The Inhumanity of “Marrying Up”

The messed up economics of 21st century romantic advice.

Why is it that we continue to refer to “marrying up” in predominantly socioeconomic terms, as if we’ve just signed a contract for a kitchen renovation instead of a nuptial covenant between two loving persons?

The oft discussed idea of “marrying up” came to light under the lens of contemporary feminism in a recent article by Stephanie Coontz in “The M.R.S. and the Ph.D.” Another article by Kate Bolick in The Atlantic about the “radically shrinking pool of what are traditionally considered to be ‘marriageable’ men– those who are better educated and earn more than they do.” The ideas expressed Coontz’s article, that the material concerns of intellectual and fiscal prosperity trump all other, reminded me of a comment my mom and my Grandmother made of my last college boyfriend:

“You can do better– you know that, right?”

I was taken aback by this statement. What precisely did they mean by “do better?” Was he glaringly unattractive compared to me, was he less intelligent, was he unpleasant to be around? What could they possibly have seen wrong in my highly intelligent and devoutly Christian boyfriend? To my knowledge, he was much better than my first love and first
college boyfriend, a student of accounting and finance more concerned with the maintenance of his BMW than the state of his soul in the eyes of God.

According to Coontz’s article, I probably should have married my first college boyfriend. A young, handsome, charismatic finance major who[se parents] owned a BMW and a three bedroom townhouse. On paper, he fit all of the requirements that I imagined would be sufficient for marriage. He had ambition, sophistication, an intellectual family, and he made me laugh. But marrying him would have been the biggest mistake of my life.

What can better education and more money possibly tell you about the character of the man you are looking to marry? The popular internet literature on the topic of husband finding stresses not the quality character of your potential life partner, but staggeringly less virtuous concerns, like how housework is divided so as to produce the maximal coitus in the
marriage. Rather than an emphasis on the eternal questions of truth, beauty, and goodness, and how religion relates to the big three questions, we are left in a philosophical desert. In all of the articles I’ve read on the topic of marriage that are so popular in the sphere of Facebook sharing and tweeting, none of them struck me as particularly concerned even with
the type of education that “marriageable” men ought to have. Allow me to take a wild guess: something in the field of accounting, finance, or business.

How about all of the liberal arts majors– the philosophers, the poets, the historians, the theologians? What about a major, a discipline that prepares young men not for the material vocation of a profit-making cog in a great financial machine, but for the spiritual vocation of a virtuous, well-rounded, critically thinking individual? What of the guys who take the question of calling so seriously that they are willing to spend years at a seminary discerning their walk with God before finally deciding to marry a woman? Furthermore, if women decide to be counter-cultural and get married before their early thirties, is marrying a man who earns more than they do even a feasible goal? “For a woman seeking a satisfying relationship as well as a secure economic future, there has never been a better time to be or become more highly educated,” writes Coontz.

It seems that in contemporary American culture, marriage is increasingly becoming a marketplace commodity, wherein the products- husbands and wives, men and women- are appraised not for their intrinsic, unique, ineffable value as a human person, but for their value as producers and consumers in the American marketplace. Karl Marx would have a field day. The language Coontz and other sources in her article used to refer to the value of women’s education for a satisfying relationship smacks of objectification of the highest order.

According to research, “the higher a woman’s human capital in relation to her husband — measured by her educational resources and earnings potential — the more help with housework she actually gets from her mate.”

Let’s pause for a moment and consider what is being said here. We are speaking of the value that a woman possesses as a potential wife as a “woman’s human capital.” Is there not something fundamentally inhuman about this approach to evaluating your future wife or husband? Imagine that you’re out on a date with your boyfriend or girlfriend, and he or she
leans over the table, takes your hand, and says to you:

“I greatly value your human capital, darling. Your educational resources are unlike that of any woman I’ve ever met; your earnings potential makes my heart flutter with excitement for our future.”

Even Coontz highlights the fact that “men most likely to feel emotional and physical distress when their wives have a higher status or income tend to be those who are more invested in their identity as breadwinners than as partners and who define success in materialistic ways.” If the men who are bothered by a woman of higher status — men who are focused on a materialistic notion of success are unhappy as a result of prioritizing success over love — shouldn’t it follow that women who also prioritize a material appraisal of a potential husband also suffer the same unhappiness? For Coontz, “these  [materialistic] traits are associated with lower marital quality.”

If that is the case, why does society continue to overemphasize the material? Why is it that so many people today are focused on achieving a decade or so of ambitious goals and material successes on their own before they deem themselves or their potential mates worthy of marriage? It’s interesting that these qualities are held in high esteem in a society that deems arranged marriages and dowries antiquated and inhumane. How different is our focus on self-establishment and assets from the economic union of families and the acceptance of dowries from ages past? Today’s idol of the career has indeed become the egalitarian dowry of the modern age.

Perhaps, for the sake of preserving the institution of marriage, we should begin to give virtue– charity, chastity, humility, honesty — the pride of place they deserve. Given the downtrodden economy, the increasing number of marriages prolonged until our early-to mid-thirties (especially in DC!), and the rampant use of contraception in sexual relationships of both married and unmarried partners, it’s no wonder that we are resorting to appraising our potential mates in terms of bank accounts and BMWs.

Only when we begin to refer to “marrying up” as finding your better half not in a financial or educational sense, but in a personal, spiritual sense of the term. Rather than focusing on the horizontal dimension of material gain in the worldly sense, perhaps we should shift our focus to the vertical dimension, concerning ourselves more so with our journey upwards,
toward God. Only when “marrying up” begins to refer to committing to someone who will challenge and court you on the pathway to virtue and holiness will we begin to honor marriage for what it really is: a sacred vocation, and not the fruit of research and investment in human resources and capital after years of test-driving compatible candidates. “Marriage is a path to sanctity and heroic virtue, and a generous exercise in loving God.” (MPTS 171)

If we seek to find someone who challenges you spiritually, emotionally, and virtuously, who brings out the best in you and pushes you on the pathway to becoming the best version of yourself, we can safely speak of “marrying up” in the best sense of the term. We can’t forget that at the end of the day, we are marrying not marrying a bank account, a car or a career–
we are marrying a person. The secondary qualities of a person– the objects the have and the ones they desire, the friends in their social circle, the career accomplishments — are merely the ephemeral, peripheral aspects of a human person. What matters above all is the orientation of the human heart.

As Kierkegaard writes in Purity of Heart, to be pure of heart is to will but one thing: the good. If we allow ourselves to pursue the ephemeral stirrings of the heart, to remain divided between the City of God and City of Man, we are not willing the good, and our hearts will never find rest. And a restless heart cannot behold the reality of what marriage really is: a union of two persons who make a gift of themselves as a symbol of God’s love for humanity.

This post was originally published by Ethika Politika.

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