Two days after a devastating breakup, I had lunch with the biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, the person who probably knows more about the science of romance and long-term love than anyone else on the planet. Our meeting wasn’t a ploy for tips on how to win him back—though, did you know that sex kicks the attachment hormone into overdrive?—but to discuss her latest study. It was about singles in America, conducted in conjunction with match.com—and I was, begrudgingly, again part of this demographic.
But after nearly eight years off the market, it seemed I had a lot to learn about the dating scene in 2012. Fisher’s study unearthed some startling tidbits about sex, romance, and hooking up among the 6,000 men and women surveyed: among them, that Republicans, apparently, have more orgasms; that gay men are more romantic; and ambitious women turn men on. But the biggest surprise? Certain gender roles appear to have flipped since the days of “The Rules” and He’s Just Not That Into You.
Rather than living up to the stereotype of commitment-phobic bachelors, modern men reported that they fell in love just as often as women, were just as likely to believe that marriage is “forever,” and scarcely bit when asked whether they'd prefer to “just date a lot of people.” But most shocking was how many of the single men wanted to settle down—and how willing they were to lower their standards to make that happen. A whopping 31 percent of adult men said they’d commit to a person they were not in love with—as long as as she had all the other attributes they were looking for in a mate—and 21 percent said they'd commit under those same circumstances to somebody they weren't sexually attracted to. The equivalent numbers for women were far lower.
“Give me a friend I get along with, have good sex with, and is willing to compromise, and I’ll build the love over time,” one man, a Colorado computer instructor, told me. It was as if he was echoing the advice given to many-a-young-bride by the village matchmaker.
This man was in his 40s, but lest we write off these statistics as a symptom of the old (read: divorcees, or dudes with decreased sex drive), the percentage of men saying "yes" to imperfect committment was actually highest among men in their 20s, almost 40 percent of whom said they'd commit without love (compared with 22 percent of women). The gap narrowed as men and women entered their 30s, and widened again past 40. Yet regardless of age, men’s willingness to answer in the affirmative to both questions was significantly higher across the board.
Fisher, a research professor at Rutgers University, explains it this way. "We have a stereotype in this culture that it's men who are the ones who don't want to commit, who don't want to settle down, who are the scarce resources. But in fact, it's the opposite." As one married man in his 40s old her: "My wife isn’t perfect. She isn’t the best I’ve had in bed. But she’s a wonderful mother to our daughter, she’s very helpful in our business life, and we get along very well.’”
How very … utilitarian.
But more than simple utility, it's a stance that's reminiscent of the now-infamous argument for settling in Lori Gottlieb’s Atlantic article turned bestseller, Marry Him! The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough. In it, Gottlieb counseled gals to forget the search for a soulmate and nab the next nice nebbish they could find (lest they end up, like Gottlieb herself, alone and regretful at 40). “Wouldn’t it have been wiser to settle for a higher caliber of ‘not Mr. Right’ while my marital value was at its peak?” Gottlieb wrote. “My advice is this: Settle! That’s right. Don’t worry about passion or intense connection … overlook his halitosis or abysmal sense of aesthetics. Because if you want to have the infrastructure in place to have a family, settling is the way to go.”
Though Gottlieb’s take was provocative, it was hardly new—“settling” is a trope that women have struggled with for ages. You know the old adage: a woman who can’t find a man is a spinster; a man who doesn’t want a wife is the envy of all his friends. Historically, of course, women needed marriage in a way that men simply didn’t: a woman without a husband wasn’t just lonely, she was broke, outcast, shunned. And so the modern marriage debates—the case for settling versus the case for singledom—have largely been written by and for women.
Until, perhaps, now. Modern marriage economics have catapulted women into the role of breadwinners in many households, and as more women have entered the workforce, financial freedom has meant independence in other spheres as well. Women now have the ability to choose a mate for reasons other than his pocketbook; many are in fact choosing to reject having a mate at all. Where this leaves men? Well, as women’s independence has increased, it seems, romantic opportunity for men has suffered the opposite fate. "And that problem is bound to be worse for poorer men," says Philip Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, College Park, who runs the blog Family Inequality. “I don’t think there’s any way to avoid that."
But that also doesn't have to be a bad thing. “There’s this transformation going on,” says Tom Matlack, cofounder of The Good Men Project, which aims to discuss and debunk modern male stereotypes. “It’s kind of like feminism on its head: for years, women were trying to earn the right to get out of the house, and here are all these men dying to get back into [it].”
But don’t take his word for it—listen to the chorus.
“We all marry our second- or third- or fourth-best choice,” says one man. “It's just life.”
“At the end of the day, most of us just want someone who is supportive and sane enough to have a family with," a journalist friend tells me. "I think men have always been willing to settle."
Says Thomas Fant, a private health-care consultant in New York: "The idea of being alone in life can be so overwhelming. Soul crushing for some. Men certainly aren't immune to it.”
Or, as one middle-aged guy puts it: “We all marry our second or third or fourth best choice. It's just life." (Ouch.)
But perhaps there's a more realistic way to look at it: that single life for men can be just as challenging as it is for women. "When we are honest, when we rid ourselves of the fantasy, being a single guy is f--king horrible,” says Nick Soman, the 32-year-old founder of a social dating site called LikeBright. “People start looking at you and think, ‘You seem like a decent dude. Where’s the woman?’ You go to these weddings, and you’ll be at the increasingly declining table of the singles. There’s, like, three guys and a girl. You’re all kind of looking at each other like, ‘Wow, these odds are pretty bad.’”
Soman doesn't need to worry: he's newly engaged. But it’s a sober reminder that life doesn't always resemble the bachelorette-chasing bros of Wedding Crashers.
“Marriage is challenging,” says Matlack, of the Good Men Project. “Are you always madly in love with your spouse? No. But being a good husband and a good father is about trusting the other person, about being willing to deal with difficult stuff. I think it’s a sign of maturity on the part of men to admit that."
He adds, “I don’t need the Victoria’s Secret model. I don’t need the infatuation that’s not going to last. I need a partner in life."