Tiger Mama Susan Patton’s Ineffectual Marriage Strategy

April 1, 2013

Last week saw the eruption of a battle between traditional Princeton Tiger mom Susan Patton and the feminist women firmly planted throughout the mainstream media. Patton, a Princeton alum, wrote a rather impassioned letter to the women of her alma mater, which was published in the student newspaper. In it, she exhorted women to “forget about” their careers entirely, and instead:

Find a husband on campus before you graduate.


The kerfuffle continues, and today the Daily Princetonian website went down. 

It turns out Patton has a dog in the fight –

I am the mother of two sons who are both Princetonians. My older son had the good judgment and great fortune to marry a classmate of his, but he could have married anyone. My younger son is a junior and the universe of women he can marry is limitless.

Limitless! And yet his mama is trying to scare him up a date. Ouch.

When given a chance to explain, Patton backpedaled significantly, and in doing so made several valid points:

I’ve said the same things many times myself – a woman who wants marriage and a family should keep an open mind. Her fertility is limited. She also points out the very real fact that very smart women (such as those at Princeton) will want very smart husbands, but will have to compete with bimbos for them. While her claim that Princeton women have “almost priced themselves out of the market” is ludicrous – most of them will indeed marry very smart men – her general point is valid. 

It is also true that Patton did not write this admonishment to American women everywhere – her letter is addressed to the studious and intellectually elite women of one of the top universities in the world. 

James Taranto writes in the WSJ that Susan Patton Told the Truth:

Patton, after all, isn’t telling girls to abjure college. Far from it. She is advising young women already in college to think seriously about their sexual and romantic choices, and to take advantage of the simultaneity of their own peak nubility and their presence among an abundance of suitable mates such as they are all but certain never to encounter again. Contrary to her detractors’ caricature, she is not claiming that marriage is a now-or-never proposition for Princeton women, only that now is far more opportune than later is likely ever to be.

Taranto misses the boat by a mile here, because he has not dealt with the other half of the equation: most college males, even at Princeton, are not marriageable today, nor do they wish to be. College students are in the process of becoming adults. Today, psychologists define adolescence as lasting until 26, with good reason. Psychoanalyst Erik Erikson’s life stages provided a transition from Adolescence to Young Adulthood by age 18. 

Each of the eight stages was characterized by a task that had to be accomplished in order to move successfully on to the next stage. The task of the adolescent was to find his or her Identity, to discover who he or she was as an individual, separate from his or her family of origin and as a member of a wider society. Once this Identity task was completed, the transition to Young Adulthood occurred around age 18 with a new task: Intimacy. This stage involved finding mutually satisfying relationships, primarily through marriage and friends; starting a family; and  becoming self-supporting. 

In the late 1980s, psychologists and sociologists began to note that the transition between adolescence and young adulthood was not occurring on Erikson’s schedule. Young adulthood wasn’t starting at age 18. Susan Littwin, author of The Postponed Generation: Why American Youth Are Growing Up Later, noted with concern that many adolescents were taking a decade longer to assume adult responsibilities than prior generations. Adolescence was being extended, and young adulthood postponed. 

Littwin believed that there is often an innate element of fantasy in the emerging adult’s approach to life, resulting in a discrepancy between his or her expectations and reality. This element of fantasy was amply illustrated in a 2000 national survey of entering college freshman, where a whopping 73.4% rated “being very well off financially” as their most important goal. Such apparently necessary steps as “becoming an authority in my field” was important to only 59.7%, “becoming successful in a business of my own” caught the eye of only 39.3%, and “having administrative responsibility for the work of others” garnered only 36.9%.4 Today, Arnett identifies self-focus and the accompanying sense of fantasy not as a developmental problem but rather as one of the identifying features of emerging adulthood.

Certainly, a key feature of hookup culture is the deliberate avoidance of emotional intimacy – whether this is the cause or the consequence of delayed maturation is anyone’s guess.

Similar research by Twenge exploring the soaring levels of narcissism in college freshmen today highlights that they’re more likely to cite a goal of becoming famous rather than achieving real expertise.  

The narcissists described by Twenge and Campbell are often outwardly charming and charismatic. They find it easy to start relationships and have more confidence socially and in job interviews. Yet their prognosis is not good.

“In the long-term, what tends to happen is that narcissistic people mess up their relationships, at home and at work,” says Twenge.

Narcissists may say all the right things but their actions eventually reveal them to be self-serving.

How can we advise 18 year-old women or men to circumvent the process of maturation by focusing on marriage,  a life stage two jumps ahead on the board?

We tend to think that the marriage age has risen steadily over time, but that’s not true. In fact, men today marry just two years later than they did in 1890. While the rate has been climbing since 1960, that historic low followed a post-WWII boom that created strong incentives for early marriage.




Taranto continues with a comment on the female strategy of life splitting, or less drastically, delaying commitment:

But it is a strategy developed in response to exogenous factors–to wit, contemporary society’s expectation that young women be at least as career-minded as young men, the male preference for uncommitted sex and sexual variety, and the low sex ratios on campus, which empower men to set the terms of relationships.

Indeed, all of these factors are real “market conditions.” Even if women threw away their ambition in lieu of dating for marriage in college, they’d still be faced with the male preference for delaying commitment, as well as the 60/40 lopsided sex ratio at American colleges. From whence these marriageable winners?


Herewith, then, is a disinterested older gentleman’s advice for Patton’s bachelor son:

Don’t be in any hurry to get married. Assuming that you inherited your mother’s self-confidence and that you develop a professional career worthy of a Princeton man, your marriageability will only increase for at least the next two decades. And that’s a conservative estimate.

All of which is to say that because of the biological differences between the sexes, the Rosin play-now-marry-later strategy is as perfectly suited for high-status men as it is dysfunctional for women. That’s especially true when the Rosin strategy is prevalent among women, for if women followed the Patton strategy instead, high-status man would face greater pressure to commit and a smaller pool of playmates in college and prospective wives later on.

No worries, James, I think guys got the memo. For confident Princeton men with a promising future (maybe 90% of them?) locking down a life partner now is folly. And women know it; they are able to deduce that men who have 15 drinks in one night are not contemplating marriage and family. These boys just wanna have fun!

If Princeton women followed the Patton strategy, it wouldn’t matter, because those men won’t begin to focus finding a life partner until they are well into their 20s. In addition to Taranto’s observation that guys can snag a hotter, younger babe by waiting, the National Marriage Project found support for the claim that men today are “commitment phobic” and are “dragging their feet about marriage.” In their study of men aged 25-33, they found that the men were in “early adulthood,” a time of “insecure job and residential attachment.”

Their list of the Top 10 reasons men today wish to delay marriage:

1. They can get sex without marriage more easily than in times past.

2. They can enjoy the benefits of having a wife by cohabiting rather than marrying.

3. They want to avoid divorce and its financial risks.

4. They want to wait until they are older to have children.

5. They fear that marriage will require too many changes and compromises.

6. They are waiting for the perfect soulmate and she hasn’t yet appeared.

7. They face few social pressures to marry.

8. They are reluctant to marry a woman who already has children.

9. They want to own a house before they get a wife.

10. They want to enjoy single life as long as they can.

Add in the rising incidence of college debt, and the real disincentives mentioned by Taranto, and the picture is clear. When men are asked at what age they do hope to marry, it’s obvious they’re in no hurry. In the annual AskMen survey, 74% said age 28-30, 21% said age 35, and 5% said age 40. That leaves 0% for the under 28 crowd.

Gallup has also found that beliefs about marriage have changed. USA Today reports, “In a 1946 Gallup Poll, most found the ideal age to be 25 for men and 21 for women. Sixty years later, in a Gallup telephone poll of about 500 adults, the ideal age had increased to 25 for women and 27 for men.”

A study conducted by BYU found that college students overwhelmingly do not feel ready for marriage:

One study of 788 college students ages 18-25 from five campuses across the country analyzed marriage readiness by asking “Do you think that you are ready to be married?” Most weren’t: 60% of men and 67% of women answered “no,” and only 9% of men and 5% of women said “yes.” Almost one-third of men and 28% of women said “in some ways yes, in some ways no.”

In another study, parents were even more anxious to delay marriage than their kids were:

The other study asked young adults and their parents about the best age to marry. The sample of 536 students from the five campuses said 25 was ideal, while parents — 446 mothers and 360 fathers — said 26 was better.

I think that both women and men should keep an open mind. It’s possible to find your life partner while at college, and though I don’t believe many of those couples will be anywhere near ready to tie the knot at 21, they may stay together during the years when they experience Young Adulthood. 

As a strategy, though, Susan Patton’s exhortation makes little sense. There simply is not a market for young brides on college campuses. The boys see that as a project for later. Way later.