‘Marrying up’: every single layer of this is bullshit

Image by the brilliant Stuart F Taylor

I’m late to the party on this news, but a couple of weeks ago someone released some research about what straight women are looking for in a partner, and how they’re struggling to find someone because they’re intent on ‘marrying up’. There’s loads of bullshit to wade through here, and it’s quite fun sometimes to unpack it all, smearing it liberally all over the floor until you realise there’s nothing of value even hiding in the centre of what is a wholly ridiculous concept. Let’s look at ‘marrying up’ and ‘marrying down’.

What does ‘marrying up’ mean?

The broad concept of ‘marrying up’ is based on the idea that all humans can be placed somewhere on a heirarchy based on their desirability as a potential mate. You may have come across it in phrases like ‘the most eligible bachelor’ or ‘she’s out of my league!’

To ‘marry up’ is to find someone who is placed higher on this arbitrary scale than you are. Maybe they earn more money. Maybe their face is slightly more symmetrical. Or they have a medical degree, as opposed to your 2:2 in English Lit. Perhaps their parents own ponies and land. Whatever. You’ll be somewhere on this scale, your partner will be somewhere on this scale, and ‘marrying up’ is when they are higher than you.

Marriage is a competition, and if you wed someone higher on the scale, you win.

Fussy women are refusing to marry down!

A couple of weeks ago, someone released a bit of research based on US census data that said women were struggling to find love because they were refusing to ‘marry down.’ It was reported in certain places (like The Times, which went with the headline ‘Career Women Set Bar Too High For Mr Right’) as if these pesky women were ridiculously fussy. It initially struck me as weird because I think the same conclusion:

Survey Suggests Career Women Need To Stop Being So Picky

could so easily have been spun the other way:

Men Simply Not Good Enough, Explain Scientists

In fact, in a piece that appeared in the Daily Mail, the study researchers even admit that ‘The marriage market may be further skewed against high-flying women because potential male partners are still predisposed to “marrying down”.’ Translation: men don’t want to date women who are wealthier or more successful than them. That’s not the headline, though: men don’t need to adjust their expectations or abandon their dreams! That is what women are for.

But there’s a reason it’s framed the first way – as if career women need to change to accommodate men, rather than the other way round. It’s not just because the world hates women (although unsurprisingly, it is partly that. It’s always at least partly that). The problem comes from the fact that it’s primarily women who are expected to consider status when deciding on a mate in the first place. Men are meant to pick women they fancy – ideally younger, more beautiful, and less successful in their careers. That’s why the term ‘trophy wife’ tends to be applied mostly to women who are beautiful rather than women who, say, are kickass human rights lawyers or phenomenally good at sport.

Men are expected to marry women who are hot, women are expected to marry men with status. Education, money, and if he’s windswept and sexy like Poldark, that’s a nice bonus. Sadly for women, though, this survey discovered that the pool of potential mates who sit ‘above’ us on the scale might not be as full of fish as we thought. The Stylist quoted the authors of the study, explaining that:

“Unmarried women, on average, are looking for a man who has an income that is about 66% higher and a likelihood of having a college degree that is about 49% higher than what is available.”

Is it wrong to want to ‘marry up’?

I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with wanting a partner who is educated or wealthy. Let’s face it, if I could wave a magic wand and suddenly give my partner a million pounds and a PhD in astrophysics, I’d do it in a heartbeat. Money and education might not guarantee happiness, but it’s hard to argue that they don’t make life at the very least a little bit easier.

The problem isn’t the desire, though, it’s the gendered assumptions we make around who might have those desires, and why. As I mentioned above, ‘marrying up’ assumes a scale of human brilliance, but the scale isn’t gender neutral: certain qualities are considered valuable in men but irrelevant in women, and vice versa. I’ve rarely seen people bump men up the ‘marriageable’ scale based purely on their youth or beauty: they would usually need to supplement these at the very least with a fat wallet or a Duchy.

Point two, though, is that just as these qualities are gendered, so the way we police people’s expectations and desires is gendered too. If the survey concluded that there weren’t enough young, beautiful single women for all the fifty-year-old bankers to marry, you can bet your arse we wouldn’t see headlines like:

Rich Old Dudes Need To Lower Expectations

Rather it’d be framed as:

Top Beauty Tips To Snag Your Man: Research Says Rich Dudes Are In The Market For Hot Totty

I mean they might not say ‘totty’ because this isn’t the eighties, but you get the idea.

The concept of ‘marrying up’ doesn’t just contain gendered expectations around what qualities people are meant to find desirable, it also contains gendered instructions on who is expected to change and mould themselves to fit particular qualities, and how, while framing ‘success’ for women in terms of who they marry, not what they achieve for themselves.

Where ‘marrying up’ still lingers…

Finally, the most obvious point of them all: there is little to no wiggle room in this weird heriarchy for love, affection, attraction, kindness, compatibility, friendship, or all the other things that go into making a relationship fun. You knew that already – we all did. As the Stylist explained, when covering this study:

“When it comes to an ‘ideal’, it’s insulting to assume that women are looking for nothing more than a reel of impressive qualifications and a hefty salary in a mate, as the authors of the study appear to suggest. We’re more equal to men than ever before, and we certainly don’t need to rely on their salaries to get by.”

Sometimes it’s worth stating this obvious thing, though, because while you might be totally on board with the fact that ‘marrying up’ is a bullshit concept, it’s more than possible that there are areas of your life where these assumptions still hang around like a bad smell.

Are you a straight woman who has set her OKCupid filters to only show men who earn more than a certain amount? Why? Is it because you genuinely think you can only get on with rich people? Or is it because you’re carrying an idea that men who earn less than that are not worth your time?

Are you a straight dude who has set his dating site filters to only show women younger than he is? Same questions to you, mate.

I’m not saying it’s terrible to have priorities – we choose potential matches based on a whole host of different factors: looks, personality, hobbies, how frequently they bring family-packs of KitKats as gifts when they visit your house, that kind of thing. The vast majority of these priorities will be a combination of personal taste and societal conditioning. I’m not telling you what your taste should be, but I do think you’re missing out if you don’t question where the societal conditioning might be leading you. And where you’re missing out on potentially excellent people just because you’ve set your dating filters to ‘1950s mode.’

Beyond this, even if you remove all the gendered shit implicit in the term ‘marrying up’, we’re still left with this notion that somehow there’s an eligibility scale on which all humans can be placed and ranked, based on concepts that never change and make no accounting for personal taste.

Ever thought someone’s ‘out of your league’? Or told a friend they’re ‘punching above their weight’? These are the slug-trail smears of the heirarchy concept, oozing creepily across the carpet of your dating life. If you assume there’s some objective ranking of every person, and you play within those rules, you’re essentially letting the majority – i.e. the general public – dictate what you should find attractive. And that’s a dangerous thing to do. After all, the general public recently voted Magnum the UK’s best ice lolly, and a Magnum ISN’T EVEN A LOLLY. Absolute shambles.

When it comes to finding someone who’s a good match for you (not ‘the one’ or your ‘soulmate’ because those concepts are bullshit too) then you don’t need to hold up an arbitrary yardstick: you already own a custom yardstick of your very own. It’s wonky and weirdly shaped and entirely unique, because you’re not looking for someone who’ll please the majority, you’re looking for someone who’ll please you.


  • SingleinCanberra says:

    Spot on! Well said, as usual :)

  • Kitty says:

    There’s a few things pinging here for me.

    1) The baseline notion of the research that everyone is (or indeed, should be) looking at a potential date going “are they marriage material?” seems presumptuous at best. Though I concede, the concept of “fucking up” doesn’t have the same ring to it…

    2) The “trophy wife” term relating to looks (as opposed to gender concerns) seems appropriate, in so far as trophies look good and are something to show off to your mates, but are ultimately empty and pointless and really you’d be better off with a set of matching luggage or an Xbox or something.

    3) I saved the important one till last. A Magnum isn’t a lolly? How do we define a “lolly” here? A Chupa-Chup is still a lolly, surely? A Magnum arguably isn’t an ice lolly (frozen water / frozen dairy hybrids confuse the issue), but it’s still a sweet on a stick, n’est-ce pas?

    • Governor_Marley says:

      Totally agree with points one and two. Three will need further careful consideration. Up until now I would have been firmly in the “magnums are ice creams and therefore don’t count” camp but you have turned my whole word upside down.

      On the rest of the article, what jumped out for me is that when the gender roles are reversed and a woman does go for a younger, good looking man who is essentially a trophy husband it’s not just rare, it’s something that is actively policed through language. She’s a “cougar” or “cradle-snatcher” with a “toy-boy”, even when the age difference is much smaller than between many successful men and their younger, more conventionally physically attractive partners. In pop culture this trope often plays out with the older woman portrayed as desperately hyper sexual which is *hilarious* because eww old women don’t have sex, and eventually being dumped by the guy OR finding someone to settle down with who is almost always a slight variation on the theme of nespresso advert George Clooney.

      The same happens when men who aren’t “trophy” material “marry up” (ugh). They get the same micro aggressive language reminding them that they’ve coloured outside of the social lines because they’re “whipped” or not “wearing the trousers” or whatever flavour of bullshit it happens to be.

      The whole thing just gies ye the boak, and that doesn’t even begin looking at the heteronormative fuckery aspects.

    • Girl on the net says:

      VERY GOOD POINT re: 1. I thought I had unpacked all the bullshit there was in this, but you are 100% correct and this is yet another layer of ‘wtf’ – thanks for pointing it out!

      I am utterly shaken by your point 3, and I might have to go for a lie-down. Initially I thought that I was just leaping to conclusions because my gut says that Magnum isn’t a lolly, but now that I have had a pause to think about it I feel confident I can back up my assertion thusly:

      Firstly, you’re right that a Magnum is (kind of) a sweet on a stick. But I think one needs to do more than just be sweet and on a stick in order to be a lolly. I have seen people try to palm off frozen watermelon/mango/other fruits as ‘lollies’ and I feel quite strongly that these are not lollies either: just chunks of fruit. Likewise those little cake-pop things: on sticks but not lollies. So a lolly is more than the stick. BUT THEN WHAT IS A LOLLY??

      Well, I went back to the original definition to try and ascertain why my gut feels so very strongly that Magnums aren’t lollies, and it was there that I found it. Lolly is an abbreviation, and it can be short for one of two things (in the particular area of the UK that I grew up in – I appreciate that my argument careens wildly off track when taking into account other English-speaking places for which ‘lolly’ has a different meaning): lollipop or ice lolly. Those are the only two ways in which the word ‘lolly’ is used where I come from. So it must either be a lolly made primarily of ice (Twister is OK because the ice cream is an adornment to the ice rather than the main event) or a lollipop.

      Thus Magnums are a choc ice by any other name.

      I am willing to be proved wrong, come at me =)

  • Banquo says:

    Interesting. I wonder if the research revealed what non-career women are looking for? And what percentage of women could be classed as career women? In fact, how do they define a ‘career woman?’ And what are women who have not yet started their career looking for? And does their criteria change when they become career women? And what are the causes of divorce for couples with a mis-match of positions on the scale? And how does the divorce rate compare between couples with a high-flying partner to those who are ordinary mortals? Damn it, so many questions.

    When I was in my teens and looking for a girlfriend, my criteria was something like, ‘should be blonde, should be shorter than me, should be a hot, deep thinking and spiritual a hippy chick who likes prog rock and plenty of cock, but won’t sleep around. And must be a virgin (fat chance).’ In reality, what would have been acceptable would have been ‘any girl I don’t find repulsive who’ll be willing to date me and is actually available.’

    I’m sure there are problems for high-flying career women, other than those mentioned in the article e.g. finding a man who’s prepared to put up with her long working hours and bringing work home, her constant worry about whether she’s stuck under a glass ceiling ….. similar to the concerns that high-flying men may have (although the ceiling is not made of glass).

    Perhaps there is a problem with there being more high flying women than ever before, who are only now finding that getting what they wished for in terms of a career is going to cause them problems finding the right partner because too many men are still struggling with concept of sexual equality. Could take a long time for those attitudes to change.

  • Mardi says:

    I feel like this and similar studies are always framed like less people getting married is some kind of a tragedy. Especially when it comes to women, there’s this assumption that women must want marriage, therefore if they aren’t getting married, it’s not by choice, but rather something (high expectations; career; feminism; pick your poison) is getting in their way. I have yet to see an article unpacking the thought that perhaps less people are getting married because we no longer need to be married in order to be respected members of the society, and that’s not a bad thing at all.

    (and because this is the internet, I feel the need to clarify that I’m not in any way campaigning against married people; whatever makes you happy, you know)

    • Golden Hare says:

      Yes, agree with this totally! IIRC, on happiness surveys, single women tend to score higher then married (disclaimer: I am married and happy with that) and yet it’s still some kind of Bad Thing for women to be unmarried.

  • The punchline is brilliant
    ‘you’re not looking for someone who’ll please the majority, you’re looking for someone who’ll please you’
    A corrollary to this, in a world where having a mate is an option and no more a duty, is that if noone makes the cut then noone makes the cut and so be it. The dating pool looks more and more like a thrift shop where every item is optional and lots remain forever on the shelves, and less and less like an understocked grocery store where the last in queue have to make do with rotting cabbages because one needs *some* food.
    Basically, the ‘market’ is starting to collapse, and those of us guys who are nowhere near datable (as in ‘decent human being with a notion that girls have a soul and a life of their own’) are starting to panic.

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