Another wedding season, another study showing that marriage is a raw deal for heterosexual women.
Last month, University College London and the London School of Economics released a joint study that found men who married were far less likely to suffer from metabolic syndrome – a combination of diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity – than their unmarried counterparts. For married women, the same health benefits simply did not exist.
It's just the latest in a towering wall of research illustrating that the much-touted benefits of marriage are, in fact, a gendered proposition. The phenomenon, known in sociological circles as the Marriage Benefits Imbalance, has shown consistently that while married men enjoy increases in health, wealth and happiness over their singleton brothers, married women tend to be less financially stable, more depressed, less physically fit and more vulnerable to violence and abuse than their single and unmarried female counterparts.
And yet traditionally speaking, women are the ones in our culture who get excited about marriage, whereas men (so the stereotype goes) are often not as keen.
Part of this comes down to the nature of weddings, which are geared toward celebrating the bride over the groom. Even this is confounding, since the bride is the one, according to tradition, who is being transferred as chattel – a.k.a. "given away" from one man to another. The bride is, quite literally, the Thing – as in a subjugated piece of property being celebrated in an economic and social transaction.
No wonder so many modern brides end up so disappointed once the cake and rose petals are cleared away. A natural corollary of the Marriage Benefits Imbalance is that women tend to be far more likely than men to initiate divorce. A recent study by the American Association of Retired Persons of 1,147 middle-aged divorced men and women found that 66 per cent of women reported they were the ones who wanted the split.
We know that women work longer hours for less pay and do the lion's share of domestic labour in most households. So it stands to reason that wives put more effort into marriage and reap fewer of its spoils. No wonder so many of us end up so deeply annoyed.
What's truly fascinating, however, is that one can't simply put this trend down to a simple war of the sexes – e.g., the inherent selfishness of men vs. the inherent selflessness of women. The problem with marriage for women seems to have something to do with the institution itself, rather than the nature of committed heterosexual relationships. A paper last year from a Stanford University sociologist found that while women initiated roughly two-thirds of breakups in heterosexual marriages, this much-documented trend only held true for legally married couples. Women in other forms of long-term committed relationships did not report the same levels of dissatisfaction, nor were they more likely than their partner to initiate a split.
So what's the real problem here?
My best educated guess would involve yet another nifty sociological term: the Expectations Gap. This is the idea that the sort of women who tend to marry are often the sort of women who tend to have – shall we say – untenable expectations of the benefits their union is going to provide. I'm not just talking about deluded contestants on The Bachelor who think some guy putting a big sparkly ring on it is going to lead to a life of eternal, soft-focus bliss. I'm talking about myself.
I was once a young woman who very much wanted to be married, and for all the wrong reasons. I fervently believed – insane as it sounds now – that marrying a man with whom I shared few-to-zero important life goals would make me feel safe and centred, a sensation I craved the way a vampire craves blood. Not surprisingly, binding my life to someone with whom I had little in common (apart from an agonizing seven-year on-off relationship) had the opposite effect.
I felt anxious, miserable and more frightened about the future than ever before. So I got divorced and eventually married someone else – this time because we had a child and wished to reside in the same country. I am now what you might call a reluctant wife in that I never would have married again if it had not been forced upon me, legally speaking. Having said that, I'm very happy with the way things turned out. And so is my husband – I hope.
In any case, it is from this rather haphazard vantage point that I offer the following piece of advice to any young woman thinking of getting married this summer, or ever: Be realistic in your expectations and understand that marriage, for most of us, is not the panacea our culture promises it to be. Respect yourself. Respect your partner. And if you really want to be safe, just don't get married at all.