What Men Want From Marriage
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What Men Want From Marriage

They still fantasize about flings, but today's husbands are actually very loyal, and willing to share both the homemaker and breadwinner roles. And they seek a soul connection more than ever before.

State of the Union

Like most men, Rich Underwood, 33, never consciously compiled a list of desirable qualities for a potential spouse. But when he met his future wife, Julie Lackland, four years ago at a restaurant where they both worked as waiters, he somehow sensed she was Mrs. Right. Although Lackland, 27, is a pretty woman, it wasn't just a matter of her looks. "I'm not shallow like I used to be," Underwood says with a laugh.

Instead, he felt comfortable because of all they had in common. "We both like hanging out with friends and going dancing," he says. "But we're also both really close to our parents and have compatible views on how we want to raise children." Underwood also liked Lackland's ambition to become an occupational therapist -- not only because he admired her choice of a profession that helped others, but also because he realized the importance of having two incomes. But most important, Lackland seemed as though she would be a supportive, understanding partner. "I noticed right away that she treats people really well," says Underwood, now an insurance adjuster in Clarksburg, Maryland. "When you're going to be with someone for the rest of your life, those sorts of things are really important."

Underwood's priorities are different from those of men of previous generations, who, for the most part, saw their wives primarily as mothers and housekeepers. As recently as the mid-1960s, just 35 percent of married women worked outside the home, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But today, in more than 60 percent of couples, both husband and wife have careers. At the same time, the number of hours that married women spend doing household chores each week has declined from 34 to 19, while men's hours have increased from five to 10 hours, according to a recent study by University of Maryland researchers.

How Men Choose

Clearly, as women's roles have evolved, men have had to adjust as well. To be sure, some of the age-old impulses -- such as the attraction to beauty -- still influence their choices in a mate. But today, men such as Underwood are more at ease with the idea of a wife who has her own career and fully expects her husband to do his fair share of work around the house. And as the roles of husbands and wives have become more parallel, it seems that what men want from a spouse is getting a lot closer to what women want -- that is, a soul mate who will fulfill their emotional and intellectual needs.

Men still want to be married as much, if not more, than before. In fact, 94 percent of American teenage boys plan to marry someday and 92 percent plan to have children, according to a 2002 Gallup poll. Those numbers are up 10 percent from 1977, and slightly exceed the percentage of teenage girls who want the same. (In fact, 69 percent of all adult males in the U.S. are married and only 8 percent are divorced.) But men are also waiting longer to marry -- today, the typical groom is 27, compared with 23 in 1960. Why? One reason is that premarital sex and cohabitation are so widespread, says David Popenoe, PhD, sociologist and codirector of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University, in Piscataway, New Jersey. But young men are also being more careful when it comes to selecting a mate. "So many of them have parents who've divorced or had friends growing up whose parents had split," explains Dr. Popenoe. "They don't want to repeat that experience."

Beyond that, men are looking for different sorts of women than the ones their fathers wed. Back then, marriage involved a strict division of labor in which husbands were breadwinners and wives were mothers and homemakers. When men were asked in a 1939 Gallup poll if they would want their wife to take a job at a $50-a-week salary -- a substantial sum in those days -- 63 percent of them said no.

Even as recently as 1977, nearly 70 percent of men still felt it was better for their wives to stay at home, according to a General Social Survey at the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center. A Gallup poll commissioned by the National Marriage Project in 2001 showed a significant change of heart: Forty-two percent of 20- to 24-year-old single men said it was actually more important to them to have a wife who makes a good living than one who excelled as a homemaker. And by 2002, 55 percent of men thought it was okay for married women to work outside the home even if they had children.

Not only are men more interested in marrying women who can bring home the bacon, they're apparently more willing to be with someone who earns as much as or more than they do. A U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics study found that the number of dual-income couples in which the wife was the bigger earner increased from 16 percent in 1981 to 23 percent in 1996. "Today, if women make as much money as we do, it's not a threat to our sense of machismo," Underwood says. (The money issue doesn't seem to bother women, either. According to a 2001 study by the National Marriage Project, nearly 80 percent of women between the ages of 20 and 29 feel it's more important to choose a husband who can communicate his feelings than one who has a fat paycheck.)

At the same time, men have grown more disenchanted with working and are looking to family life for fulfillment. Seventy percent of married men are conflicted about the amount of time they spend on the job versus with their family, according to a 1997 survey conducted by the Families and Work Institute in New York City. Fatherhood has taken on a new meaning; 93 percent of men with school-age children hug them at least once a week -- a 90 percent increase over the past decade -- according to a 2002 study at the University of California at Riverside. And though married men do only half as much housework as their wives, it's a big improvement since 1965, when they did just one-sixth as much. "Since both partners have careers these days, men can't use the I'm-the-breadwinner excuse anymore," explains Underwood. "In our marriage, we try to make it 50-50 as much as possible. She cooks, I do the dishes. She keeps the checkbook, I clean the bathroom."

Seeking a Soul Mate

A more level playing field between husbands and wives when it comes to work and childcare may have paved the way for men to think a bit more about matters of the heart.

In a 2001 Gallup poll commissioned by the National Marriage Project, some 94 percent of men between 20 and 29 said they wanted to marry someone who, above all, could fulfill their emotional needs. "They're telling us that they want a psychological companion -- someone who shares their aspirations and fits into their life in a spiritual way," says Dr. Popenoe. "They're not just looking for someone to change diapers and do dishes. They want a soul mate."

In fact, the percentage of men now looking for a soul mate is virtually the same as that of women. "I don't think this is something that was forced on men," says Neil Clark Warren, a clinical psychologist who has researched thousands of couples. "I think it's simply that men, like women, are looking for more meaning from life."

Dr. Popenoe actually worries that men today may place too much emphasis on finding a partner who meets their emotional needs. When the National Marriage Project conducted interviews last year with 60 unmarried men in their late 20s and early 30s, they gave the standard reasons for being unwed -- fear of making too many compromises, the financial risks of divorce, the desire to continue enjoying the single life -- but many also said they had yet to find a soul mate and were holding out for one. Dr. Popenoe, for one, believes that men may be setting the bar too high. Compared with cooking and cleaning, he warns, "psychological needs can be a lot trickier to fill."

Beauty vs. Brains

None of this, of course, is to say that men aren't still suckers for a pretty face. In a 1999 poll by Opinion Dynamics, 43 percent of men admitted to being attracted to women primarily because of their bodies, compared with 35 percent who insisted they were drawn to smart women. (Only 24 percent of women surveyed said their attraction to men is mostly physical, while 60 percent said intelligence is key.)

Beauty trumps even money. When men were asked in an October 2000 Gallup poll whether they'd prefer to marry a pretty woman without money or an unattractive, wealthy one, 55 percent of respondents chose the former and 23 percent the latter. (Among women asked the same question 28 percent said they would choose looks over money, and 37 percent of them said wealth came first.)

Researchers say men seek beauty because of evolutionary biology. Programmed to spread their genes, men are drawn to the same physical characteristics that their cave-dwelling ancestors saw as signs of a healthy and fertile potential mate. Even as they age, they're driven to seek mates younger than themselves. This would explain May-September marriages, trophy wives, and extramarital affairs with assorted secretaries, interns, and nannies. "I know women don't want to hear this, but when a man -- even a monogamous one -- sees an attractive woman, he's going to think about having sex with her," says Syracuse University professor John Marshall Townsend.

Indeed, a 2001 study at the University of Vermont found that 98 percent of married men fantasize about having sex with someone other than their wives (compared with 78 percent of women who fantasize about someone other than their husbands). Giving in to temptation, however, is quite another matter. In fact, fewer than 5 percent of men have extramarital sex in the course of a year (compared with about 2 percent of women) and close to 80 percent of husbands remain faithful to their wives throughout their lifetimes (compared with about 90 percent of women), according to a 1994 study by the National Opinion Research Center.

But the biological bent toward beauty doesn't rule over men's choices as much as one might think. The emphasis on looks, for example, is relative to educational level; males with a high-school education were 2 1/2 times likelier than college graduates to cite looks as the most important factor in choosing a spouse, according to a study by the polling firm Zogby International this year. "But what a man really wants," says Seattle-based psychologist Robert Glover, author of No More Mr. Nice Guy (Running Press, 2003), "is being with a woman who desires him sexually. Being wanted by someone ultimately is more important than how she looks."

Men are also concerned about marrying women who enjoy sex. According to a 2000 study of college students in the Journal of Psychology and Human Sexuality, 80 percent of young men wanted their long-term partners to have a high degree of sexual passion (73 percent of women wanted this, too). But men, like women, are wary of someone who's been too sexually active. A 1997 study published in the Journal of Sex Research showed that both genders preferred "low" to "moderate" sexual experience in a spouse -- reflecting a fear, experts believe, that those with "extensive" experience will turn out to be unfaithful.

Biology vs. Reality

Today's men often act in ways that run counter to evolutionary drives. Neil Clark Warren, founder of eHarmony.com, a counseling service that uses testing to match singles with compatible partners, notes that many male clients are interested in finding someone similar in age. Moreover, he's found that despite the supposed biological imperative to spawn, men are increasingly open to the notion of marrying a woman who already has children. "We find that the older a man gets, the more willing he is to be a stepfather," Warren says. "The reality is that when you're over 35, the available women are going to be ones who have kids."

Then there's the life experience that a man accumulates as he ages, and the influence it may have on his thinking. "Young men want someone who is sexy," says University of Washington researcher John Gottman, who's spent the past 30 years studying some 3,000 couples at his research center, nicknamed the "Love Lab," in Seattle. "Older men want someone kind."

Morgan Kenney, 58, director of a museum in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, says that after two marriages and a few relationships that didn't work out, he came to realize that what he really yearned for was a partner who was emotionally honest and deeply spiritual. He finally found those qualities in his third wife, Terry, a 44-year-old mortgage broker. The two share common interests in art and photography, but "what we really share is camaraderie," he says. "We're like best friends."

Fortunately, today's men become more enlightened members of their tribe at an earlier point in their lives. "I think that a generation ago, men may have been more inclined to see their wives in a particular pigeonhole," says Rich Underwood. "But it's not like that anymore. We're looking for someone to be an equal partner and share all the responsibilities of marriage, from money to child-raising. We may still be hard-wired to keep our feelings in, but we're really looking for someone we can be open with emotionally. It's better this way."

Important to Men

What do men value most in a wife? We asked men that and other probing questions about married life, from their level or sexual satisfaction and thoughts on earning power to how much housework and child rearing they do. Nearly 300 men responded to our online poll -- teachers, engineers, electricians, mechanics and more, ranging in age from 25 to 67. Here, the intimate details they revealed about the states of their unions:

What men say they value most about their wives:  
"She understands and listens to me" 56%
"She's a great mom to our kids" 39%
"She's a great lover" 5%
68% of men feel their wife is their soul mate.  
Among those who didn't feel they had a soul connection, 73% say they wish they did.  

Our Findings

How husbands rank the roles their wives are best at:  
"Being a dependable, loving partner" 43%
''Being a caring mother" 39%
"Contributing to the family income" 13%
"Being my lover" 5%
How husbands rank the roles they believe they're best at:  
"Being a dependable, loving partner to my wife" 58%
"Being the family breadwinner" 21%
"Being a caring father" 18%
"Being my wife's lover" 3%
What men say is the most rewarding thing about being married:  
"Knowing that my wife is always there for me emotionally" 43%
"Having someone to grow old with" 38%
"Being a father" 17%
"Knowing that my wife is always there for me sexually" 2%
49% of men say the hardest thing about marriage is juggling so many responsibilities.  
26% say it's financial pressure  
21% say it is emotional demands from their wives, and only 4% say it is staying monogamous  
Who gets satisfaction and who doesn't?  
32% of men say their sex life is above average and 20% say it's grrrreat! Only 16% say their sex life is unsatisfying.  
60% of men say that their having an affair would be automatic grounds for their wives to divorce them.  
And if their wife strayed? Only 49% say it would be automatic grounds for divorce.  
65% of men say the best arrangement in a marriage is when both spouses work.  
21% say it's best if their wives stay home.  
They're happy if their wives bring home the bacon.  
A whopping 93% of men say they wouldn't mind their wives earning more than they do -- "more power to her!" Only 6% say they'd feel uncomfortable if their wives outearned them.  
Housework and child rearing aren't their strong suit.  
Only 17% say they do at least half of the chores around the house, and 27% said they do half or more of the child rearing. Most men (66%) feel the amount of housework and parenting they do is fair, while 27% say they'd like to do more, but just don't have the time.