A few years ago the notorious “Princeton Mom,” Susan Patton, took the internet by storm with a viral letter to college-age women. Her controversial advice? If you want a family, you should spend the majority of your college career focused on finding a man. Naturally, it created such a ruckus that she decided to pen a book: Marry Smart (since renamed Marry by Choice, Not by Chance). In its pages, she proclaims that women should spend 75 percent of their time on campus nailing down a husband because your happiness depends on it, and when else are you going to have that type of pool of highly educated single men?
Cue feminist eye rolls everywhere.
I didn’t go to college to find a husband. At least that’s what I told myself. The notion of an "Mrs. degree" seemed completely archaic. Women today aren't shelling out thousands of dollars and hours of studying simply in pursuit of Mr. Right.
I have my whole life in front of me, I insisted, so why would I want to meet the proverbial one now? Outwardly, I rationed: I’m independent, I’m ambitious, plus I want to have lots and lots of dating experience before I settle down.
Inwardly, though, somewhere deep in the crevices of my girlish hopes, I clung to the idea that, while I might not find him on campus, he would find me. I would be the heroine in all those rom-com movies: Swearing off love, only for destiny to overcome. Secretly, it’s even why I chose my college. “I could see myself marrying the kinds of guys that go here,” my 18-year-old self concluded as I surveyed the southern liberal arts college, swooning at the men clad in plaid shirts drinking bourbon while discussing the merits and flaws of Socrates. (The word “hipster” didn’t exist yet, but it was very much alive.) So, with this clandestine-yet-potent hope stored down in my soul, I assumed that at any given moment, he would come marching across the quad and stop my heart.
Plain and simple, I knew I wanted to get married. And, yeah, I thought college would lead me there.
I never said this out loud (how unfeminist of me!)—but this little hope glimmered in the far off distance when I let my mind wander. As I started to play the college dating game, the glimmer began to glow and would temporarily blind me. My romantic naivety hijacked my brain, slaying all sense of rationality and encouraging me to put up with bad behavior from men, because what if. While normally I would encourage a good healthy dose of daydreaming, these secret of daydreams were beyond intoxicating. They started to lead me off course (and, err, my courses). Waiting for fate is very distracting.
Spoiler alert: My Mr. Right never came to campus.
Admittedly, I did meet my husband young; We started dating when I was only about a year out of college, but I didn't get married until I was 26. Those four years I spent single and away from the coed community was invaluable. In retrospect, I wish I could go back in time and tell my college self: Relax. You won’t find him here.
While maybe well-meaning, I wholly believe Patton is missing a fundamental truth about the modern-day dating culture—or lack thereof. She’s presupposing that all these collegiate men are ready (and also looking) for a relationship. If a woman is to find a husband before graduation day, the assumption is that both she and her 18- to 22-year-old suitors are ready to commit. That's just not true today. In fact, between the 8 a.m. chem labs and the Saturday evening intramurals, man-boys run rampant. And it's not just the guys eschewing monogamy. More and more women see college and their general twenties as a time for career advancement. A relationship, they fear, would complicate their professional agenda.
According to research by market researcher John Malloy, author of Why Men Marry Some Women and Not Others, ninety percent of men who have graduated from college are ready to consider marriage between ages 26 and 33. And as reported by the New York Times:
"Now, women now outnumber men in college enrollment by 4 to 3 and outperform them in graduation rates and advanced degrees. Some researchers have argued that the gender imbalance fosters a culture of hooking up because men, as the minority, hold more power in the sexual marketplace, and they prefer casual sex to long-term relationships."
All things considered, "a ring by spring," as the saying goes, seems less and less likely for today's marriage-minded women.
But, perhaps most importantly, I think what women today are realizing and what Patton's way of thinking underestimates, is how enriching it is, as a woman, to live on your own and experience the start of your career before getting married. As a friend once confided in me: “Although I’m generally independent, I really did expect I was going to get married out of college. But I’m happy it didn’t happen. I’m learning a lot on my own.”
For me, it was the experience of living the single life post-graduation that rewired my brain to understand who I was and what I needed in a relationship. The fact that I didn’t meet my one-and-only in college turned out to be a great fortune. My college years and early career gave me the building blocks to become me, which ironically—yet very necessarily—led me to him. And I know I'm not alone. Facebook disclosed in 2013 that only 28 percent of users who were married college graduates attended the same school. And according to divorce statistics, there is a sweet spot for successful marriages; the typical fresh college graduates aren't in it. As Science of Us reported in 2015, data from the Institute for Family Studies shows that those married when they're 24 or younger are most likely to get divorced within the first five years of marriage. Meanwhile, those aged 25 to 34 have the best odds of a lasting union.
By no means am I claiming that women who meet their husbands early are wasting their twenties (hardly—and good for you). But conversely, I think it’s psychologically damaging to put that kind of pressure—unrealistic pressure might I add—on young women. Education isn't secondary to the pursuit of matrimony. Putting that pressure on myself for four years didn't bring me happily every after; in fact, it sparked poor dating decisions. Especially on campuses with a dwindling men-to-women ratio, full of ‘man boys,’ and hooking up, Patton's advice doesn't just set up most young women for failure, it’s also setting them up for heartache and maybe even hurried romances which could lead to unhappy marriages.
While Patton does in fact concede that marriage, alone, doesn’t make you happy and even goes on to explain that happiness comes from the richness inside ourselves, I think she’s forgetting what it’s like to be a young woman in her early twenties, hyped up on hormones and a whole lot of hypothetical hope.
Finding one’s lifelong mate is awesome, and if you meet your life partner in college, that’s your amazing adventure. But meeting your future spouse one year or one decade after graduation is a special gift that should not be swept under the rug. Finding ourselves first enhances marriage. And for a growing number of us, that involves taking a plunge into the “real world” alone.
Photo Credit: Greg Finck