Jan. 9, 2006 -- Women have been trying to unlock the secrets of the male mind for centuries. One man has attempted to decode the male brain and dispel some of the stereotypes that he considers myths. Neil Chethik, author of a new book called "VoiceMale: What Husbands Really Think About Their Marriages, Their Wives, Sex, Housework, and Commitment," explores the innermost thoughts and desires of the American guy and says that women will be surprised at what he has found.
Read an excerpt of the book below.
Chapter One: The Spark
I was going through some dark times. All of a sudden, here came this girl. She was bubbling, extroverted. I got the enthusiasm.
-- Thirty-nine-year-old electrician
It began with the flash of an ankle.
On an unseasonably mild midwestern day in January 1989, Rob Reilly gathered up the dirty clothes in his apartment, stuffed them into a cloth bag, and hauled them through the student ghetto toward the local Laundromat. He was in a gloomy mood. In his first five months of graduate school, he'd already had his heart broken once. Then, just as things seemed promising with a second woman, she'd exposed a bigoted side that offended Rob. He'd determined to break it off with her this very night.
At thirty-two years of age, Rob was becoming "disappointed and discouraged, even pessimistic" about finding a woman to marry, he recalls. Approaching the Laundromat, "I was thinking: 'Maybe I'm just one of those guys who's destined to be alone. I'll become a career man.'"
This thought was particularly distressing because Rob had returned to school in part to find a life partner. After six years as an actor and waiter in New York City, he wanted stability. He'd even written down the attributes of a potential wife: She should be "smart, opinionated, independent, and sexy."
Was he expecting too much? Did he have what it took to attract such a woman? In part to take his mind off such questions, he had brought with him to the Laundromat his first draft of a letter to the governor of the state. Rob opposed capital punishment and planned to hone an anti-death-penalty argument while his clothes got clean.
The Laundromat was abuzz when Rob arrived, but he found a vacant washer and emptied his laundry bag. He plugged in the requisite number of quarters, then deposited himself on one of the anchored yellow plastic chairs that lined the room. Elbows on knees, he focused on the letter at hand.
A few minutes later, the ankle flashed into view. It was attached to the woman sitting two seats to his left. Wearing black pants and brown sandals, she crossed her left knee over her right to reveal, as Rob recalls, "several inches of leg, beginning just below the calf and narrowing to this perfect ankle. I've never been very interested in thin women, and this ankle wasn't thin. But it was the perfect shape...I caught it in my left periphery, and I thought to myself, 'Now that is nice. That is a really nice ankle.'"
For a few moments, Rob hovered over his letter, stealing occasional glances at the woman's lightly bouncing foot. Then, feigning interest in the status of his laundry, he glanced up to see the rest of the woman. She was dark-haired, dark-eyed, full-lipped, and broad-shouldered. His interest was in no way dampened.
Rob scoured his mind for something to say, but as is the case with many men, the fear of sounding trite asserted itself. A few minutes went by, and two children on plastic riding toys clambered across the floor in front of him. That's when Rob's first noncommittal words emerged. "Boy, those kids have a lot of energy," he said aloud. The woman didn't hesitate: "Actually, I wish I knew who the parents were." Then, gesturing toward the kids, she added, "They ought to have some limits on them."
Rob was intrigued by this response. But before he could say more, the woman was inquiring about his letter. Soon they were in a friendly debate over capital punishment. During the next forty-five minutes, with interruptions only for washer-to-dryer transitions, the two ranged over politics, education, feminism, and other topics. He learned that her name was Sandy, she was a teacher, a year older than he was, recently divorced, childless, and full of energy and opinions. He found her very stimulating.
Eventually, the bedspread Sandy had brought to the Laundromat was dry. She folded it and prepared to leave. Rob recalls, "A red light started flashing in my mind. I kept telling myself, 'Ask her out now, or forget it.'"
Finally, he summoned the courage: "Maybe we could go out and have a beer sometime."
Sandy replied: "Why not tonight?"
Within weeks of their meeting, Rob and Sandy were dating exclusively. Less than a year later, they exchanged vows in the home of a friend. Today, fifteen years into their marriage, the couple lives in a college town in the Southeast, raising two middle-school-aged children. As one might imagine from that initial meeting, their relationship has been both passionate and occasionally volatile. Through it all, however, the legacy of the Laundromat lives on. As Rob says: "It was there that I saw the essence of who she is. Yes, I thought she was beautiful. But it was her assertiveness, her intelligence, her energy that captured me."
There's little debate that a woman's physical appearance is a crucial factor in attracting a man. Influenced by his culture's focus on the female form, and by his biology too, the typical American man responds to physical cues: a tapered ankle, a narrow waist, shapely calves, silky skin over high cheekbones. Indeed, 55 percent of the men in the VoiceMale Survey said that they had initially been drawn to their future wife by some aspect of her looks.
This focus on physical attributes may have biological roots. Evolutionary psychologists remind us that the most basic drive of all creatures is to perpetuate their genetic line. Recent research indicates that women with thin waists and full hips -- attributes that men across cultures name as desirable -- are most likely to have successful pregnancies. Thus, a man's attraction to a curvaceous woman apparently gives him the best chance of healthy children to carry on his genes. (Similar studies indicate that women are initially drawn to tall men with strong builds, indicators of the man's ability to provide for the woman and her children.)
But biology is not destiny. Even in a culture where curves and cleavage are fully exploited by marketers, the vast majority of men marry women who are less than physically ideal. Numerous studies show that men, in fact, tend to approach women who are comparable to them in physical attractiveness. Rather than seeking to meet women of unattainable beauty, they tend to seek out the beauty in the women they meet. It turns out that this is a good strategy. According to the VoiceMale Survey, men who say they were initially attracted to their wife by her physical attributes alone are less satisfied in their marriages than those for whom personality was key.
"Most men would not consider my wife a ten," one forty-seven-year-old teacher told me. "She's a little bigger than average. But she has daggerlike eyes....She's always been attractive to me." Another man, who said that neither he nor his wife "would ever be mistaken for a model," added, "She has a smile that puts the sun to shame." Even for this man, however, physical attraction to his future wife "only opened the negotiations. It didn't close the deal." Rather, when a man is seeking a long-term relationship (as opposed to a short-term liaison), he tends to look beyond her physical attributes to a host of less tangible assets, including her attitude, bearing, and character.
Before we examine more closely what men say they look for in a potential wife, it's important to emphasize that men entertain the idea of marriage only when they're ready. And readiness is different for men of different eras. Among husbands I interviewed who married in the 1930s through the early 1960s, readiness tended to come when they had a job that would allow them to support a wife and family. Men who married in more recent years usually judged their readiness by their flagging interest in the singles scene. "One morning, I woke up next to a woman who could have been a Playboy model," one man told me, "and I didn't want her." That's when he realized that sex alone would not truly satisfy him, and that marriage might.
David M. Buss, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas, has discovered that both women and men distinguish between short-term and long-term potential mates. In a study of ten thousand people from thirty-seven countries, Buss found that when seeking a short-term mate, as compared with a potential wife, men cared less about education, devotion, social skills, generosity, honesty, independence, kindness, intellectuality, loyalty, sense of humor, wealth, responsibility, spontaneity, courteousness, and emotional stability.
In short, a man who is looking for short-term connection is usually satisfied with someone who looks good enough. But when he begins the search for someone with whom to build a life, his standards change dramatically. Every husband has a unique story to tell of meeting his wife. Over the past three years, I've had the chance to hear scores of them. And when I examine what personality traits men describe as initially most attractive about their wives, one attribute stands out: a positive temperament. Men measure the mood of the women they might marry. And not surprisingly, they prefer a woman who is in a generally positive frame of mind.
Here's a sampling of what husbands said they noticed first about the personalities of their future wives:
"She was the life of the party. She just generated energy in a gathering."
"I found her so vivacious and alive. I remember saying to myself, 'I'm going to take that woman out sometime.'"
"She was outspoken and enthusiastic. She had this openness and joy."
"I was going through some dark times. All of a sudden, here came this girl. She was bubbling, extroverted. I got the enthusiasm."
"I look people in the eyes. I looked into her eyes and saw merriment."
Men emphasize mood because they recognize that marrying a woman means being permanently within the sphere of her energy. Indeed, many of the men I spoke with said they had spent their childhoods in homes where their mother's temperament dominated. If she was angry, bitter, or depressed most of the time, others in the house tended to feel that way too. If, on the other hand, she radiated optimism and warmth, that attitude permeated the home.
In addition, since males tend to be discouraged in childhood from freely expressing their emotions (except, in some cases, anger), many are attracted to women who are vibrantly expressive. "I wanted someone who could bring me out," one sixty-three-year-old engineer told me. "I'm a social animal, but I'm shy. I thought [my wife] would bring some excitement into my life."
Of course, first impressions can be deceiving; women who seem initially upbeat are rarely that way all the time. And men acknowledge that it's unrealistic, and probably unhealthy, to expect a woman to be perpetually cheerful. Nonetheless, based on my conversations with scores of husbands, when a man in search of a wife meets a woman who is drawn toward the positive, he tends to be drawn toward her.
Close behind physical beauty and an optimistic outlook in initially attracting a man is another personality trait: self-confidence. Rob Reilly, the man who met his wife in the Laundromat, remembers that after Sandy agreed to the date with him, she headed for the Laundromat door, then suddenly wheeled around and returned to him. "I have just one question," she told him. "Do you have a drug or alcohol problem?"
The question (to which Rob answered no) signaled to him that Sandy would not compromise her integrity just to date him. While some men might have been scared off by Sandy's assertiveness, Rob, who was looking for a long-term relationship with an independent woman, says he was turned on by it.
This emphasis on a woman's self-confidence was especially prevalent among men who were married in the last thirty years or so. According to my in-depth interviews, men who married prior to 1975, and particularly those who married before 1965, tended to judge a potential wife in good part on her domesticity -- her apparent ability to take care of a home and children. Since then, men seem to show increasing interest in whether a potential wife can earn a decent share of the family income. As a result, recently married men have tended to seek a woman who is strong and confident, someone who can handle herself in the working world.
Self-confidence is such a strong attraction for some men that even when they are not looking for a wife, they may suddenly change their mind when they meet a woman who exudes strength.
One afternoon in the spring of 1988, Porter Williams, then aged thirty, was driving down a busy boulevard near his Baltimore home when he noticed a Grand Prix parked on the shoulder. Passing it, he caught a glimpse of two women leaning over the engine compartment. "Honestly," Porter told me, "what I saw was a pair of yellow shorts and two fine legs. I decided to make a U-turn."
Porter, a middle-school teacher, was not handy with cars but hoped the problem was merely a dead battery or a loose wire. Unfortunately, he couldn't fix the problem. But while tinkering unsuccessfully under the hood, Porter learned that the car was rented and offered to ferry the women back to the agency where they'd picked it up.
Unlike Rob Reilly, Porter was not shy when flirting with women. He'd been a high-school football star, and he remained handsome and muscular more than a decade later. He believed in his ability to charm. And he'd had plenty of practice. Porter, an African-American man, told me he grew up in the inner city with a father who was prone to infidelity. In his father's mold, Porter also came to objectify women, he said. Throughout his twenties, Porter hung out with a group of friends at strip clubs and bars, looking for sexual relationships. Before meeting the woman in the yellow shorts, Porter told me with regret, he'd had two children by two different women.
Sex, he acknowledged, was on his mind as he drove to the rental agency. In the car, he began the seduction of Sara, the woman in the yellow shorts. He flattered her, let it be known that he was unmarried and available, and eventually asked for her phone number. A week later, he took her to dinner on their first date. Then he invited her back to his apartment, poured drinks, filled the room with soft music, and, in his words, "tried to get her to spend the night."
That's when she rebelled. "If you think I'm a one-night stand, you can forget it!" Porter remembers Sara declaring. Then she did something that floored him. She opened her purse, counted out the $80 that he'd spent for dinner and drinks, and thrust the cash toward him. "If [having sex] is why we went out, I'll pay for my dinner," she said, "and I'll pay for yours too."
Porter refused the money and apologized. As he now recalls, "I didn't try anything else that night, and she did go home." It took some convincing to get Sara to date him again, but gradually, Porter gained her trust. Two years after meeting, the couple married. Today, they're parents of a twelve-year-old daughter; they're raising one of Porter's other children too. Sara's offer to refund his meal money on that first date "made me respect her," Porter says. "I've never lost that respect." While in this case self-respect and chastity were linked, they are not the same thing. Most men, in fact, are not looking for virgins to marry. Indeed, several told me that they specifically did not want to marry a sexually inexperienced woman. A survey of couples that has been repeated several times over fifty-seven years confirms the relatively low priority that American men place on having a virgin bride: The survey showed that among eighteen "mate characteristics" that men desired, chastity was 10th most important in 1939, 13th in 1956, 15th in 1967, 17th in 1977, 17th in 1984, and 16th in 1996.
Beyond physical beauty, a positive outlook, and self-respect, the men I surveyed named a handful of other attributes that initially attracted them to women they would later marry. Here are the most common of those:
Brains. Like Rob Reilly of the Laundromat, John Karl was one of several men I interviewed who, when they were single, put down on paper a list of attributes they sought in a wife. At the top of John's list was intelligence. John, a fifty-four-year-old marketing specialist, had been married once in his twenties. Intellectually speaking, he recalls, his first wife could not keep up with him. In arguments, he would overwhelm her with logic and mental gymnastics.
The woman who would become wife number two was different. When he met her, John was in his early forties and one of the top professionals in his field. She was the new woman in the office. As he recalls upon first setting eyes on her, "She looked graceful and floating, lithe and ethereal, just beautiful." Only on their first date did John realize that in addition to being physically attractive "she was one of the smartest people I'd ever met. I could talk with her about my work. I couldn't put anything over on her. She was absolutely brilliant."
In fact, in what he acknowledges has been an up-and-down twelve-year marriage, John counts his wife's intelligence as a top reason for sticking it out.
Another man in his mid-forties told me the following story about his intellectual connection with his wife-to-be. He was working for an environmental protection agency. Lori, a female teacher from a local community college, asked him to lead a field trip for her students to a local stream. That day, during a conversation with him and two other people, Lori said, "You know, getting people out to the creek like this would be a great way to develop public support for infrastructure financing."
Several years later, the man told me: "Her technical vocabulary, insight, and understanding of one of my key professional goals caused a visible, physical reaction in me. My heart melted." The other two people in the conversation, he recalls, "immediately noticed my change in respiration rate, temperature, and skin color, [but] she was oblivious. It took me two years to get a date with her, and two years after that, she said yes to my proposal."
Motherliness. Some of the husbands I surveyed said that before they married they were not interested in dating a woman who already had children. But a few said exactly the opposite. "Her sons were a plus to me," recalls a fifty-three-year-old business consultant, married twenty-four years. "I was kind of looking for a ready-made family." When this man first discussed marriage with his then girlfriend, she warned him, "My sons will always come first." He took that as an indication of what a loyal person she was. "I understood it, and I accepted it."
Another man, now forty-nine and married for seventeen years, said he was first attracted to his future wife when he saw her at a pool with her three young children. "She was very attentive to the kids; she looked them in the eye; she smiled at them; she didn't let them run wild; she kept talking to them," he remembered. "I could tell she was a really responsible person."
Still another man, forty-three and recently married, told me by e-mail: "For me, having a built-in family was very attractive, as I had lost a baby during my previous marriage. Her son has filled a space in my life that had been previously empty." This man also wrote that he feels closest to his wife when "we do things that involve our boy."
Devoutness. Peter Kahana, at age twenty-six, had recently given up alcohol after several years of almost daily partying. A day laborer and native Hawaiian, he decided to seek spiritual nourishment and new friends by attending a Christian church. There, he met Barbara during the postworship coffee hour. For many weeks, they saw each other only on Sunday mornings. Then he asked her out.
Twenty-three years into their marriage, Peter, now a records clerk at a small hospital in Oregon, remembers what drew him to Barbara: "I was attracted to her character. She would talk about God. Other women I knew wouldn't do that...She was real, not trying to flaunt anything. She accepted people where they're at. Everybody was valuable to her." Peter adds, "I was a good person, but she made me want to be better."
Peter's attraction to Barbara gradually grew over several months; it was not love at first sight. This is typical. Most husbands reported some level of attraction at first, followed by a long, slow buildup of connection. In 5 percent of cases, according to the VoiceMale Survey, husbands said they had been not at all attracted to their wives on first meeting. Only over time did a spark kindle.
But every now and then, a man knows almost immediately that he's met his match. According to my survey, 8 percent of husbands knew they wanted to marry their wife within a week of meeting her; an additional 5 percent said they knew within a month.
Kevin O'Leary had "a sense of something big" the day he met his wife-to-be. The meeting occurred one evening in 1976, as Kevin and a group of twenty-something young-professional friends gathered in one of their homes for their daily beer and banter. Kevin had moved to Southern California from the East Coast a year earlier to escape the influence of his parents but was continuing his father's legacy of drinking too much. His recent relationships with women, he recalls, had tended toward the short and disastrous.
And then Carolyn walked into the room. Fresh from the Midwest, where she'd grown up and attended college, she was new to the group. Kevin involuntarily sat taller on the couch as Carolyn was introduced around. He noticed her deep blue eyes and trim figure. But it was "the subtle bend in her nose, and a chipped front tooth" that particularly intrigued him. "At the time, I had no idea what was so compelling about her." But he knew he was attracted.
In the moment, Kevin did what many men do when they are drawn to a woman: He searched for "a flicker of interest" in Carolyn's face. To his dismay, he found none.
Weeks later, Kevin learned that Carolyn had begun dating one of his best friends. He accepted this grudgingly -- "I was used to disappointment," he told me -- and gradually became friends with Carolyn too. A couple of years later, he was an usher in her wedding to his friend.
Then, just a week before Carolyn and her husband were to move permanently back to her home state, Carolyn told Kevin, in a fit of honesty, that she'd always been interested in him. Kevin's response: "I'm going to kiss you now." And he did. Thus began an affair that lasted, off and on, for the next six years. Carolyn and her husband went through with their move to her home state. After that, Kevin saw Carolyn once a year or less, when she came to California alone. Each time she left Kevin to return to her husband, Kevin recalls, "I was miserable. I'd always had a drinking problem, and it got worse."
Finally, in his mid-thirties, after a DUI arrest, Kevin quit alcohol and decided to bring the Carolyn issue to a conclusion. On Carolyn's next visit, Kevin was determined not merely to fall in bed with her. Rather, handing her a half-dozen red roses -- "one for each year I'd been in love with her" -- Kevin made the following statement: "I won't accept the crumbs anymore. I love you and I want to be with you. It's one way or the other."
Carolyn never returned to her husband. Eighteen years later, Kevin and Carolyn are happily married, he reports, raising a teenaged son, and running an advertising business together. Now aged fifty-three, Kevin still remembers that first glimpse of Carolyn in vivid detail. "There was something in her face that told me I could trust her with who I am," he says. "I could bare my soul. I just knew that whatever I brought to her -- all my fears, all my vulnerabilities -- they would be safe....The best part is that what I thought intuitively has since unfolded."
Interestingly, my survey shows that a man who knows within a month of meeting a woman that he wants to marry her is likely to be happier in the marriage than a man who takes longer to decide. Three-quarters of those who knew within a month described themselves as "very happy" in their marriages compared to 56 percent of those who took a year or longer to make a decision. Not surprisingly, the only area where men who decide quickly had more problems was in their relationships with their wife's parents. Apparently, some women's parents are skeptical of short courtships.
Kevin O'Leary met his future wife at a casual gathering of friends. Rob Reilly happened upon his at the Laundromat. Porter Williams needed a U-turn to get his first close-up look at his wife-to-be. When we think of the "singles scene" in today's America, many of us may imagine raucous bars or alcohol-drenched nightclubs. But, according to the VoiceMale Survey, it's a rare marriage that begins that way.
24 percent of husbands met their wives in school, some as early as elementary school. Those married more than thirty-five years were most likely to have met their wives in school (36 percent).
18 percent met their wives at a social event, such as a dance, party, or wedding.
18 percent were introduced to their wives by friends or family members.
14 percent met their wives at work. This figure has changed dramatically since the middle of the last century. Among those married more than thirty-five years, only 2 percent met their wives at work. This compares to 23 percent of those married in the past three years. This change is no doubt due to the influx of women into the workplace.
6 percent met their wives at a bar.
4 percent met their wives at church, at synagogue, or in another religious setting.
1 percent met their wives online.
Which kind of meeting results in the best marriages? My survey suggested that husbands who were introduced to their future wives by friends and family members were most likely to pronounce themselves happy in their marriages later on. The size of my survey sample was not large enough to confirm this as statistically significant, but my personal interviews supported the theory: Those who know us best may know what -- and who -- is best for us.
Because of the newness of online dating, no studies have yet been completed on whether marriages that begin online are more or less successful in the long term than those that start in more traditional ways. Online matchmaking tends to rely less on physical attractiveness (photos are usually available, but self-selected) than on résumés and self-descriptive abilities. I interviewed two men who had met their wives online, and the evidence was mixed.
One fifty-eight-year-old man who had left a long first marriage met his wife through an Internet dating service. "I put my set of criteria out there, and her name came up. I sent her my profile," he told me. Both were on spiritual quests, and they e-mailed back and forth on that and other subjects for four months before meeting at a restaurant. In person, they gradually warmed to each other. After several months of dating, they decided to move in together, and a year later they married.
When I spoke with the man, however, he and his wife had separated after three years together. He told me that his wife had been living alone as an adult for twenty years before marrying him; she could not get comfortable with sharing decision-making. In addition, he added, "I had difficulty expressing emotions." The fact that they'd met online, he believed, wasn't a factor in the split-up.
Another man, a fifty-one-year-old artist who had been twice divorced, told me he had met his wife in a chat room four years earlier. He found that "she was willing to go deep" in their e-mail conversations. When they met at a neighborhood bar after a few weeks, "I felt a spark immediately."
Now, two years into the marriage, the man says he's in this relationship for life. "We made all our mistakes in our previous relationships," he told me. He said that meeting online had been efficient because he hadn't wasted time dating women with whom he had little in common.
One question I'm often asked about mate selection is whether opposites attract. There is some evidence that they do. As noted at the beginning of this chapter, men often seek women who are open and expressive to complement their own less animated personalities.
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.