Is There a Growing Divide Among Men and Women?

On Political Choices and Relationships.

There's been recent speculation about a growing divide among people. It's suggested that women tend to lean more towards liberal views and reject traditional (hetero) relationships compared to men. Conversely, men are said to be dissatisfied with societal changes and resentful of their diminishing status. These shifts in preferences and perspectives are thought to spell trouble for marriage.

Is this accurate?

In some ways, genders are more intertwined than ever before. Most young people attend co-ed schools rather than single-sex ones. The same goes for the workplace. Back in 1908, when the National Association of Realtors was founded in the US, it was predominantly male. Today, nearly 40% of realtors are men and 60% are women. Similarly, the percentage of female law professors has increased significantly since the turn of the twentieth century. This suggests that men and women now interact more with each other and discuss a wider range of topics. While more interaction might be linked to differences in viewpoints, it's possible that perspectives aligned in the past due to gender segregation.

However, informal norms also encourage more interaction today than in the past. Previously, it was uncommon for a married person to claim a friend of the opposite gender without suspicion of infidelity. Interactions between men and women were mostly limited to time spent with spouses, close relatives, or colleagues, but not in private settings. This is no longer the case.

While there are indeed some correlations between gender and voting patterns, they aren't strong enough to support the narrative of a growing divide. For instance, in the 2022 US midterms, 54% of men and 48% of women voted for conservative candidates. The gap is smaller than the 9-point difference in the 2018 midterms, partly due to differences in turnout. Other election cycles show similar trends. Factors like education and race have bigger effects on voting preferences than gender. Although there's a significant gap in voting preferences among young men and women aged 18 to 29, this gap narrowed between the 2018 and 2022 midterms.

So, what contributes to the perception of a widening gap?

I propose that the real story is complex and perhaps quite intriguing. While I can't cover every aspect here, I'll highlight a few key points.

Changing norms

Due to economic and technological advancements, we rely on each other less than before. This applies to both community and family levels, as well as romantic relationships. While a happy marriage is desirable, a professional doesn't necessarily need to be married to lead a fulfilling life, especially in large urban areas where the majority of people reside. Marriage is a gamble that may not always pay off. When singlehood was highly stigmatized, many settled for what they considered unsatisfactory choices. Today, many people hesitate to settle for anything less than an ideal match, which can be hard to find. This might lead observers to reasonably conclude that people are drifting apart.

"Too many" options

The evolution of norms has led to a proliferation of domestic arrangements, making decision-making more challenging. Do I want to get married or just have a committed relationship? Monogamous or open? Do I want children, and if so, when? In the past, people didn't have questions like these because there was only one kind of marriage, and trying different things wasn't encouraged.

I'm not exaggerating the extent to which people in the past unquestioningly adhered to societal marriage norms. Consider a passage from Virginia Woolf's Orlando, published in 1928:

Was it really marriage if her husband was constantly sailing around Cape Horn, despite being married? If one loved him, was it marriage? If one liked others, was it marriage? "Could getting married be the ultimate desire for someone who still longs to write poetry more than anything else?

What seems true, however, is that many people who had such thoughts kept them to themselves. Woolf's character is unusual for her time.

Blaming dissatisfaction on a gender divide

As mentioned earlier, singlehood today is better than it was before, leading to two consequences: a higher proportion of people choose to remain single, and, with standards rising, a larger proportion of those seeking a committed relationship are dissatisfied with what they find. When we're dissatisfied, we tend to look for a reason, often misplacing blame, a phenomenon Freud termed "displacement." We're especially prone to mislabeling the causes of dissatisfaction when the real reasons are too difficult to acknowledge. For example, a person might not consider themselves lacking the qualities to attract a highly compatible partner or might conclude that when standards rise, only a small minority of us are likely to be considered desirable. Finding fault with societal changes or others is easier.

So, where does this leave us?

I began by noting that some, influenced by the narrative of a widening gender gap, have expressed concern for the institution of marriage. I suggested that the perception of a gap has causes other than evidence of a real divide. However, this doesn't mean that the future of marriage isn't in question; it likely is, just not due to reasons related to a gender divide on political or social issues. If I'm correct, the primary concern is that singlehood is becoming a more attractive option, often overshadowing the choice of marriage.

Whether this is positive or negative is up for debate and is a topic for another occasion. What I'll emphasize here is that we can increase the marriage rate by adopting social norms that make remaining single highly undesirable, but that might not be the best way forward. The alternative is to make marriage more appealing. It's not easy to say how, but I'll share one thought in closing. For most of us (excluding cases like individuals with Schizoid personality disorder), love and intimacy are highly desirable. For reasons I explore elsewhere, love involves commitment.

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