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” pervades online journalism, from a New York Times piece by Stephanie Coontz, “The M.R.S. and the Ph.D.” to Kate Bolic’s piece 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 [women] do.” The ideas expressed Coontz’s article—that the material concerns of intellectual and fiscal prosperity trump all others—reminded me of a comment that 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 my boyfriend 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?
According to Coontz’s conclusion, I probably should have married my first college boyfriend. A young, handsome, and charismatic finance major who[se parents] owned a BMW and a three-bedroom townhouse near campus. On paper, he fit all of the requirements that I imagined would be sufficient for marriage. He had ambition, style and sophistication, a work ethic, and a great family.
But marrying him would have been the biggest mistake of my life.
What can 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. Many articles in publications from Forbes to the Huffington Post have commented on a Norwegian study on how housework is divided so as to produce the maximal level of conjugal love in the marriage. Rather than an emphasis on the eternal questions of truth, beauty, and goodness, and how religion relates to these transcendentals, 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 as to a potential answer: 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 materialistic pursuit 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 pursue marriage? Furthermore, if women decide to be counter-cultural and get married before their early 30s, 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 human persons, but for their value as producers and consumers in the American marketplace. Karl Marx would have a field day. The language that Coontz and other sources in her article use 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 one's future spouse? 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 these men 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 it deserves. Given the downtrodden economy, the increasing number of marriages prolonged until our early-to mid-30s (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 in a personal, spiritual sense of the term can we begin to repair our damaged culture. In a culture that places utmost emphasis on the horizontal dimension of life, of material gain in the strictly worldly sense, it is no wonder that our families are breaking apart at the seams. Perhaps we should begin to shift our focus in the sphere of dating 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 vocation, and not the fruit of research and investment in human resources and capital after years of test-driving compatible candidates.
The wedding of Charles I of Austria to Empress Zita of Bourbon-Parma was celebrated over 100 years ago this month. October 21 marks the feast day of Charles I, known to many Christians simply as “Blessed Karl.” Karl was indeed blessed with a royal lineage, a private education, and power as Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary. His greatest blessings, however, came from his devout Roman Catholic faith. The day after he married his beloved Zita, he made a promise to his wife: "Now, we must help each other to get to Heaven."
As in the example of this royal yet holy matrimony, if you 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 begin to speak of “marrying up” in the best sense of the term. We can’t forget that at the end of the day, we are not marrying a bank account, a car, or a career—we are marrying a person. The secondary qualities of a person—the objects that they 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.
On Sunday, the wife of a deacon in the church I visited gave me some marital advice in light of a recent break-up. Her husband’s father, a Southern man, told her this: Find someone with whom you can suffer. Fulton Sheen, in his book Three to get Married, speaks of the honeymoon as a sort of “credit” of joy that precedes the sufferings of marriage:
The happiness of marriage is in a certain sense a prepayment of God for its trials. Because its burdens are many, its pleasures are meant to be many. The honeymoon precedes the labors of birth, and is a credit God extends in advance because of the responsibilities involved. The greatest joys of life are purchased at the cost of some sacrifice.
The wife's own honeymoon was no foretaste of marital bliss. She relayed the story of her disastrous honeymoon accommodations, having intended to book a romantic B&B, and instead ending up in a shoebox-sized executive room more suited for business transactions than conjugal bliss. Instead of dwelling on the negatives of the situation (which she confessed she was inclined to do) her spouse transformed suffering through humor and joy.
As they lay in their less-than-ideal hotel room, staring up at the ceiling to avert their eyes from the dismal aesthetics of the space, her new husband said: “Isn’t that tray ceiling great? I’ve never seen such a ceiling before.” She knew that everything was going to be alright in the end. For if you are unwilling or unable to suffer with your spouse, you won’t be able to appreciate the joys that marriage can bring. No quantity or quality of degrees can prepare one for suffering. Love is seeing the other at his best, knowing him at his worst, and possessing the willingness to suffer together in pursuit of perfection: for oneself, for the other, and ultimately, for God.