But most of the evidence supports the theory that "like attracts like." Research over the past twenty years shows that men marry women who are comparable to themselves in age, height, socioeconomic status, political and religious orientation, even nose breadth, earlobe length, and consumption of cigarettes. My survey supported the likes-attract theory. For example, even though interracial marriage has been legal throughout the United States for more than two generations, the VoiceMale survey showed that, even today, only 5 percent of men marry someone of a different racial background. Another question I often hear about selecting a husband or wife is: When is the best age to meet a spouse? According to my survey, the most common time is between the ages of nineteen and twenty-four; more than a third of men reported meeting their future wives in this age period. But the survey showed that overall, the age at which a man meets his wife does not predict his level of happiness in the marriage. The age that a man meets his wife does apparently affect the subjects of disagreements that arise in these marriages. Couples that meet before the age of twenty-five tend to have more disagreements about sex, and more affairs, than those who meet at later ages.
One trend that is disturbing to social observers is the increasingly high expectations that both genders -- even before meeting their spouses -- place on marriage. The National Marriage Project at Rutgers University published a survey in 2001 in which 94 percent of 20-to-29-year-olds agreed with the statement "When you marry, you want your spouse to be your soul mate, first and foremost."
The authors of the survey, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead and David Popenoe, said these results are troubling. "While marriage is losing much of its broad public and institutional character," they wrote, "it is gaining popularity as a SuperRelationship, an intensely private spiritualized union....Other bases for the marital relationship, such as an economic partnership or parental partnership, have receded in importance or disappeared altogether."
I interviewed Popenoe in 2004. At the time, he was seventy-one years old and had himself been married for forty-four years. He said that he believed men and women in today's marriage market would be more successful if they focused "less on finding the right mate than on being the right mate."
He worried that the soul mate expectation was feeding the high divorce rate. He said: "A surprising number of young people believe that there's one person out there who can complete them, one person who is chemically perfect for them. Once they get into a marriage and things go bad -- as they do at times in almost every marriage -- they think they've picked the wrong person." Their manner of dealing with this disappointment, Popenoe laments, is often to leave a marriage that may be salvageable.
Popenoe went on to say that the goal of having a soul mate is a good one, but "it's a lifetime goal. It's not a realistic goal in pursuit of a spouse. What is a realistic goal is to find someone who shares as many values with you as possible, so that you can become best friends." Ultimately, he believes, an enduring friendship is the foundation of an enduring marriage.