"Overcritical women and their excessive expectations"

Two Chicago Tribune writers opine that if 51 percent of women are unmarried, women's high standards are to blame.

Published January 23, 2007 10:42PM (EST)

Remember the New York Times article from a week or so ago about how for what's probably the first time ever, 51 percent of American women are living without a spouse?

It has since provoked a number of follow-up articles (see this week's Times Week in Review, with its hilariously nonsensical unmarried-man caricature and non sequitur photo of George Clooney, for an example). But one response particularly stands out: an article in the Chicago Tribune, wittily titled "Women Don't Want Men? Ha!"

The piece's tone is remarkably harsh. "The current trend away from marriage and toward divorce and/or remaining single has more to do with overcritical women and their excessive expectations than it does with unsuitable men," the authors write. And then, later:

"A woman's discerning, critical nature doesn't disappear on her wedding day. Most marital problems and marriage counseling sessions revolve around why the wife is unhappy with her husband, even though they could just as easily be about why the husband is unhappy with the wife. In this common pre-divorce scenario there are only two possibilities -- either she's a great wife and he's a lousy husband, or she's far more critical of him than he is of her. Usually it's the latter."

Really? I mean, granted, one of the authors is a Chicago lawyer and author of "Divorce Wars: A Field Guide to the Winning Tactics, Pre-emptive Strikes, and Top Maneuvers When Divorce Gets Ugly," and the other author "is a columnist on men's and fathers' issues" whose collected work, were we to quote it extensively, would probably generate more comments than Broadsheet's server could handle. So perhaps it's understandable that their tone is virulent.

But I don't understand why it needs to be -- just as I don't understand the opposite reaction: that the 51 percent statistic necessarily represents a huge step forward for women. For many women, the freedom not to marry may indeed be hugely liberating. But as Gal Beckerman noted in the Columbia Journalism Review blog CJRDaily last week, "America is not a monolith. As much as we would like to persist in thinking that we are a classless and race-blind society, the Times, of all papers -- having run groundbreaking series on both race and class -- should realize that a phenomenon that might bode well for middle-class white women might be absolutely disastrous for poor black women." Beckerman continued, "A tossed-off paragraph ... reminds us that, buried within these statistics, seventy percent of African-American women are single, [but] there is nothing to indicate how the epidemic of single parentage in the black community contributes to this statistic." Beckerman also noted that "as far as we can tell, not only was there no socio-economic diversity among those interviewed for the piece, there was also no racial diversity."

And even if we step back from the trend's impact on specific communities, the celebratory tone of the original Times piece and the defensive tone of the Tribune response still feel off. Why should conversations about marriage -- which, last time I checked, was supposed to involve two people who love each other -- have to turn into a war between the sexes? I think the good news is that it looks like people are waiting longer to get married, which presumably means they know themselves better, are more mature and are thus less likely to make decisions that they will later regret. That development seems good for women and men -- even if it drives down business for divorce lawyers.

By Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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