One of the most important decisions a person ever makes is his or her choice of marriage partner. This means that the expectations we develop for the behavior of our potential spouse are very important, because those expectations let us match up what is available with what we want for our future. At no time in history has the drive for equality between the genders been stronger, and one might suppose that the average relationship expectations placed on both men and women by each other would be converging. I argue here that this is not the case -- while there are strong and established average expectations of men in relationships, the expectations that once existed for women are dead or dying, and nothing has sprung up as a replacement.
Now before I get too far, I’d like to make clear that the following arguments are in no way meant to slam either sex, or to reach any conclusions about who does what better or worse, or anything else that could possibly be offensive to anyone. With all of the constructive criticism I’ve received on my writing, I’ve become a new man. There are many, many possible opinions on the following topic, and mine is only one of them. Additionally, alert readers will notice that neither Larry Summers nor sexism are mentioned in this article, so please don’t force me to forward angry emails about my writing to my dorm floor for ridicule.
Now that formalities are concluded, I’d like to construct a very brief history of male/female relationship expectations. Up until the sixties or so, the basic expectations of women in relationships were static, simple, and awful. They seem to have involved mostly things like being pretty, taking care of the family’s domestic needs, raising kids, and being myopically supportive of the husband. As far as I can tell, women that expressed traits beyond this basic minimum were not particularly valued -- it’s hard to imagine a woman going out of her way to be funny, athletic, intelligent, intellectual, or really much of anything that didn’t relate to basic expectations.
Also at this time, before the sixties, the expectations on men were fairly static, if less simple, and definitely a lot more fun. The basic expectations for men were to be financially supportive (have a job) and physically supportive (defend family). Men that expressed traits beyond the basic minimum were rewarded. As far as I can tell, it seems easy to find men in novels or film of old that aspired to be handsome, funny, athletic, intelligent, intellectual, well-informed, idealistic, and much more. As far as I can tell, also, it was not cool for either sex to aspire to have the strengths of the opposite sex.
I believe it is reasonable to assume that both men and women aspire to be as desirable to others (especially possible partners) as possible. Whether now or in the 1950’s, people with more positive traits (especially beyond the basics) have a better chance of getting a good spouse than people with fewer positive traits. So as of the fifties, the relationship expectations were on the whole in a relatively deplorable state, with men on average expecting and getting only the most rudimentary functioning that women were capable of on one hand, and women being stymied in their aspirations to greater roles on the other hand. Equality was hard or impossible to achieve in these ugly circumstances, and all suffered from them.
Then came the last forty years, a time when various women’s movements succeeded in starting the great process by which the impediments to women living out their aspirations were removed. It is far from done, but few doubt that things are better than they were. As I stated before, most typically assume that the last forty years have served to bring more equality to relationships, and supposedly relationship expectations. I am unconvinced, based on four years of using MIT as a model of our society’s most ambitious women and men, and how they relate.
Expectations on the man, in my mind, have not substantially changed over a half-century. We still get points for being articulate, funny, intelligent, intellectual, etc., and we are downright expected to be supportive, considerate, and to do our share of providing for a hypothetical long-term family. We have even advanced a bit; it seems no longer uncool for guys to invade girls’ turf by being emotionally in touch, interested in what their girlfriend is thinking, or interested in good communication and shared feelings. If anything, these guys are in hot demand.
Few guys look for girls that are very athletic and would destroy them in baseball or hockey. Few guys value their girls being much more intelligent than them. I have never heard a guy here talk about how much he wishes his girl were up on current events and could share insights about world affairs. Boys who act like clowns and make witty remarks and good jokes constantly are typically valued more than other boys, but few of us would think or expect to look for the same thing in girls. I don’t know many guys who place value on the ability of their girlfriend to defend them in a fight, despite the fact that girls have been taking martial arts for years. The list is as long as one wishes to think on the matter.
This can’t be the optimal state of affairs anymore than the fifties were. If you ask a girl what she expects in a guy, on average, she’ll rattle off something real fast, if not many somethings, and those things will be very similar from girl to girl. Ask a guy what he expects in a girl, and on average, you’ll get a different answer from each guy, and probably a lame one. Why don’t we hope for in others what we ourselves aspire to be? Why don’t boys/men/guys expect the very best that our generation of women has proven it can produce, if given any encouragement? No standard for female relationships behavior seems to have risen to replace the vacuum caused by the decay of the old standard, unless you count that most women here expect to get a job when they are older. I believe that people tend to grow in proportion to the challenges that are presented to them. If this is true, then everyone is missing out, and both sexes are guilty -- men for failing to expect equality, women for failing to define a standard for their behavior to men.
Finally, lest I be misinterpreted, my ideal is not for women to become “men-like,” simply to embrace sex-neutral attributes as their own that were previously the domain of men only. Otherwise, men will continue to overlook positive attributes of women currently being ignored, to the loss of all.