"It's as easy to fall in love with a rich man as a poor one." Some elderly aunt probably offered that advice at some point and you probably dismissed it. You vowed to marry only when you found The One, and his bank account would not be a factor. That's certainly the prevailing view of marriage, American style, in 2009. It's supposed to be a love match between two people who somehow sense that they are meant to be together forever. Admiring her intended's bottom line (the financial one, that is) automatically makes a woman a gold digger. Even the late Anna Nicole Smith, no rocket scientist, understood that being accused of marrying just for money was an insult. She married oil tycoon Howard Marshall Smith when he was 89 and she was 26. "It just so happens," she once said, "that I get turned on by liver spots."
In June, the prime month for weddings, it may seem heretical to suggest that romantic love is not the only requirement for a successful marriage. But that's what the authors of a provocative new book advocate. In Smart Girls Marry Money, Elizabeth Ford, a news producer, and Daniela Drake, a physician, argue that despite the gains women have made in the last few decades, we still earn considerably less than men (especially if we are mothers). A husband's paycheck is still critical. "We gals just haven't come far enough or fast enough," they say. "We know it's important to take the long view of things, but as we've heard said, in the long view, we'll all be dead."
Then there's divorce. Ford and Drake say that since women suffer economically much more than men when they get divorced, snagging a good provider is ultimately critical to an equitable settlement. And if current statistics hold, half of new couples are likely to eventually split up. Given that depressing reality, Ford and Drake say that a husband's earning power is a more important indicator of a woman's future happiness than his cute smile. "If the marriage crashes," they write, "it's the women who are exposed to an extremely high risk of poverty." They urge their readers to look for a Mr. Right "who just happens to be Mr. Rich."
While we're not quite ready to give up on the romantic ideal, the book did get us thinking about why a woman chooses a particular mate. As Ford and Drake point out, romantic love is a relatively new concept. Throughout most of the last 10,000 years, couples got together for economic reasons or for duty to their family. And much of the time, it was the families who arranged the unions. The idea of a bride and groom actually choosing to be together was considered disruptive, says anthropologist Helen Fisher in her book Why We Love. "This mercurial force could lead to suicide or homicide," she writes. "Even worse, it could upset the delicate web of social ties."
Arranged marriages are still popular in many cultures, and there are some indications that the appeal of these unions might be catching on, even in 21st-century America. Both Fox and CBS are reportedly developing reality shows based on the concept. In the Fox version, called I Married a Stranger, friends and family select a spouse from a pool chosen by producers. The CBS show, Arranged Marriage, tracks one couple through the process, while Fox will feature a different couple each week. Perhaps that's a logical next step when you consider the fact that the so-called love matches on shows like The Bachelor and The Bachelorette have rarely led to long-term relationships, much less the altar.
A marriage based on more practical considerations can ultimately become a loving one. But in the past, that didn't really matter. As long as a couple fulfilled their obligation by staying together, one partner (usually the male) could look elsewhere for affection. Today we place higher demands on marriage. Spouses are supposed to be true to each forever (and with increased life expectancies, that can mean 50 or 60 years for the lucky ones who don't divorce). So the choice we make in our mid-20s (the average age of first marriages in America) has to be a pretty smart one.
How do we decide? There's a lot of research on the subject, and what scientists have found goes a long way toward explaining the current high divorce rate. In her fascinating book, Fisher says timing is a huge factor. You are more likely to feel that you are "in love" if you are already emotionally aroused. That can be caused by lots of things—suffering through a difficult experience like moving to a new city or recovering from a failed relationship, for example. Once you are in that emotional state, proximity helps. It's a little like the plot of A Midsummer Night's Dream, where a little love juice sprinkled in the eyes (the metaphorical equivalent of emotional arousal) makes someone inclined to adore the first person he or she spots.
Despite the conventional wisdom that opposites attract, Fisher says that we generally marry people who are very much like us, who share the same ethnic, social, religious, educational and economic background. And people who have the same level of physical attractiveness and intelligence, as well as similar values, interests and social and emotional skills. Since some of these traits (such as intelligence and social skills) are influenced by DNA, scientists think that at least a portion of the attraction we feel is genetically driven. We seek similar genetic types.
Beyond these characteristics, women and men seek different things, Fisher says. For example, men are attracted by facial and body symmetry. Evolutionary biologists say this preference has evolved because women with these characteristics are more likely to bear healthy children, and propagating the species is what we're all about. Women tend to be attracted by a man's status in the world. That can express itself in many ways—intelligence, a self-confident personality, even height. Women also appear to be hard-wired to look for men who have strong cheekbones and jaws—traits associated with testosterone.
In the last couple of centuries, as women have gained more financial and legal autonomy, the idea of romantic love has played a greater role in the choice. That's reinforced by popular culture, which celebrates the idea of soulmates miraculously finding each other. As women have been able to earn more, researchers have found that the importance of a man's earning power in this equation appears to have declined somewhat. In their own admittedly unscientific survey, Ford and Drake say they found the same thing: "Our survey of women in their twenties revealed that most have no preference for a man with money . . . Some girls even said they would go for a subordinate 'if he was cute'." For lower-income women, though, money is still critical. One recent study of single mothers, for example, concluded that many would have married the father of their children—if he'd had a job. But a man without a paycheck? No way. Many studies have also shown that couples fight more about money than about any other single issue (including sex or how to raise the kids), and that's even more true in times of economic difficulty, like now.
Ideally, of course, we would all marry men who keep our hearts and our bank accounts overflowing with joy. If that describes your marriage, great. If not, Ford and Drake's advice might be worth listening to—as an antidote to all the overly sentimental views of marriage that surround us. "Falling in love does feel good," they say, "but the problems arise when we make it our number one priority." That's probably not a message June brides want to hear right now, but at least a few will probably wish they had once the honeymoon's over.