As Women Rise and Men Sink, Marriage Breaks Down Entirely

Mismatch: The Growing Gulf Between Women and Men , by Andrew Hacker. Scribner, 199 pages, $25.

Into a culture jammed with strenuously creative strategies for marrying off its unwed citizens-from Married By America to the Defense of Marriage Act-comes the political scientist Andrew Hacker to shut down the party with Mismatch: The Growing Gulf Between Men and Women . Mr. Hacker, the author of the influential Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal , has surveyed the marital landscape, crunched the numbers and come to a sobering conclusion: The institution is not just in bad shape, it’s doomed. Men and women, for aeons thought to be inevitable partners in life’s most vital pas de deux, can barely stand each other’s company these days, let alone tough out a union over the long haul. Current “tensions and recriminations” are bound to grow, Mr. Hacker believes, making till-death-do-us-part an increasingly unlikely scenario.

The causes are familiar: We’ve changed; compared to our grandparents, we’re less willing to sacrifice our individuality to a larger whole. But mostly it’s women who are different, Mr. Hacker reports. No longer lagging so far behind in status and power, able to support themselves financially and willing to raise children without fathers, women are less and less inclined to stay married when they’re not emotionally satisfied-and most women can barely get their husbands to talk to them. That is, if they can even find a husband; status and power tend to make women less attractive to the kind of men they’d be willing to marry. But while women have it bad, in Mr. Hacker’s universe, men are actually the biggest losers in the divorce game. They’ve always been more satisfied with married life because they’re not looking for intellectual companionship or emotional affinity. It’s mostly women who file for divorce.

There’s no hand-wringing or finger-wagging here-just blunt information about our misguided determination to get married. That’s where the problems start. When it comes to marriage, in Mr. Hacker’s view, ignorance really is bliss, at least for a little while. “Scrutinize a woman and a man, both of whom are marriage-ready, where one is plighting a troth and the other is encouraging that overture. Even if they have been together for some time, they still know little about each other, because they are in a milieu where emotions eclipse reality.”

Reality, of course, is our stubbornly high divorce rate. Mr. Hacker is oddly wooden as a social critic, given to random pop-culture references and awkward phrasing, but he’s a pleasure to survey statistics with. All on their own, the numbers he’s assembled give more insight into the state of our unions than any 10 books by the earnest table-pounders who usually wind up writing about matters matrimonial. You could spend a long time, for example, contemplating “States of Divorce,” a table of the number of divorces per 1,000 marriages in any given year for the 45 states that release their divorce figures (minus Nevada, since over half of its marriages involve out-of-state couples).

Coming in first and second are New Hampshire and West Virginia, with a mind-boggling 959 and 795 divorces per 1,000 marriages, respectively. Is it something about mountains and secluded valleys? You’ll be tickled to hear that in the Bible Belt, the divorce rate is higher than in godless New York: Our 395 per 1,000 looks like a shy younger cousin to Kentucky’s licentious 506 or Alabama’s blowsy 527. And guess what? You really would be much, much happier if you ditched it all, moved to Hawaii and married a surfer. In the Aloha State, there are only a minuscule 231 divorces per 1,000 marriages, by far the lowest rate in the nation.

Mr. Hacker’s analysis of the new “cultural divide” between the sexes is the meat of Mismatch . Clearly he’s on to something, though too much of his book seems like padding, as if he were straining to find material to illustrate his points, and his evidence for a growing gender split is often bizarrely anecdotal. “[L]ook at the visitors in an art museum,” he suggests. “On weekdays, most will be women by themselves or in pairs. On weekends, when there are more couples, many of the men seem to be there under duress, glancing furtively at their watches and wondering if they are nearing the exit.”

He’s on firmer ground when he sticks to numbers. He finds ingenious ways of showing that while men still appear to be ruling the world, their star is in serious eclipse. More to the point, they’re lagging behind women in ways that bode ill for relations between the sexes. Only 43 percent of bachelors’ degrees go to men these days, for example, meaning that women college graduates will find a “shortfall of their male cultural peers” as potential mates. And while it’s true that women’s wages continue to be less than men’s-in 2000, women made $733 for every $1,000 men made-and that “in almost every occupation they have entered, from neurosurgery to investment banking, at mid-career women still have not advanced as far as men,” the percentage of women within professions like college teaching, medicine and law is ballooning.

Mr. Hacker’s fascinating, and of course controversial, point is this: Not only are women not benefiting much economically from these gains (in nearly every case, the entrance of large numbers of women into a profession brings a corresponding decline in its prestige and pay scale), they’re also making it less likely that they’ll find true love: With their every victory in the workplace, more eligible men slide down the class and education scale. The consequence is that men are slowly giving up nearly everything: Porn substitutes for romance; the sports bar stands in for family life; drudgery takes the place of ambition. And forget about fatherhood. Men, Mr. Hacker maintains, “feel less compelled to accept parental duties once assigned to their sex.” Single motherhood is on the rise as men relinquish the raising of children to these newly confident, competent, culturally superior women.

So should men just accept the trend and abandon all hope, while women enjoy their Pyrrhic victory? Well, no. Mr. Hacker’s frank pessimism is appealing in an age of frenzied marriage hype, but the curmudgeon does allow for a ray or two of hope, if you look creatively at some of his findings. Although fewer African-Americans than whites are married, those marriages tend not to follow the white economic model of a higher-earning, more educated man and a relatively dependent woman-a trend that whites will eventually have to follow. Professional white women, that is, will have to broaden their romantic horizons. In Europe, meanwhile, more and more stable middle-class couples are becoming parents without getting married, which means that European marriage and divorce statistics tell us less and less about what’s going on over there between the sexes . There are some statistics you just can’t snuggle up to.