In 1939, World War II was just beginning to ramp up, polyester was a dream that would not come to fruition for another two years, and both women and men agreed that a dependable character and emotional stability were the two most important qualities in a marriage partner, that chastity was an absolute must, and that women needed good looks more than intelligence. A lot has changed since then — more wars, more synthetic materials, and, according to a 2013 study that tracked marriage expectations, a massive shift in such expectations for our partners. Today’s marriages are no longer about consistency and convenience. They are about mutual support and understanding. (Needless to say, things have gotten trickier.)
Fortunately, data can help make sense of what may be the most complicated social issue most modern Americans face: What is reasonable to expect from a marriage? Here’s the data that demonstrates what makes a happy marriage, then and now.
A Woman’s Happy Marriage: Love and Good Looks
The 2013 study examined results from a survey that asked people what they seek in a spouse across several decades, dating back to 1939. The women of 1939 were largely preoccupied with maturity, emotional stability, and ambition, and ranked these as the three most important qualities in a man. Much of this has changed. In 1939, women ranked good looks as the 17th most important quality in a man, out of 18. That rank rose to a formidable 12 by 2008. Meanwhile, the importance of chastity plummeted from rank 10 to the very bottom, 18. Love, once considered only the fifth most important factor, had risen to number one.
A Man’s Happy Marriage: Love and Intelligence
The same study suggests that the men of 1939 were not unlike the women of their time. Their top three priorities were a dependable character, maturity, and “a pleasing disposition.” But over the decades this, too, shifted. Intelligence and sociability, qualities that men had ranked 11th and 12th in 1939, respectively, had risen in the ranks to 4 and 6, by 2008. The importance of finding a woman who was a good housekeeper or cook decreased and the emphasis upon meeting someone with good financial prospects went up. As with women, the importance of chastity fell from rank 10 all the way down to rank 18, and love saw a resurgence.
A Closer Look at Changes in Chastity
These shifts say something about how gender roles have changed over time. As women entered the workforce, finding an intelligent and sociable woman with good financial prospects has become a priority for men; with changes in public perception of sexuality, perhaps women feel more comfortable in 2008 admitting that they, too, want a spouse that they find attractive. But one change that stands out is the de-emphasis of not engaging in premarital sex. Chastity has gone from a deal-breaker for many couples to a mere afterthought, in a few decades. And that’s a good thing, too — because chastity itself is in decline.
Data on premarital sex over time suggests that men and women could afford to hang on to these biases even well into the 1970s, when more than 60 percent of women responded on surveys that they had been with one or no partners prior to marriage. In 2010, however, 73 percent of married women reported that they had two or more partners before they settled down. Only 5 percent were “chaste.”