Denver Post

Why won't men commit?

Al Knight
Denver Post
Sunday, August 04, 2002

Sunday, August 04, 2002 - What do men want?" is a question that hasn't exactly captivated social scientists but researchers at Rutgers University have dedicated a portion of their National Marriage Project to finding an answer to the question, at least as it relates to marriage.

Earlier this summer the school published an interesting report titled Why Men Won't Commit," authored by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead and David Popenoe.

The report and the project are intended to fill some of the informational void concerning the crucial social institution of marriage. As the researchers put it, Marriage is a fundamental social institution. It is central to the nurture and raising of children. It is the "social glue' that reliably attaches fathers to children. It contributes to the physical, emotional and economic health of men, women and children, and thus to the nation as a whole.... Knowledge about marriage is especially important to the younger generation of men and women, who grew up in the midst of the divorce revolution of the 1970s and 1980s.... Without some sense of how marriage is faring in American today, the portrait of the nation's social health is incomplete."

The authors don't have a good explanation of why there has been limited interest in tracking the institution of marriage. Rather, they have focused on trying to supplement the available data.

What they have found has the ring of truth about it, although some of their conclusions obviously invite further research.

Young men, they observe, face "few social pressures to marry, gain many of the benefits of marriage by cohabiting with a romantic partner, and are ever more reluctant to commit to marriage in their early adult years."

Here are some of the others reasons offered for the decision not to marry:

Men want to avoid divorce and its financial risks.

Men fear that marriage will require too many changes and compromises.

Men want to own a house before they get a wife.

Men are reluctant to marry a woman who already has children.

Men want to enjoy single life as long as they can.

This last preference is apparently widely shared by women. The median age for marriage in this country has gone up considerably and now rests at historic highs. For women, it is 25 and for men, 27.

"Men," the researchers say, "see marriage as a final step in a prolonged process of growing up." The key word here appears to be "prolonged."

This tendency to wait is obviously not all bad. Men who are older are more financially secure on average and may make more dependable husbands and fathers.

The possible negative effects of this waiting are more interesting and in some ways ominous. Many men think that what was once the normal order has been permanently rearranged. Instead of getting a job, meeting the woman they love and buying a house and having a family, they think in terms of living with relatives or roommates for a substantial period followed by a period, or periods, of cohabitation followed by buying a house, followed, maybe, by marriage and children. The problem with this, from society's view, is that a long period of single life may lead to, well, a longer period of single life. "Marriage was once associated with growing up and taking on male adult roles and responsibilities," the authors write. "Parents expected sons to leave and set up their own household. Now the pressures are mild to nonexistent. Boys can remain boys indefinitely." The biological clock for women limits their child-bearing years and one might suppose men would be sensitive to that. Not so. The men in the Rutgers study expressed little sympathy for women's circumstances." Some took the view that they had to be careful because women want to get married just to have kids."

Cohabitation, while widely viewed by young adults in America as a necessary preliminary to marriage, doesn't always live up to its reputation. The researchers are certain there is no research that says cohabitation leads to stronger marriages.

Proof once again that easier isn't the same as better.

Al Knight ( ) is a member of the Denver Post editorial board. His column appears Wednesday and Sunday.

Copyright 2002 The Denver Post.