Each year, Match.com releases data on American singles (not just those on Match), which the media gobbles up immediately. With nearly half of the American population over age 18 identifying as single/dating and marriage trends make for great headlines. But the 2015 Singles in America study came with particularly heavy fanfare from women’s magazines. I still remember when this piece of research hit my desk, and I leaned forward a little bit in my chair to read its seemingly feminist ink.
After looking into the mating preferences of more than 5,000 men and women by way of survey, researcher and biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, PhD, writes that we are seeing a “Clooney Effect” in this country-a nod to the recent marriage of America’s favorite bachelor, actor George Clooney, to human rights lawyer Amal Alamuddin. According to Fisher’s numbers, men desire smart, strong, successful women; 87 percent of men said they would date a woman who was more intellectual than they were, who was better educated, and who made considerably more money than they did, while 86 percent said they were in search of a woman who was confident and self-assured.
I am lucky to be surrounded by some brilliant women—verifiable “catches.” Gorgeous women my guy friends always ask me about. I have also watched these same smart, independent women struggle in bad relationships or fly solo for extended periods of time, despite their best efforts to land a good guy. So, what did this mean? If 87 percent of men were actively looking to couple with them, why were they still single?
Plus, the ladies of my friend circle who were actually in healthy relationships did not exactly fit the description laid out by Fisher. Although they were supersmart and attractive in their own right, the perpetually matched in my sphere did not fit a clear-cut profile, and I would not automatically group them into the same category as very career-oriented, put-together Amal. Clearly they had some secret sauce of attraction, but what? I wasn’t sure.
I began floating casual questions by the guys in my life to try to gain a better understanding: “So, like, what’s your type?” (I was breezy about it, I swear.) As one of my male friends put it, the general consensus was: “The smarter and more successful, the better! There are no limits.” I’d then hear about a doctor, nearing thirty, who was about to give up on dating because she didn’t feel like men valued her brains.
So now I was confused by the research, the real-life relationships around me, and the response from men—gaps, gaps, gaps between all these pieces that seemingly did not fit together.
The Science of a Changing Landscape
I finally did what any skeptical journalist would do: I kept my eyes open for more research. In late 2015, an intriguing new study emerged in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, which had further clues into all the holes I was seeing firsthand in this new theory of dating. The study proposes this: Men like more-intelligent women in theory—when they imagine them as romantic partners, or when they have psychological distance from them. However, when they actually have to interact with such a woman, something interesting happens
In the study of 105 men, researchers laid out several scenarios. In the first, they told men that “a woman down the hall,” whom they never saw, either outperformed or underperformed them on an intelligence test. Then they were told to imagine this woman as a romantic partner. Unsurprisingly, the guys more frequently desired the woman who outperformed them (#feminists).
However, in the second round, men were given an intelligence test and then told that they were about to meet a woman who had bested them on the same exam. Ah, yes. The mythic smart, successful, beautiful woman every guy supposedly wanted.
In the study, the men didn’t go after this awesome woman, according to lead researcher Lora Park, PhD, a professor in psychology at University at Buffalo. “When the woman was psychologically near—a real-life face-to-face interaction—men moved their chair further away from the woman, as an indicator of less interest in her, and reported less romantic attraction toward the woman when she outperformed versus underperformed him on a test,” she tells me.
The way Park explains it, men only think they know what they want—or they know what they want in theory, not what they’d choose when put to the test IRL. “Men seem to be influenced less by their ideal partner preferences and more by their emotions or feelings at the moment,” she says. “Specifically, when men were outperformed by a woman in a domain that they cared about—intelligence—they felt threatened, assessed by diminished self-ratings of masculinity, which then led them to act in a way counter to what their expressed ideal preferences were.” In other words, these guys felt way inferior in the smarter woman’s presence, and so they went rogue; they ditched their self-described dream gal for someone who didn’t best their intelligence.
Wow, I thought. Eureka! This study actually helped explain Fisher’s Singles in America numbers from a psychological perspective—and then explained what I’d been seeing anecdotally. I was a contributing writer for Yahoo Health at the time, and I immediately pitched an idea to my editor—which she cleared me to write. I began researching a story with this question at the center: Are men intimidated by a woman who is the full package?
I talked to many men. And when all was said and done, I was forced to acknowledge that I was onto something bigger—a paradigm shift that I couldn’t explain in one simple article. My research complicated the wisdom we were being fed about what men are looking for in a partner, who they date, and why they date them. Saying that men like smart women encompassed about 1 percent of the nuanced reality.
As a writer, I’m constantly chewing on questions. People ask me about my job, and I usually say, “When I don’t have answers, I see if someone will employ me to find them.” Well, this question became the center of my work life. (And, eventually, my real life as a dater.) Modern-day dating dynamics, in a world where women can do and be anything, are so layered and fascinating you’re likely not even aware of some of the phenomena in play. I began finding connections in every new data set I encountered, and on every date I ventured out on.
When I began my research, almost all the guys I interviewed or chatted up insisted that when it came to the women they wanted, “the more, the better.” They also said that while they were not personally intimidated by smart, successful, attractive women, they felt most other men were. But as I got guys talking—really talking—they started to say some more revelatory things.
I talked to my good friend Jack, a witty and self-aware 27-year-old consultant. When I asked him what he was looking for in a lifelong partner, he said that, of course, he wanted a smart, independent, successful, beautiful woman (yada yada). However, later in our conversation, he also said that if he didn’t feel like he could win over a girl who fit the bill, he’d “start looking for reasons to discount her.” And he told me, “You can pretty easily convince yourself that you never really wanted her to begin with.”
I went on a date with a handsome real estate broker a few years my senior, someone with the fearless facade of a man hardened to rejection and immune to the effects of deflected attention. He acted entirely secure in himself—but off the cuff, when I casually brought up the question of whether he would be intimidated to date the quintessential accomplished woman, he was quite candid. “I want her to be smart and successful,” he said, “but not as smart and successful as I am.”
One of my girlfriends (a lovely, brilliant-yet-soft-spoken entrepreneur) once went on a first date with a guy who runs in our social sphere. He made her a sushi dinner, in fact, and they had five hours of great conversation before calling it a night. Interestingly, though, he seemed to push her away very quickly afterward—right into “friend” territory. He wasn’t going to date her, yet he’d drop everything to meet her for a last-minute happy hour after work, or hand over his football tickets to her friends, as a show of respect.
When I asked him to explain his reluctance to pursue her (one night over 1:00 a.m. beers, where I clearly do fine research), he gave me some of his reasons. “She’s as close to perfect as I’ve ever found,” he said. “But I think I’d drive her crazy. I think she’d tire of my energy.”
Relationship expert Susan Walsh, founder of popular dating site Hooking Up Smart, once told me, “When a man tries to convince you not to date him, listen.”
Still, if men know a great thing when they find it, why don’t they pull the trigger?
The Love Gap
You’ve probably been discussing this dating gray area with your friends for eons, but allow me to finally define and label it for you:
The Love Gap, n.—the reason men don’t always pursue the women they claim to want; frequently, women like you.
The Love Gap is a thoroughly modern phenomenon, which now exists between the sexes—which is why we’re focusing on heterosexual pairings here. The dynamics are unique to 21st-century men and women with evolved desires for a relationship, who also have to get around generations and generations of the ingrained male provider/female nurturer framework.
What lies in the Love Gap? Oh, I don’t know . . . Let’s start with a few things. Psychological distance. Timelines. Past heartbreaks. Ancient gender roles. Socialized differences in the sexes’ view of love, emotions, and vulnerability. A lack of genuine “relationship nurturing” qualities today. Games, because everybody wants “the upper hand.” How the sexes respond to their partner’s “reflected glory.”
I could extrapolate for days—and I will, because we need to identify the Love Gap in our daily lives, so that we can understand and navigate it. If we want to finally build fulfilling relationships with compatible partners, we need to grasp why we believe what we believe—and parse out why those beliefs are not always accurate. This entire modern landscape starts with you in all your awesomeness.
I want to introduce you to the “End Goal” woman, a.k.a. you—EG for short.
End goal, n.— (1) a smart, successful “full-package” woman who men admire, date, and deem aspirational; she contains the sort of substance and carries the type of connection they want to lock down—someday; (2) a modern woman who knows what she wants in love and in life; she has an ultimate objective in mind for her future, and she is unwilling to settle in getting there.
Before this book was even a sparkle in my eye, I was consistently baffled by the dating stories I’d hear from career women. Women who had their lives together—for the most part. It’s not like they didn’t ever make questionable decisions; we all spend unreasonable amounts of cash on six new lipsticks at Sephora or forget to call our mom sometimes. But these women had substance, charm, and goals that they were actively reaching for. In fact, many of these girls were my favorite people in the whole world! Women who always filled my life with fun and positive energy.
And yet, I was still fielding sob-filled phone calls about men who were breaking their hearts. I listened to a lot of their stories—and then, to help me understand, I started talking to a lot of guys. Eventually, I mapped out an explanation, a conclusion I’d felt for the entirety of my adult life but never identified before in black and white: Men don’t always date the women they claim to want at any given time in their lives. And it’s not because they’re “just not that into you.”
Let’s dig deeper.
Excerpted from the book THE LOVE GAP: A Radical Way to Win in Life and Love by Jenna Birch. Copyright © 2018 by Jenna Birch. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Life & Style. All rights reserved.