The Gist: A discussion on the marriage mindset, and how you should approach each stage of your relationships.
A review primarily of The Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work by John Gottman and The Meaning of Marriage by Timothy Keller.
The marriage mindset comes down to this:
If you’re single, get serious: who you marry is just about the most important decision in your life.
If you’re dating, be deliberate: if s/he’s not the one, s/he’s in the way.
If you’re engaged or on your way there, congratulations! But look hard before you leap.
If you’re married, marvelous! Cherish your spouse and place yourself second.
Figure 1. An addendum and disclaimer: if you’re 13 years old, it’s perfectly fine to dream about getting married, but if you get caught up in a whirlwind romance with the heir to your parents’ enemies, please don’t take any drastic measures. Though the world often feels like it’s going to end when you’re a teenager and something goes wrong, try a little patience. For never was a story of more idiots than that of Romeo and his Juliet.
Why get serious? Because marriage is awesome. There is nothing like having a permanent partner to pray with, to pray for, to pray for you; someone to hug when you get home; a trusted confidant who knows you and wants what is best for you; a companion who surprises you with delicious chocolate chip cookies; a protector who investigates sounds in the night (perhaps aided by a small arsenal or a big dog); a lover to experience countless intimate moments; another parent to raise your children to be all they can be; a sacrificing spouse that you will sacrifice yourself for; a friend to share your laughter and your tears, your highs and lows forever.
So, yes, five stars out of five, I personally recommend it. And you can observe that I’m a year and change in so you can say I’m still honeymooning but I’ll simply report that my life is better than ever. You should join the club. And if you’re like most Americans, you do want to get married – a delightful and worthy aspiration that you should pay at least as much attention to as you do plotting your career.
Notably, getting serious is more than being open to getting swept off your feet. There’s a harsh reality at work for women, compounded by modern society’s lie that men and women can pursue love and work at identical pacing. Many of my wife’s friends are in their twenties, hyper-focused on work (with the encouragement of everyone around them) and succeeding in acquiring degrees and job offers, but carefree about romance, sharing a fantasy that they’ll be reading Jane Austin in their favorite boutique coffee shop when Mr. Darcy will appear to lead them on a great adventure of love. Sometimes some version of that can happen, but there’s danger waiting around for it (just as there would be danger hoping that your dream job would magically open to you without your doing anything about it).
Figure 2. Indeed, the very pronounced lesson of 19th century romantic literature is that a good marriage takes much scheming.
The reasons are obvious, though nobody likes to acknowledge or discuss them at the appropriate ages: as if millennia of history could be doubted, dating apps confirm that women prefer to date older, more educated, more successful men and men prefer to date younger women. As a result, a man’s pool of opportunities expands well into his thirties and remains rather large almost until 50 while a woman’s shrinks almost immediately into adulthood, and more so if she pursues postgraduate education. This is an uncomfortable fact, but absolutely vital to transmit to young women, especially insofar as school may be one of the best sources of spouses (41% less likely to get divorced compared to alternative meeting locales).
Figure 3. Imagine a five-star recruit who decides to just dabble in intramurals until he starts feeling the pressure in his early thirties to try out for the NFL – and then expects to join the Hall of Fame.
The other factor that should encourage women to marry young is so they can have maximum flexibility in having as many kids as they want to. The biological window is not as small as you might think: according to Emily Oster, “the chance of having any children [is] very similar for women who [get] married at any age between 20 and 35” then it begins to decline, with those married between 35 and 39 90% as likely to have a child; 40-44 62%, 45-49 14%. That being said, according to surveys, American women are having fewer children than they want, so getting intentional early helps achieve the ultimate goal.
Figure 4. Note that the data is mixed on whether having kids is good for your happiness, though the data is rather decisive that having grandkids is great for your happiness. And even the data claiming that kids are a hit to happiness also suggests that you’d have to have seven kids before you’d be as relatively unhappy as a single person.
That men can wait longer to get serious about getting married and perhaps do better is unfair but true – and the truth is what should inform women’s strategy. Parents should tell their daughters, schools should educate their students, friends should strategize together: think about marriage prospects soon and often! Women need to know that their present appeal is not permanent – and decisively act on that knowledge to attract the best, reject the rest. And, in this context, the “best” means not just a great guy full of wonderful qualities but in particular a man who is ready to get married.
Of course, that’s often the problem with men. And irrationally so! I offered above a rather poetic take on how marriage is awesome – but marriage is so awesome that its awesomeness can be shown statistically. The Institute for Family Studies reports that, compared to their single peers, married men…
- Live longer (average: about 10 years);
- Make more money ($16,000 more – which is about half the median personal income! Or, put another way, 10-40% more for those otherwise similarly situated)
- Report being happier (more than double as many married people as singles reporting being “very happy”), and perhaps relatedly…
- Have sex more frequently and report greater satisfaction in it – even greater than those who cohabitate, so it’s not purely a matter of convenience;
What more does the typical guy want?
A man’s optimal dating strategy is to pursue the highest career prospects he can, knowing that his opportunities in the dating market expand with success and (some) age. (Once men drift toward their later thirties and beyond, they still have a lot of options but there are less women in the younger range who want to date that old and high quality women of various ages have already been taken.) But men in their twenties should still embrace the marriage mindset – again, school is a great source for a spouse and some religious communities do a fantastic job of creating a culture of marriage and practically set up young men for success (the Mormons, for example, host singles wards where pairing off happens rather efficiently). Perhaps from a pure dating economics perspective a full court press can wait until their early thirties, but men should be on the lookout for the one rather than a series of hot dates – because if a guy gets too used to looking for the wrong thing, he might not really know what the right thing is.
Figure 5. Also, the thousands of hours mastering targeting in Call of Duty turn out to have low romantic relevance.
Strategically, both men and women should be upfront about what exactly they’re looking for: saying that you are dating to look for a spouse will properly screen out a good amount of people who don’t share your goal. And both genders should understand the math of romance, otherwise known as the optimal stopping problem. I’ve written about this before and you can read the explanation here, but the bottom line is that if you want to be married by age 35, you should go on lots of dates without committing to get a sense of what you want until you’re 24 – and then marry the next person you date who is better than anyone else you’ve dated before. Along the way, you should really think about what it is you do want (and what would be good for you). As time goes on, acknowledge the real and flawed human beings you are spending time with and don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
You should also be aware that the median age at first marriage in the United States has been climbing over time, with men now just over 30 and women just over 28 (with a couple years added if you pursued higher education). Given that a couple of years of dating before marriage is decent due diligence and that you’re trying out multiple options, adjust your strategy accordingly. If you’re fast approaching or beyond the average marriage age and getting concerned, forget regrets – they’re just sunk cost – and channel your concern into taking marriage more seriously than ever. The good news is that almost 70% of women who wait until 40 to get married eventually do tie the knot.
Tactically, in an age of dating apps, it’s easier than ever to put yourself out there. But it also can be emotionally draining to sift through so many choices, screen out the creeps, and make all the arrangements. What truly bothered me is that I like to think that most of what I do I am investing in for a lifetime of returns – when I sit down with a friend, I hope we benefit from each other’s company for decades. But when I was dating, I had to simultaneously approach each date as if this person could be the love of my life or someone I’d never see again! And yet quantity leads to quality. Keep at it – and take it as seriously as you would the most important decision in your life – because the payoff is so large.
This is the best advice I’ve got for any individual – and I think it has a nice payoff for society at large as well. I’ve done my best to point to larger trends and data – but it’s also a reflection of my personal experience. I am a man who has always wanted to get married; was open-minded to it happening in my twenties and dated around enough to have a sense of what was good and bad, occasionally making mistakes along the way; decided to dedicate significant time, energy, and attention to finding my spouse when I was 30, leading me to a goal of taking out 3 women a week for 13 weeks; exhausted, I met a wonderful woman as date #31 and told her soon into meeting that I wanted to date her to explore if we would get married and if we discovered that wasn’t where we were headed, go our separate ways. Today, I’m married to her.
But before we got married, we took a hard look at our odds. More on that in my next email.
Figure 6. Click here to acquire Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (10/10). You can read my full review at this link – the author has run a gazillion experiments at the University of Washington trying to get at what makes people tick. I think it’s very helpful to be reading about what makes a good marriage before you get married so you have a sense of what to look for and what to avoid.
Figure 7. Click here to acquire the Meaning of Marriage (10/10). The book is based on a series of sermons that Tim Keller gave about being single and looking for love. I mentioned repeatedly that who you marry is just about the most important decision in your life – but the one more important may be that which affects your afterlife. Still, many faithful people have a version of the fantasy I described before regarding Mr. Darcy, except they assume their faith will lead them to the right person. I think the proper advice here is, as ever, pray as if it all depended on God, work as if it all depended on you.
Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this, forward it to a friend: know anyone who is looking to get married? Or someone who should be? Or a parent who knows someone who should be?
I read over 100 non-fiction books a year (history, business, self-management) and share a review (and terrible cartoons) every couple weeks with my friends. Really, it’s all about how to be a better American and how America can be better. Look forward to having you on board!