A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats

by Denise

My last post applied the concept of a BATNA to deciding whom to date/court/marry.  This one is about how  BATNAs for women change within a feminist society.

Feminism shifts the equation for women by elevating the value of their alternatives relative to marriage in general.   Because modern women aren’t seeking marriage itself, it then places the onus on specific men to present themselves as being more attractive than her specific alternatives.  Danielle Crittenden, in her article, “The Cost of Delaying Marriage” wrote of the simplicity with which women of her grandmother’s generation considered potential suitors:

Our grandmothers, we are told, took husbands the way we might choose our first apartment. There was a scheduled viewing, a quick turn about the interior, a glance inside the closets, a nervous intake of breath as one read the terms of the lease, and then the signing — or not. You either felt a man’s charms right away or you didn’t. If you didn’t, you entertained a few more prospects until you found one who better suited you. If you love[d] him, really loved him, all the better. But you also expected to make compromises. The view may not be great, but it’s sunny and spacious (translation: he’s not that handsome, but he’s sweet-natured and will be a good provider). Whether you accepted or rejected him, however, you didn’t dawdle.

Crittenden’s analogy to leasing an apartment comes in handy here because, when you’re in need of a place to live, you are mostly concerned about, well, simply finding a place to live that’s good enough.  But if you’re already reasonably comfortable, moving somewhere else might be preferable, but you’ll be a lot pickier.  Instead of needing a suitable apartment, you want the right apartment.  Necessity is replaced by desire, and general suitability with personal preference.  Relating this to the BATNA, marriage comes in the form of specific people, but the value of marrying a specific person relative to one’s alternative choices also depends on how valuable marriage is itself.  When marriage as an institution is not necessary for women’s livelihood or social position, the value of all of the alternatives to marrying a specific man rise in value in relation to it.  If marriage is highly valued, then every marryable person gets an automatic bump in value relative to the alternatives to marriage.  If marriage is not highly valued, then everyone must rely more upon the strength of their attractiveness to draw and hold potential spouses.

29VOWS1-articleLargeThe New York Times recently published an article in its wedding section titled “A Reluctant Bride Conquers Her Fears.”  It’s the story of a couple who met in college and fell in love, but who did not marry until 20 years later.  The man was open to marriage from the start, but the woman thought that it was more important to be independent, to pursue career, and to avoid the vulnerability of having a man taking care of her.  (This is what she said, it’s not just an interpretation of her story.)  In her late 30s, after achieving a prestigious degree and career, she reflected on her life and realized, “I didn’t feel as complete as I had been told I would.  My approach to love had been stupid and selfish.”  Her now-husband had never truly moved on in his heart and they reconnected and married.

While I’m glad that the bride realized that her priorities had been amiss, and I hope their life together is happy, I tend to think that she had her revelation and married exactly when her BATNA calculation determined it most beneficial for her to do so.  I would consider the following:

1.  Marriage as an institution was not necessary for her livelihood, nor was it necessary to gain the approval of family and friends.  Whereas previous generations feared the label “spinster” for a woman past her mid-20s who was unmarried, she was undoubtedly lauded for being a go-getter and leader.  0 for Marriage, +1 for singlehood.

2.  What that specific man offered relative to what she could have without him did not seem all that attractive to her.  Because marriage itself had little value for her, he would have had to have been that much more impressive and amazing to make marriage to him more valuable than her alternatives, especially since she had such a wealth of other opportunities in life.  We often speak of women putting career before marriage, and that is often true in general terms.  But few put a job in front of someone they can see a happy future with.  People do tremendous things when they are genuinely in love with someone.  Had her feelings for him in particular been very strong, more likely than not, she would have sought to figure out a way to be with him and still obtain her other goals.  Again, no one simply walks away from someone they truly have strong feelings for.  Her perception of his attractiveness, on its own, did not beat out the alternatives.

3.  When she had achieved her career goals, marriage to him became attractive because then he could offer her something that she did not have, which was consistent companionship and the wife label.  It’s interesting to note that she had the high-powered, lucrative career, and he, though well educated and hard working, did not.  Marriage is not without value in the feminist society, but is often the crown of having it all.  Moreoever, she is still young enough and possesses the financial means to pursue in vitro fertilization if she finds it difficult to get pregnant.

Despite how the above might sound, I am more judgmental of feminism as an ideology than of women acting out within a feminist society.  The reason is that I don’t believe that it’s possible to get people to act against what they perceive to be in their best interest.  At the end of the day, people are going to do an often unconscious calculation in their mind and decide whether the benefits of doing X outweigh the costs of doing X.  And if the benefits don’t outweigh the costs, they won’t do it.  And if they do, they will do it.  Love of God and love of neighbor add in additional costs and benefits for people to consider, such as God’s blessing and condemnation or how one’s actions will affect others.  But otherwise, people pursue their self-interest.  (Which is not a bad thing so long as love of God and neighbor are a part of it).

In a society ordered around feminist ideals, the incentives flow away from early marriage.  Furthermore, to successfully live out more traditional values, one needs her family and surrounding community to also opt in to those traditional values.  Most importantly, her father.  The story of the couple in the NY Times article is exactly what can be expected given our societal values.  Striking is the fact that the bride’s parents both pushed her into an independent life and told her explicitly not to place marriage before her career.  Thus, the benefits of parental approval and broader social approval, for her, came from choosing not to marry early.  Had she chosen to marry her husband right out of college, her family would have been against it and no doubt many friends would have highlighted all that she would be sacrificing to do so.  However, not marrying at all would also bear a cost, so after she had her career in hand, marriage then rose in value and could become her priority.  And once marriage rose in value, her now husband rose in value with it.  The same people who would have shaken their heads at their marriage 20 years ago now look on with endearing affection.   I don’t think that we can underestimate the power of those familial and social incentives.

Christians who have internalized God’s view of covenant will prioritize marriage because of our view of God’s purposes for our lives.  For society more broadly, we have to articulate a rationale for why marriage in general and early marriage in particular are important.  I don’t think that the fertility argument is as strong as it is often made out to be.  But there are other issues, most notably the problems that occur when people have extended periods of non-monogamous sex.  As few willingly embrace celibacy, all of this increases the risks of STDs, unplanned pregnancies, and general emotional hardening that comes from repeated heartbreak or refusal to attach in order to have painless casual sex.  For some, that’s enough; but I think that more work has to be done in helping to see why marriage has more value than its been given.

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