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.