In Psychology Today, author Jenna Birch tackles the question Why Are so Many Smart Women Still Single? I’m going to comment on her answers.
After looking into the mating preferences of more than 5,000 men and women by way of survey, researcher and biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, Ph.D., writes that we are seeing a “Clooney Effect” in this country — a nod to the recent marriage of America’s favorite bachelor, actor George Clooney, to human rights lawyer Amal Alamuddin. According to Fisher’s numbers, men desire smart, strong, successful women; 87 percent of men said they would date a woman who was more intellectual than they were, who was better educated, and who made considerably more money than they did, while 86 percent said they were in search of a woman who was confident and self-assured.
And yet the divorce rate among couples where the woman earns more money than the man is around 75%. While men may be saying they want a woman who makes more than they do, I wonder how many will walk their talk. Clooney is a very bad example, as he is far more wealthy than Alamuddin.
I too am skeptical of female hypogamy.
I am lucky to be surrounded by some brilliant women — verifiable “catches.” Gorgeous women my guy friends always ask me about. I have also watched these same smart, independent women struggle in bad relationships or fly solo for extended periods of time, despite their best efforts to land a good guy. So, what did this mean? If 87 percent of men were actively looking to couple with them, why were they still single?
Clearly because they didn’t find those men attractive, at least as long term partners.
I finally did what any skeptical journalist would do: I kept my eyes open for more research. In late 2015, an intriguing new study emerged in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. In the study of 105 men, researchers laid out several scenarios. In the first, they told men that “a woman down the hall,” whom they never saw, either outperformed or underperformed them on an intelligence test. Then they were told to imagine this woman as a romantic partner. Unsurprisingly, the guys more frequently desired the woman who outperformed them (#feminists).
Equating women who outperform men with #feminists seems a stretch. Most highly successful women I know are smart, independent thinkers, not feminist ideologues.
However, in the second round, men were given an intelligence test and then told that they were about to meet a woman who had bested them on the same exam. Ah, yes. The mythic smart, successful, beautiful woman every guy supposedly wanted. In the study, the men didn’t go after this awesome woman, according to lead researcher Lora Park, a professor in psychology at University at Buffalo. “When the woman was psychologically near — a real-life face-to-face interaction — men moved their chair further away from the woman, as an indicator of less interest in her, and reported less romantic attraction toward the woman when she outperformed versus underperformed him on a test,” she tells me.
In other words, they didn’t walk their talk.
The way Park explains it, men only think they know what they want — or they know what they want in theory, not what they’d choose when put to the test IRL.
Like most instinctual behaviors, choice of mate is largely subconscious. What we say we’ll do has little to do with what we actually do, and the inconsistency will be rationalized.
“Men seem to be influenced less by their ideal partner preferences and more by their emotions or feelings at the moment,” she says. “Specifically, when men were outperformed by a woman in a domain that they cared about — intelligence — they felt threatened, assessed by diminished self-ratings of masculinity, which then led them to act in a way counter to what their expressed ideal preferences were.” In other words, these guys felt way inferior in the smarter woman’s presence, and so they went rogue; they ditched their self-described dream gal for someone who didn’t best their intelligence.
They didn’t go rogue. They acted out of an instinctual understanding of the female instinct for hypergamy. Men naturally seek out the woman who is best genetically qualified to bear their children, but they instinctively understand that if a high status woman has a higher status man available to her, her instinct will be to leave them for the higher status male.
I began researching a story with this question at the center: Are men intimidated by a woman who is the full package?
Intimidated is the wrong word. Instinctively aware that the match would be unstable is closer to the truth.
I talked to many men. And when all was said and done, I was forced to acknowledge that I was onto something bigger — a paradigm shift that I couldn’t explain in one simple article. My research complicated the wisdom we were being fed about what men are looking for in a partner, who they date, and why they date them. Saying that men like smart women encompassed about 1 percent of the nuanced reality.
It’s hard to call it wisdom.
I talked to my good friend Jack, a witty and self-aware 27-year-old consultant. When I asked him what he was looking for in a lifelong partner, he said that, of course, he wanted a smart, independent, successful, beautiful woman (yada yada). However, later in our conversation, he also said that if he didn’t feel like he could win over a girl who fit the bill, he’d “start looking for reasons to discount her.” And he told me, “You can pretty easily convince yourself that you never really wanted her to begin with.”
Sounds like instincts talking, doesn’t it.
I went on a date with a handsome real estate broker a few years my senior, someone with the fearless facade of a man hardened to rejection and immune to the effects of deflected attention. He acted entirely secure in himself — but off the cuff, when I casually brought up the question of whether he would be intimidated to date the quintessential accomplished woman, he was quite candid. “I want her to be smart and successful,” he said, “but not as smart and successful as I am.”
One of my girlfriends (a lovely, brilliant-yet-soft-spoken entrepreneur) once went on a first date with a guy who runs in our social sphere. He made her a sushi dinner, in fact, and they had five hours of great conversation before calling it a night. Interestingly, though, he seemed to push her away very quickly afterward — right into “friend” territory. He wasn’t going to date her, yet he’d drop everything to meet her for a last-minute happy hour after work, or hand over his football tickets to her friends as a show of respect. When I asked him to explain his reluctance to pursue her (one night over 1:00 a.m. beers, where I clearly do fine research), he gave me some of his reasons. “She’s as close to perfect as I’ve ever found,” he said. “But I think I’d drive her crazy. I think she’d tire of my energy.”
Look at that rationalization. Amazing.
Relationship expert Susan Walsh, founder of the popular dating site Hooking Up Smart, once told me, “When a man tries to convince you not to date him, listen.”
Still, if men know a great thing when they find it, why don’t they pull the trigger?
Maybe because they realize it’s too good to last. If I suddenly have the opportunity to buy a Ferrari for the same price as a Ford, I may still turn it down because I know that I won’t be able to afford to maintain it.
You’ve probably been discussing this dating gray area with your friends for eons, but allow me to finally define and label it for you: The Love Gap — the reason men don’t always pursue the women they claim to want; frequently, women like you.
I have a better name for it: male hypogamy.
The Love Gap is a thoroughly modern phenomenon that now exists between the sexes — which is why we’re focusing on heterosexual pairings here. The dynamics are unique to 21st-century men and women with evolved desires for a relationship, who also have to get around generations and generations of the ingrained male provider/female nurturer framework.
Spinsters and incels have been around for a long time. I agree that in modern times, there are more of both. I disagree that desires for a relationship have changed much, at least for men.
What lies in the Love Gap? Oh, I don’t know … Let’s start with a few things. Psychological distance. Timelines. Past heartbreaks. Ancient gender roles. Socialized differences in the sexes’ view of love, emotions, and vulnerability. A lack of genuine “relationship-nurturing” qualities today. Games, because everybody wants “the upper hand.” How the sexes respond to their partner’s “reflected glory.”
Biological gender roles, maintained by powerful instinctual behaviors and the positive and negative emotions they generate, are at the heart of it. Most men want a woman who will be happy with them, and a women with lower social status is likelier to remain so. Most women want a man who is of higher status that they are.
I could extrapolate for days — and I will, because we need to identify the Love Gap in our daily lives, so that we can understand and navigate it. If we want to finally build fulfilling relationships with compatible partners, we need to grasp why we believe what we believe — and parse out why those beliefs are not always accurate. This entire modern landscape starts with you in all your awesomeness.
Belief isn’t always enough. Happiness is an emotion. Going against your instincts can make you unhappy, no matter what you consciously believe.
The End goal — a smart, successful, “full-package” woman whom men admire, date, and deem aspirational; she contains the sort of substance and carries the type of connection they want to lock down — someday.
“Someday” is a problem. Men who are looking for a partner want a woman who is also ready to settle down.
A modern woman who knows what she wants in love and in life; she has an ultimate objective in mind for her future, and she is unwilling to settle in getting there.
If she prioritizes work over family and fails to settle down while she is young and fertile, she will likely find she has to settle, or she will fail to get there.
[My friends] had their lives together — had substance, charm, and goals that they were actively reaching for, yet, I was still fielding sob-filled phone calls about men who were breaking their hearts. I listened to a lot of their stories — and then, to help me understand, I started talking to a lot of guys. Eventually, I mapped out an explanation, a conclusion I’d felt for the entirety of my adult life, but never identified before in black and white: Men don’t always date the women they claim to want at any given time in their lives. And it’s not because they’re “just not that into you.”
But that’s exactly what it is, if they are looking for a wife. They may be willing to date you, but if you are either too far beneath them or too far above them, they probably won’t be proposing marriage.
This is not a big mystery. Men want women who are fertile, ideally in their mid twenties, who are attractive, but who are unlikely to leave them for a man with higher status. If you are a smart woman, men won’t hold it against you. If you have a high powered career, they probably will, unless they have an even higher powered career. If you’ve spent your fertile years working, men with even higher powered careers than you will be looking for younger women.