March 9th, 2010

Policy-makers, please note: The dynamics of marriage are changing

By Constance Singam

It was, for a very long time, a truth universally acknowledged that women needed a marriage to ensure respectable status and financial security.  Nowadays the trend is shifting: it is men who are increasingly getting the bigger economic boost from tying the knot, according to a new analysis of America’s census data.

So Singapore men, please note: times are changing, however slowly, for the better, and the winners are  marriage and relationships.  Take note as well that men who are married are happier and healthier.

A young male friend and I were talking about love, marriage and sex in Singapore and he was bemoaning the fact that few people he knew were making long-term commitments.  There is a lot of sex going on, he said, but “nobody wants to make a commitment to love and marriage”.  In Singapore, he said, one-night stands are very common.  Love and marriage need hard work.  As many people have discovered, and as I did in my marriage, there is a huge learning curve.

For many, this is all too complicated.  And thus the one-night stands, and the large numbers of young and single women and men.

John Bowe, an American who describes himself as a ‘perpetual bachelor’, was so tormented by his inability to make his relationships work that he set out on a two-year quest to find out why.  He did this by researching other people’s romantic experiences.

The result is Us: Americans Talk About Love, a collection of first-person accounts of why love succeeds or fails.  No aspect of lust, greed, need or devotion is ignored.  The book includes: ” Tales of obsession and confusion (from a 17-year-old girl in San Antonio, Texas, who can’t get over an ex-boyfriend; and a drug-addled 30-year-old living with his mother in Arizona while following his ex on Facebook) ” Finding bliss (as a 44-year-old lesbian eventually did in Minneapolis, after more than a decade of marriage to a born-again Christian) and acceptance (from a 76-year-old widower in Manhattan who says he dated more than 300 women after his wife died without ever finding anyone to take her place).

The Los Angeles Times Magazine called the book a “profound, touching work”, but added that it also functions as a kind of self-help manual, forcing readers to examine their own longings, failings and assumptions about love.

A recent report by the Pew Research Center said that in nearly a third of marriages, the wife is better educated than her husband.  And though men, over all, still earn more than women, wives are now the primary breadwinner in 22 percent of couples, up from 7 percent in 1970.

The study found that this shift has had a surprising effect on marital stability.  Over all, the evidence shows that the shifts within marriages – men taking on more housework and women earning more outside the home – have had a positive effect, contributing to lower divorce rates and happier unions.

“Women no longer need to marry up educationally or economically, so they are more likely to pick men who support a more egalitarian relationship,” said Stephanie Coontz, director of research and education for the Council on Contemporary Families and author of “Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage.”

These changing roles in marriage aren’t usually planned but come about because of financial circumstances.  Another surprising trend is that as women become more independent and educated, the more likely they are to stay married.  In states where fewer wives have paid jobs, divorce rates tend to be higher, according to a 2009 report from the Center for American Progress.

Sociologists and economists say that financially independent women can be more selective in marrying, and they also have more negotiating power within the marriage.  But it’s not just women who win.  The net result tends to be a marriage that is more fair and equitable to husbands and wives.

Everybody wins – men and women and the society.  Our policymakers, especially those making decisions about policies relating to marriage and fertility rate, should take note of the changing dynamics in marital relationships.

The writer is a former president of AWARE.

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