Last year was the year of "commitment." That is not to suggest that people were actually making commitments in record numbers. But it is an incontrovertible fact -- that's a fact you can bet the mortgage on -- that they were discussing commitment in record numbers. And one of the major themes in last year's marathon analysis of the ongoing war between the sexes had to do with the axiomatic belief that men fear commitment and the only real question is why.
The underlying assumption for this line of inquiry is that if somehow females can figure out the mystery behind the males' fear of commitment, they -- that is, the females -- can help them see the error of their ways and turn them into creatures who not only no longer fear commitment, but will actually embrace it.
In ancient times, women resorted to feminine wiles and various other forms of witchcraft in order to get men to do what they wanted them to do. Whether the goal was obtaining a new, improved cave or a winter's supply of frozen mammoth steaks, this goal invariably boiled down to men making a commitment to provide and protect the hearth. I am aware that there is extensive mythology about races of warrior women, but I suspect these women didn't have kids at home to take care of, which is why they were able to go out and play warrior, and which is also why you don't hear much about them anymore.
Witchcraft, hexes and love potions fell into disrepute somewhere along the way -- perhaps because they stopped being effective -- so women had to develop other means of obtaining commitments to ensure the propagation of the species. By this stage of human evolution, tribes had broken down into families and caves had been replaced by castles and houses, and propagation of the family fortunes or augmentation thereof had taken on just as much if not more importance than the more primal urge of species survival. Obtaining commitment became a more individual challenge. Moral support came from organized religions and families and what was then known as "moral standards." The operating principle in that era was that women waited until marriage before making their own commitment. Nancy Reagan is not the first person to exhort the youth of America to "just say no."
Moral standards fell apart in the '60s and women have been struggling to find new ways of securing commitment ever since. Sexual permissiveness may have done wonders for America's attitude toward sex, but the fact is that women lost a lot of leverage. Until quite recently, the most powerful argument they had for securing commitment from men was to prey on their fears of disease.
Thanks to USA Today, however, a new weapon has been added to women's arsenal for obtaining commitment. And we are not talking about sharing a one-year lease on a condo in Crystal City. We are talking about marriage. "A wife," declared Monday's headline, "adds satisfaction to a man's life." An accompanying headline said: "Husbands live longer, are depressed less often and may get more raises."
Students of human behavior have long suspected that married men do better than single men on a number of mental, physical and financial measures, but USA Today has pulled together a number of recent findings and the case looks solid. Ronald Kessler, a University of Michigan sociologist who studied 1,000 couples in the Detroit area, told USA Today: "The mental health of men improves unbelievably when they marry." Another study cited in the article found that married men are almost twice as likely to outlive a man who never married, and are three times more likely to live longer than divorced men.
Researchers advanced several theories for their findings: Married men are less lonely; if their wives work their household incomes go up dramatically; they don't have the constant pressure of trying to find a female companion, and when they are married their wives often protect them from life's troubles. After divorce, according to other research, men are at much higher risk of serious mental and physical troubles, and even death, than are divorced women.
Dr. Samuel Johnson, upon learning that a friend was about to remarry, remarked that a second marriage was a triumph of hope over experience. This dim view of the institution is reflected in the old wheeze that married men don't live longer, it just seems longer. Not true anymore.
Men still may fear commitment but with all this new information at hand it seems almost irrelevant to ask why. One thing you don't need a study to prove is that anything that can get men to live longer, feel better and get richer is a sure-fire bet to succeed.