationships. Black men and women go through life isolated and estranged from each other; according to Patterson, "Afro-Americans are the loneliest of all Americans."
Patterson attributes these mating patterns to slavery and its long aftermath, which, he argues, permanently damaged relationships between black men and women. When the sexual revolution swept over the nation in the 1960s, it delivered a ferocious blow to these already fragile relationships and precipitated the deluge of divorce, unwed teen pregnancy, and disappearing fathers in black American family life. But the rest of the society may be following the lead of black Americans, with a lag of about 25 years. This is certainly the case for unwed childbearing—22 percent of all black births in the mid-l960s, and at the same level for whites by the early 1990s.
Although the black experience suggests that the new mating regime’s long-term consequences can be bleak, that regime is vastly appealing to men and women in the short run, and it is important to understand why. All mating regimes offer rewards, and the rewards of this one are substantial. Men and women get to do just what they want—and they can do it largely on their own.
The old marriage bargain called for a monogamous child-rearing partnership that lasted for a long time—ideally, a lifetime. It was a demanding bargain, but it brought certain rewards. Husbands gained exclusive sexual access to a wife and enjoyed the certainty that they were the biological fathers of their wives’ offspring. Wives gained access to a husband’s financial resources, his paternal investment in their offspring, and the social status and privileges of married motherhood. And children had access to the resources and nurture of both parents until adulthood and even beyond.
Today’s mating regime proposes that men and women can pursue their reproductive destinies with only minimal involvement with each other. The new bargain is that neither men nor women must surrender their autonomy or prerogatives. No one is pressured to marry and raise children together. Each sex can pursue its own heart’s desire. The rewards of this bargain are clear: men get sex without the ball and chain of commitment and marriage; women get a baby without the fuss and muss of a man around the house.
It is not news that men are thrilled with this new deal. They have always chafed under the marriage bargain. What is new and noteworthy is women’s change of heart. They have long invested heavily in marriage, greatly benefiting from its rewards and disproportionately bearing the costs when it sours.
Women are signing on to the new bargain for two reasons. One is the simple and oft-noted fact of their growing economic independence. Because they can generate their own resources through paid work or from the state, women are less likely to seek a man to be a breadwinner. Even when they plan to marry, young women believe that they have to be ready to take care of themselves economically. "Men learn to hate you if you try to live off them," one young single woman in her twenties explained to me.
Women are buying into the bargain for another and more important reason. Increasingly they believe that a woman has a right to have a baby on her own. This idea is historically recent, originating with the sexual revolution and the contraception revolution. Based on a careful investigation of what caused the sharp increase in unwed childbearing in the early 1970s, Brookings Institution economist George Akerlof rejects both welfare and the decline in male jobs as explanations. Instead, he argues, social norms changed because access to legal abortion and the Pill—and, later, the morning-after pill, Depo-Provera, Norplant, and other female contraceptives—gave women the legal and technological means to control their fertility and thus their reproductive destiny.
Akerlof’s explanation is part of the story, but of course technology didn’t change social norms by itself. A new ideology of sexual freedom accompanied the new technology, insistent that sex was for recreation rather than procreation. According to proponents of the new sex ideology—with a strange combination of feminists and Playboy magazine taking the lead—women should be free to enjoy their bodies and their "sexuality" without any of the procreative consequences of sex. The sexual double standard was profoundly unjust to women; girls should be able to have as much carefree unmarried sex as guys. According to this reasoning, virginity was a burden, modesty a hang-up, and marriage a form of patriarchal oppression. Finally, feminists contended, women were the sole proprietors of their uteruses and thus had the right to make all reproductive decisions on their own.
However, something odd happened on the road to reproductive freedom. Feminist leaders in the sixties assumed that most unwed pregnancies were unwanted. Thus, when single women got pregnant, feminists expected that women would exercise their choice by ending the pregnancy. As Gloria Steinem famously urged, women should give birth to themselves and not to a baby. But feminists badly misjudged women’s deepest desires. As it has turned out, the liberated single women of the nineties are as crazy for a baby as were the unliberated wives of the fifties. Indeed, amid all the dramatic changes in women’s lives in recent decades, the desire for a baby remains constant and consistently strong. Young or old, rich or poor, every woman—from Jodie Foster to a 14-year-old in the projects—seems to want one. Some women go through excruciating fertility treatments to conceive. Others take the white-glove approach and pick a sperm donor from a catalog. More commonly, still others get fertilized the old-fashioned way. But whatever the reproductive means to a baby, the end remains the same. A baby is the trophy women most prize.
What pro-choice feminists failed to appreciate was that reproductive choice cut two ways. If single women could choose not to have a child, they could also choose to have a child on their own. If single women had the right to abortion, they also had the right to have and keep their babies. Thus, the right not to have a baby became the right to have a baby. The rhetoric of single women’s rights to reproductive choice joined the rhetoric of a single mother’s right to social approval. "Do you mean to tell me that if you can’t find a mate, then it’s ‘no kids for you!’" an indignant reader from Oklahoma wrote to People magazine in response to another reader who objected to the magazine’s glorification of Jodie Foster’s impending single motherhood. "How dare people judge others for wanting to give a child a wonderful life even if they have not yet found their partner."
Another thing happened on the road to reproductive freedom. Men were liberated from the old bargain that held them responsible for an unwanted pregnancy. Before the contraceptive revolution, a young man who got a girlfriend pregnant came under family and social pressures to marry her and support the family. But shortly after the advent of legal abortion and contraception for unmarried women, the shotgun wedding began to disappear. According to Akerlof, a woman’s right to choose enlarged male choice as well. If women had the option to choose to have a baby, men had the option to marry and support the mother and child—or not. Akerlof quotes an Internet contributor to a dad’s-rights newsgroup: "Since the decision to have a child is solely up to the mother (see Roe v. Wade), I don’t see how both parents have responsibility to that child."
At the same time that the new bargain gave men greater freedom to pursue their own interests, it also increased pressures on women to have sex without the promise or expectation of marriage. Akerlof argues that this deal created winners and losers. The losers were the women who had sex and then babies with the old-fashioned expectation that their sex partners would be faithfully committed to them and their offspring.
This idea of a woman’s right to bear and raise a baby on her own has gained widespread support, especially among the young. A majority (53 percent) of teenage girls today agree with the statement "Having a baby without being married is a worthwhile life-style"—compared with only 33 percent in 1976. Teenage girls also believe that they can do a great job raising a baby on their own. They are twice as likely as boys to say that one person can raise a child as well as two. But that doesn’t mean that teenage boys are clinging to old-fashioned ideas about motherhood and marriage. One study asked teenage boys about their views on the best resolution to a pregnancy for an unmarried girl. Between 1979 and 1995, the percentages recommending marriage, abortion, and adoption all declined substantially, while the percentage suggesting that the mother have the baby and the father help support it increased dramatically, from 19 percent to 59 percent.
The more years a young woman spends as a sexually active single, the more attractive a baby becomes. Writing in The American Enterprise magazine, Ivy League psychology professor Kristi Lockhart Keil captures the early panic expressed by one of her college students: "How am I even supposed to find someone to marry? I’m scared of getting AIDS, and half the time guys don’t use condoms, and you can’t trust what people tell you about who they’ve had sex with. Sometimes, it seems easier not to get married at all—just get inseminated." The panic increases for twentysomething women who have invested their time and hope in a living-together relationship that didn’t work out. By the time many single women enter their thirties, they are resolved to look after their own reproductive interests. They can no longer waste time on another living-together partnership that might fail.
So according to the new mating bargain, men and women each chase their separate reproductive desires and dreams. In the short term, the dreams often come true. Men get sex without strings; women get babies, with or without a husband.
What happens in the long term? Men, for the most part, do fine. They are likely to find mates to take care of them and bear their children. Indeed, male mating patterns are steadily moving from monogamous marriage to serial monogamy. Working stiffs tend to have serial cohabiting partnerships with women who may have their babies or bring other men’s children into the union, but who will require little in the way of child-rearing responsibilities from their partners. Masters of the Universe, by contrast, tend to take serial wives and have children in two or three "families." From Nantucket to Aspen, it’s easy to spot these paunchy, graying, high-status males, pushing a double stroller of twins with their slim young trophy wives at their sides. Some women make out okay, as well. They marry, have a child or two, work at rewarding jobs, and, after some years of managing children, nannies, and careers, while at the same time trying to get the attention of a self-absorbed husband, finally divorce. "I have enough to do without having to take care of a grown-up baby," they typically explain. After divorce, these women report greater happiness with their lives—and why not? Their children are a source of intimacy, they have satisfying work, and they tend to have strong friendships as well.
But these women are in the minority, for most of the losers in the new bargain are women. Over time, some single mothers begin to have second thoughts about the mating bargain. A mother and her newborn are caught up in a love relationship that is exclusive and possessive, but as children grow older, single mothers realize they cannot be father as well as mother. Survey evidence is revealing here. Most Americans now believe that a woman can successfully raise a boy on her own, but there’s a suggestive difference in the views of parents. Those with a child under six are much more likely to agree that mothers can successfully raise boys alone than are those who have an older child. Apparently, the practical experience of raising a child changes parents’ earlier conceptions about the sufficiency of maternal nurture.
Some single mothers have the same rude awakening. As soon as their sons begin acting like boys, they start looking for a man. A social worker in a wealthy suburb of Boston reports that the mothers most urgently seeking male mentors for their sons are well-educated single-mothers-by-choice whose darling baby boys have grown into rage-filled teenagers.
Other single mothers go in search of a partner who will take care of them and their children. Nowhere is the difference in mating strategy between single women without children and single mothers more evident than in the personal ads. Nowhere is the difference between youthful enthusiasm for the new mating regime and sober second thoughts more clearly apparent.
Child-free single women in search of a mate describe themselves as "sexy," "fun-loving," "pretty," "babe," "fit," and "passionate." Single mothers resort to adjectives like "full-figured," "medium build," and "weight-proportionate." The two groups seek different attributes in a mate. Thesingles want a guy who is good-looking, romantic, and likes to have a good time. The single mothers want a man who is "drug-free," "honest," "financially stable," "a steady worker," and plays "no head games." While the single women are assertive about what they want in a relationship, the single mothers are touchingly accommodating: "I’m flexible," a "homebody," "I like to do just about anything." Most poignantly, the single mothers are looking for a father for their children. They want someone "family-oriented" and "good with children."
Unfortunately, single mothers are at a severe competitive disadvantage. Male studs want hot chicks, not a "weight-proportionate" single mom with two little mouths to feed. And the mothers who place personal ads seem to understand and compensate for their loss of advantage. They offer a good deal. They advertise that the children are "almost out of nest" and that they are "financially secure." They avoid the "M" word—a big turnoff—and instead say they are looking for an "LTR," or long-term relationship.
These bargain-basement deals no doubt attract some interest. But the men who apply may not be the "family-oriented, steady-working, drug-free" partners the single mothers seek. A common male ploy is to feign interest in the mother’s child to win the mother’s sexual favors, and, since single mothers are looking for a father figure, the ploy usually works. But once the man gains sexual access, he may become jealous of the time and affection the mother devotes to her child. Family households with a mother and a boyfriend who is not the biological father of the children pose the greatest risk of child abuse.
In sum, this new mating bargain leaves men and women equally free to pursue their desires, but it does not reward them equally over the long term. Women have been its principal ideological advocates, men its principal beneficiaries.
The new regime’s effects on children are unambiguous. It leaves them with family attachments that are shifting and insecure. They have no fathers, or multiple fathers, or "stepfather" boyfriends who appear and disappear, and they can make no lasting claim to affection or support from these assorted men. The new bargain substantially increases children’s risk of family breakup and its multiple losses. Fully three-quarters of children born to cohabiting parents will see the partnership break up before they reach age 16. Only a third of children born to married couples face a similar fate.
Children are also the hostages and victims of intimate warfare. No official category encompasses all the violent crimes against children committed as a concomitant of troubled intimate partnerships, but if there were such a category, it would include infanticide, physical and sexual abuse, and kidnapping. It would certainly include the emotional damage caused by witnessing persistent fighting and hatefulness between parents. And it might also incorporate the more humdrum conflict associated with child custody battles and visitation disputes.
The new mating regime imposes myriad social costs. Some fall upon a public system that increasingly must protect women from their violent partners and care for abused, neglected, and abandoned children. The social costs include an expanded family-court system, stepped-up child-support enforcement efforts, increased mediation and conflict-resolution services in the schools, and more. It’s a sign of the times that in West Virginia, fourth-grade Girl Scouts can now earn a merit badge in domestic-violence prevention.
Social costs like these cluster at the extreme outer margins of the emerging mating regime. The regime’s more mainstream burdens and penalties are harder to quantify. No index yet exists to measure its psychological toll of loneliness, depression, resentment, and unhappiness. To be sure, the course of true love was never easy, and sexual betrayal, jealousy, and conflict are part of a very old human story. But the new mating regime—which began with the promise of enlarged happiness for all—generates a superabundance of discontent, pain, and misery, something that should be a matter of concern to a society as solicitous of adult psychological well-being as ours.
Some commentators see silver linings in these massed clouds. They point to hopeful, if scattered, signs that courtship and marriage may be staging a comeback. They point to conservatizing trends among some young adults, who want tougher divorce laws and less divorce, and who are slightly more disapproving of premarital sex. They cite cultural dissidents like City Journal contributing editor Wendy Shalit and Danielle Crittenden, whose books defending virginity, modesty, and early marriage have found an eager audience of younger women. They march out the wistful young readers who persuaded advice columnist Ann Landers not to discontinue her occasional "how we first met" series of letters from World War II-generation readers on how their wartime romances led to long and happy marriages. When Landers suggested that her readers might be sick of these stories, young women begged her to keep running them. One college student wrote, "I find these stories sweet and romantic. They show us a time when people weren’t afraid to fall in love and trust each other. I dream of something like that happening to me."
Some statistics, too, are moving in a positive direction. For example, the divorce rate has declined slightly from its all-time high in the early 1980s and stabilized. This is good news, to be sure; but one reason the divorce rate has leveled off is that the rate of marriage and remarriage has declined, and cohabiting unions have increased. Nonetheless, it is possible that we are seeing stirrings of a renewed interest in and dedication to lifelong marriage.
But I doubt it. The constituency for the new mating bargain is too large; it includes men and women of all ages and statuses. By contrast, its opposition is small and weak. Children, who have the strongest motivation to oppose the new bargain, have no voice and increasingly no representation in the society. The new regime enjoys powerful ideological support in both the elite and popular cultures. Support for it remains enthusiastic on college campuses and in women’s magazines, in best-selling novels and op-ed commentary. It is as widespread in Western Europe as it is in the U.S.
True, some women develop second thoughts. But evidence of their regret is buried deep in the small print of the personal ads.