In the Supply and Demand Theory of Marriage, Women Have the Upper Hand
12:30 pm, June 17th | by Grace Rasmus
Romantic comedies have conditioned us to believe that we will get married after we find our “soulmate.” Every bad date and failed relationship is leading us to our perfect, unique Prince(ss) Charming and after we find The One that is it — we are off the market, married forever, living happily ever after, etc.
Nancy Folbre at the New York Times has a formulaic theory for why we marry the people we marry which might upset those who are holding out for their soulmate. According to Folbre, it all comes down to supply and demand.
“As a contractual commitment, marriage has a price,” she writes. “It offers both costs and benefits to potential partners.” These costs include not only financial contributions to the family, but also domestic responsibilities and child care.
Women are willing to pay a higher price for marriage than men if they have few alternatives, i.e. when they depend on a partner for financial support. An increase in the supply of women who want to marry drives the “price of marriage” down for men.
However, if the supply of women who want to marry decreases, women tend to have the advantage: they are more likely to receive a larger share of joint income and leisure time and husbands are more likely to help around the house and give up some of their decision-making power.
According to Folbre, marriage market dynamics mean that a woman’s bargaining power is partly determined by the number of other choices her potential husband has (and vice versa). A recent poll of Black singles of prime marrying age found that only 25 percent of women were seeking a long-term relationship compared with 43 percent of men. This defies the stereotype that women are constantly on the “Husband Hunt” and is advantageous to women who do want to get married since there are fewer women for them to compete with.
The dynamic also shifts in a woman’s favor when she is in a higher economic position — which is becoming increasingly common. While social norms make most men wary of sharing financial responsibility with high-earning women, the allure of traditional gender roles changes with class and education. A power struggle may not be necessary in affluent households since a moneyed couple afford to hire others to take care of the domestic responsibilities such as childcare. Those with higher education are also more likely to stray from the typical husband-wife social norms.
The demand for long-term commitments seems to be steadily declining and, as we adapt to a world in which fewer adults marry, those in the market for life-long partners might be in distress, but, as Folbre points out, men and women with a grasp on how this supply and demand theory works might find themselves at an advantage.