Wife shop!

They're the men who ask about your family's disease history, whether you'd live on the Upper West Side and if you'd be willing to convert -- on the first date. Did their biological clocks all go off at once?

Published March 18, 2005 4:05PM (EST)

Three years ago, a professional acquaintance asked me out for a drink. Cute, in his late 30s, Peter was from a privileged background, confident, with a reputation as a cad. I was not particularly attracted to him, but figured I would take him up on the drink. No sooner had I settled into the booth than his questions started: "Where are you from?" Philadelphia. "Where did you go to high school?" Quaker school. "Are you Quaker? You look Jewish." I'm not religious. "Would you raise your kids religiously?" Uh, I hadn't thought about it. "Wait, how old are you?" 26. "Oh, that's too young." Too young for what? "Too young to be looking for a serious relationship. I really thought you were older when I asked you out."

Peter hadn't walked into the bar to get to know a woman he found intriguing, or even to get laid. His business was finding a suitable bride, and had I been "old enough," his next question might well have been how many goats my father had secured for my dowry. Peter was my first wife-shopper, but not the last. Reports of these kinds of encounters -- with men who investigate your family's disease history over a get-to-know-you beer or decide after two dinners to invite you on vacation with their college roommates and their wives -- have become increasingly common among my female friends, urban women often assumed to be husband hunting themselves. In some cases, the men we're meeting are more interested in settling down than we are -- almost as though they have their own internal biological clocks.

According to a new book, they do. In "The Male Biological Clock," Dr. Harry Fisch, a urologist at Columbia University, asserts that men over 35 are twice as likely to be infertile as those under 25, and that a drop in testosterone after 30 can contribute to a psychological need to drop domestic anchor. And as the increase in fertility technologies and professional commitments for women pushes the average age of marriage back, some men are assuming a take-no-prisoners approach to shopping for a life mate.

For ages, men who have reached a certain age -- 35, perhaps, or 40 -- and found themselves single have freaked out. These days, their quests to settle down seem not to be the exception, but the rule. The cad-reformation narrative is all over the bookstores, where lad-lit authors like Nick Hornby and Rick Marin tell of how they stopped fooling around and learned to love stability. The recently published anthology "Committed" is a collection of essays dedicated almost exclusively to this story arc. On Sunday night, ABC premiered "Jake in Progress," a show about a lothario publicist whose ululating cry -- "I wanna get married! I wanna have kids!" -- has been featured on every promo for the show. And in the first episode, we learn that Jake's boss, an older woman, didn't feel the need to marry: She got pregnant by "Donor 328.6A." It's a surprising shift of the romantic idiom.

Single women in their 20s and 30s have long been viewed with suspicion. They are painted as husband hunters whose tick, tick, ticking clocks lead them to extract marriage proposals (and sperm) from freedom-loving men. When they can't find men to swaddle them with love and make babies for them, they're labeled something worse: desperate. And not for nothing. When I sent a query to women asking if they had encountered commitment-philic, spouse-shopping men, I got a lot of disbelieving responses. "I wish men like that existed," was the wail from many of my compatriots.

But there are women -- including those who want families, and are nervous about whether they'll ever have them -- who have nonetheless found themselves swatting away wild-eyed daddy candidates. Wife shoppers exist, and ladies, they are ready, willing and overeager to commit to you -- and if not you, then to the next upright mammal (with a checking account and good teeth) that crosses their path.

My friend Sara, 30, a retail associate in Boston, remembered a date with a guy in his 40s who had been impressed when she danced with him at a friend's wedding. Their first date included a trip to a bossa nova club. "As soon as we sat down, it's like a clipboard appeared and he started running through questions," she said. During a conversation about classical music, Sara mentioned Eugene Ormandy, late musical director of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Her date was from Philly and, as she described it, "He lit up. He said, 'Oh my god, I can't believe you know that! I don't know any girl who would know that!' He was so thrilled that I fulfilled this unexpected requirement and then right after that he said, really hopefully: 'Do you duck hunt?'"

Another friend, Allison, a 30-year-old cable executive in New York, met theater producer Aaron through work. They shared a lusty kiss on a subway platform and planned a date. "At the bar he started quizzing me on what music was playing," she said. "It felt like I was being interviewed. He wanted to know how I would feel about living on the Upper West Side, if I would prefer a vacation home in the Catskills or in the Hamptons, and would I convert to Judaism. When I said I didn't know about conversion, he asked if I would consider raising my kids Jewish." Allison said the conversation quickly dampened whatever ardor she'd felt for Aaron. "The questions he was asking were questions you get to on maybe the 28th date," she said. "But because they were coming so early I felt stunned, and bummed because this guy clearly wasn't excited about me. This was a picture of who he saw his future with and he was trying to decide if maybe I could fit into the outline."

Murmurings about real estate and theological differences are not likely to leave anyone swollen with desire, a state that is supposed to be one of the pleasures of early courtship. Like Allison, who said she was turned off by Aaron's interrogation, I found it hard to get passionate about the guy who, after one date, left four plaintive phone messages over a three-day weekend I spent with my family ("Just checking in, missing you"). Nor did my heart beat faster for Ian who, after we'd been together a few weeks, e-mailed me a photo of his nephew with a note reading, "Might we one day have a JPEG of our own?" One guy recently made a bid to meet my parents after just three dates. That's right: He wanted to meet my parents. Not hot. Desperate.

Alexandra Marshall, a 35-year-old New York journalist, wrote in response to whether she's ever dated a wife shopper: "Oh god, yes. Ick ick ick. Overenthusiasm is the world's biggest turnoff." Marshall recalled one guy who, after a first date, sent treasure maps leading to his apartment. After Date 2 came inscribed books and photographs of himself as a child. When she told him to back off, Marshall said her pursuer behaved as if she had "destroyed this elaborately crafted vision he had of our future together." Marshall said her date's zeal made her feel that the desire for intimacy was disingenuous. "It feels like he's more interested in accomplishing something than getting to know me," she wrote, acknowledging, "This is I'm sure the same thing men have long complained about with women who seem like they're in a rush to the altar."

Maybe women should be careful what they wish for. Allison pointed out that wife shoppers are often actually just calling our bluffs. "Women profess to want families and kids," she said. "But most of us have only come across the kind of guys who don't want those things. So it's safe as a woman to say you're ready to settle down, because you think you're never going to get called on it because the men are never ready. But then when you meet a man who is ready, women get super-nervous."

Super-nervous ... or masochistic and self-sabotaging. There is a lot of second-guessing for those who have already eluded a wife shopper or two. Women have been wired to believe that landing a good man is a long shot; we've heard the tall tales about how getting married after 30 is harder than getting struck by lightning; Sylvia Ann Hewlett pursues us down the corridors of our unconscious, brandishing a turkey baster. And yet when these eager partners appear at women's doorsteps, Ikea catalogs in hand, doors slam in their faces. What if this is just another manifestation of that old saying about women not liking the guys who treat them well? Maybe that depressing suspicion is correct: that women always desire what they can't have, and when a guy presents them with the possibility of having him, they blanch and shoo him off the property.

Melinda, a 28-year-old network news producer in Washington, stayed with someone who was more serious than she was for just this reason. "I found myself wanting to be into him because he seemed like such a mature, steady guy who wanted the right things and was family-oriented," said Melinda. When she finally broke it off, she said, "I totally felt like I was self-sabotaging myself, and that my friends thought I was a cold, heartless bitch to not have strong feelings for someone who was so wonderful and who wasn't treating me like a dick."

But there should be some kind of middle ground -- somewhere between the guy who doesn't pay attention to you and the guy who inspects you the way he would a border collie at Westminster; someone who doesn't return your calls and someone who puts his socks in your underwear drawer after two dinner dates. Some of the men looking for matrimony are mensches, sure. But it's hard not to get suspicious about such mysteriously sudden attachments. Jennifer Michael, a 36-year-old advertising brand planner in New York, said that in her experience, wife shoppers were men who had the right jobs and right homes and were simply looking to acquire the right wife to complete the set. She recalled a 34-year-old ex who "checked out babies more than other women." Michael said that often, when she'd reveal something about herself, the ex would reply, "'Oh, that's good; that works well for me.'" Michael, now engaged to a man she said showed no wife-shopping tendencies, said that these kinds of remarks made her think that commitmentphilia wasn't about finding real partnership, but rather "all about them; it's such a selfish thing."

Men are in something of a bind here. Sure there's selfishness in dating: Everyone, after all, is seeking a perfect match. But the terms of that search morph dramatically as we age; it's sometimes hard to see how the grown-up practice of drinking and dining with complete strangers is even related to the exhilarating, slippery encounters of youth. In their 30s and 40s, men are faced with the reality that perhaps their appetite for lascivious experimentation is waning, but to begin an outright search for a lifetime partnership feels weighty, and will possibly be regarded as creepy. Every encounter is more loaded than it used to be: Will someone get hurt? Will someone's time get wasted? If a relationship extends beyond a few dinners, does that mean that issues of commitment come into play?

Not to mention that in a climate when economic and professional power continue to shift rapidly between the genders, men might be scared. "Women are so independent now that a lot of men may feel superfluous," said Helena Rosenberg, author of "How to Get Married After 35: A User's Guide to Getting to the Altar." "Women take themselves on vacations, buy themselves cars, buy themselves homes. That's got to be very frightening." Indeed, our professional, financial and social opportunities combined with increased reproductive technology that allows us to postpone childbearing have created an intoxicating mix. Some women have discovered that the unencumbered life -- the one that men have traditionally invoked as a reason not to settle down -- is precisely all it's cracked up to be.

"Elizabeth," a 32-year-old New Yorker, asked for anonymity because she is in a two-year relationship that she said is close to ending because of her boyfriend's insistence on starting a family. She said her 31-year-old partner "is super into babies. And I'm ... not." Elizabeth said her boyfriend is "better at cooking, likes to stay home ... Basically, the textbook kind of guy you want to date." But, she said, she has occasionally wondered, given his pressure for family in the face of her ardent desire to hold off for a few years, whether her boyfriend is with her because he loves her, or because she is an appealing vessel for their progeny. "I'm starting to feel like a cad. I should appreciate the hell out of this guy, because I love him so much. But I'm not ready to have babies! Or get married!"

Women feeling like cads, men pleading for commitment?

"Isn't it unbelievable? The whole world is upside down," said the jovial author of "The Male Biological Clock," Harry Fisch. But he added that the phenomenon makes sense to him, since women under 30 are having fewer kids, while the birth rate for women over 40 continues to rise. Fisch said he wrote his book in part to stimulate research on the impact male hormonal and physiological changes could have on the psyche. We don't know for sure whether a male urge to couple and propagate is related in some primal way to changes in his body. But Fisch said he could make "an educated guess" that the biological changes "are related to this new phenomenon [of men pushing to settle down]. You don't see the desire to settle down as much when men are younger and have higher testosterone levels. It increases later on."

Many men I contacted about this story were suspiciously unwilling to discuss their own domestic or reproductive impulses, though a number told me that they had "friends" who were prowling for wives. One 31-year-old New York artist, William, claimed that he did not approach dates with a checklist, but that after the end of his last serious relationship, he does see dates as "either marriage or a one-night stand." And Todd, a 32-year-old secondary school teacher from outside Philadelphia, said that though he does not yet feel a biological impulse to marry, he has already spent some time thinking about his own romantic course in comparison with his father's. "Occasionally I feel like if I meet somebody, and get married in two years, and then wait to have kids for another two years, I'm going to be 36 by the time I have my first child, and that kid is going to graduate high school when I'm 54," he said. This is just the kind of mental arithmetic that some women have tortured themselves with for years.

It's also the kind of thinking that haunts Dr. Glen McWilliams, 39, a urologist and friend of Fisch's, who said he is aware of his own biological clock and worries about whether he'll be in any shape to throw a football or ski with his future children. He said that he and his friends have waited to complete their medical training before turning their focus to their personal lives, and that indeed, "many of the successful women you meet nowadays are willing to put it off." McWilliams said that though it's never been his thing, he now studiously avoids hooking up with sexually aggressive women he suspects might just be out for a good time. And of his dating habits, he admitted, "It's true that my ability to interview is much more refined. Someone you're talking to who's more grounded might be a keeper, whereas someone more flighty who wants to go live in Europe for a year, you know she's not ready to settle down." McWilliams said specifically that he often enjoys a woman who will argue with him on an early date. "I'd rather have a tough, strong, determined woman I can have an argument with than a cute, sweet woman who won't stand up for herself," he said. "Because that lets me know that if I'm not around, she will defend herself and my children."

Sometimes wife shopping produces a happy ending. Kristin Kemp, a 31-year-old young adult novelist in New York, has been married for six months to a man she admits came on too strong. Kemp met investment banker Johan Svenson a year after her divorce from her first husband. Describing their first date, Kemp said, "We had this conversation in which he said to me, 'You wouldn't have to be a stay-at-home mom. You could work as much as you want. Do you want to have kids? Because I want a whole bunch of them.'" Svenson was then only 25, but as Kemp said, "He comes from a family that is very tight and he was anxious to get his own family that was very tight." Kemp said she was taken aback and tentative with Svenson for six months. "I didn't even know if I wanted to be in this," said Kemp. "I just wanted somebody to hang out with." Then, Kemp said, she realized the relationship "was just so much fun and I thought, 'Why am I resisting this?'

"These guys exist and I see my friends dump them all the time," said Kemp. "I realize there are things wrong with some of them. But I also think that a lot of women are afraid of being treated properly. It's almost like they're not happy unless they find a guy who doesn't want to commit. I don't know why that is."

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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