In cisgender, opposite sex couples, males are under pressure from every conceivable angle, particularly men living in urban areas.
There are differences between males living in cities, and males living in rural or suburban ecologies. The sociologist Eric Klinenberg has outlined a worldwide phenomenon of adults, particularly young adults, striving to live alone. In most cities in the world, a single person resides in more than 40% of all housing units. In Stockholm, it is over 60%, and in New York City over 45%, and rising. The rates in other cities in the United States are similar.
The goal of many urban men is to live alone, after years of sharing a residence with multiple others, in order to to pay off their extraordinary college debt, to occasionally have sex, to play video games, and to use other adult entertainment, in all its forms. Marriage is not seen as a primary goal.
It is easy to characterize men in their 20’s and 30’s as selfish, self-centered, misogynistic, and uncaring. This does not match their contextual reality.
Let’s say that you are a 27-year-old urban male, of any ethnicity and family background, in the United States. It has been five years since you graduated from college. Your student debt is still over $100,000. Since graduating from college, you have found a good job within your field of study. For the last five years, you have been living with a series of roommates, and have finally found a small apartment that you can afford by yourself. You have not been able to buy an automobile of your own, which is less significant in a city with good public transportation. The availability of 24/7 adult films has eased the problem of your sexual hygiene. Three years pass. In the last year, you have been dating a woman your own age that you really like, and are enjoying the benefits of that relationship. At 30, your income has risen at about 5 to 7% a year, but that does not match the more than 10% rise in real estate prices over the same period. You have been saving for a down payment on a condominium, or maybe a run down duplex where you can rent half the space. Might you want to take a great deal of time to propose marriage in this context? And is marriage even a substantive reality for such a man?
Males (and females) are getting married much later, and marriages are significantly decreasing in year over year numbers. Children are a rushed afterthought, with significant population declines worldwide in the so-called developed world.
More than half of all families are now blended families in which there have been multiple divorces over time. This involves a high level of relational complexity that causes men to hesitate to become engaged and married. But this reality is not even a primary variable in the reluctance to commit.
Proposing marriage is a reluctant behavior out of context with current economic, sexual, and technological realities. It is not unusual for an opposite sex urban couple to marry in order to strengthen their economic potential, which has become an essential criteria for coupling.
Sex and relationship becomes, at best, a secondary motivation.
Same sex couples have similar burdens, but operate under a different set of urban exigencies that is more community based, and that has a different set of socio-cultural factors.
Our expectations for marriage are shifting, as are our perspectives for family. These perspectives are changing radically in urban environments, and slightly less so in suburban and rural environments. The “red flag” as to whether a man might or might not propose is not about character, but about the likelihood of succeeding.
The period of time it takes to answer this question may exceed the boundaries of a woman’s child bearing potential, a point made emphatically in Margaret Atwood’s 1985 book (and new Hulu Series) The Handmaid’s Tale. And if a man is committed to a significant other, might his reluctance to propose be a reasonable measure of his understandable anxiety? And might his hesitation be centered in his love for the other, wanting some level of certainty about his ability and competence to care for his partner?
Stephen Duclos is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Certified Sex Therapist who specializes in working with men's issues around sexuality and identity.