Saturday, April 15, 2006


Students "hook up" at Centre College, as they do at most other colleges. The term is deliberately ambiguous, covering all sorts of ill-advised physical intimacy from kissing to intercourse, usually while drunk.

Not all students hook up, though. Recently one of those who does not was describing a conversation among a group of students, in which they started listing all the people each had hooked up with. It became a game to see if they were all linked indirectly in this way. All of them were – except my student (and bully for her, I say).

I passed this on to my brother-in-law. He says this issue arose one day in his Cornell University dormitory, Risley Hall, where they made a giant hook-up map which connected all of the dormitory's residents – save my brother-in-law and his roommate. And bully for them, too. He says this conversation led the Cornell students to create a special term to describe how two people who have hooked up with the same third party are related to one another. The word they came up with is "unkatunk," which, as far as he can recall, was just a nonsense sound that appealed to them. And sure enough, the word appears on, with this definition:


defines the relationship in which you and someone you know have slept with the same person. kind of a variant on the transitive property of sexual multiplication.

a < -- sex -- > b
b <-- sex -- > c
a < -- unkatunk --> c

orig. Risley Hall, Cornell University

My surveys at Centre revealed that hooking up does not go all the way to intercourse as often as other people think it does. I expect the same is true at Cornell. Nonetheless, if, say, Facebook were to connect all the various hook ups it notes, I would guess that three quarters of the entire national college-going class are within six degrees of unkatunk of one another.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Should You Get Serious About Marriage in College?

A thoughtful woman in my family class posed this question in her journal for me:

In my experience, many of my girlfriends do not want to pursue “anything too serious” during college, in their words, “I am young, I don’t know where I’m going to be next year and I want to keep my options open.” The mutual feelings among college males about their uncertain future, and natural inclination to short-term sexual relationships, creates this liminal space as well. … It seems a career track is problematic for women all around when it comes to marriage and family. Aside from providing extra resources, it works against marriage in general. Although it can be overcome, it seems like the pursuit of a career almost always works as an antagonist to family and the pro-marriage ideas. This is the most frustrating realization I have come to in this course. Have I misconstrued it?

I don't think careers are antagonistic to marriage and family. Indeed, smart women need brain food and challenges, as smart men do. Family is great, but it is not all you will do in a long life. However, delaying marriage in favor of your career throughout your twenties does run a risk of making family impossible.

I would counsel an opposite strategy – you don't want to get too serious about careers now, because who knows what spouses and children the future will bring. Family first, then career, is the more likely strategy to let you "have it all."

Thursday, April 13, 2006

New Hope for Second Marriages

My students come to the family class knowing one big scary fact about marriage: 50% of marriages in this country end in divorce. I am therefore always happy to help unpack that idea. The most encouraging fact I can give them in response is that most first marriages endure. Indeed, since they have managed, with only a couple of exceptions, to get beyond their teenage years without kids or marriage, and are likely to graduate from a good college and be employed, the odds for their marriages working out are quite good, indeed.

So how can we have a 50% divorce rate if most first marriages last? Because most second marriages don't, and the odds go down with each new iteration as you approach the Elizabeth Taylor/Jennifer Lopez asymptote. The divorce rate for first marriages is under 50%. The divorce rate for second marriages, though, is over half, closer to 60%.

Recently, though, I have read some good news about second marriages, too. Barry and Emily McCarthy, in Getting It Right This Time, report that second marriages which make it through the first two years successfully have the same divorce rate as first marriages. That is, most second marriages which make it past the first two years will endure.

At the Gruntled Center, we are strongly in favor of first marriages enduring and thriving. But we also believe that it is never too late for a happy ending. For those who are already divorced or in a second marriage, it is cause for celebration that you can get it right the second time. The McCarthys go into detail about how to have a healthy second marriage, and we are definitely all for healthy marriages. A healthy second prevents a sad third, a disastrous fourth, and the death spiral beyond that.

The divorce rate for first marriages is going down, for good reasons and bad. It is now a little below 50%. We may hope that if the opinion leaders of America come back to supporting marriage, we might get that rate below 40% in a decade or so. That would mean fewer people in the position to consider second marriages. But it would also be good to bring down the divorce rate of second marriages. It would be realistic, I think, to aim to get the second marriage divorce rate below 50% in this same coming decade.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

How to Have a Traditional First Date

Last night I had a discussion with a number of students about dating. The common complaint of college students, at Centre College and elsewhere, is that it is impossible to date, that there is no structure to courtship. As Elizabeth Marquardt and Norval Glenn demonstrated, between "talking" and "joined at the hip" there are no intermediate steps. So we set out to do something about it. We came up with a rough protocol for a first date.

The first thing that all agreed on is that he has to take the initiative. This puts men in the position of being shot down (again and again). But the basic fact is that ultimately she does the deciding, so the first step in the dance of courtship has to come from him.

Here was the list we came up with from there. He should:

Make it clear that is it a date when he asks.
Ask nicely and confidently.
Give her sufficient time to prepare.
Have a plan.
Show up on time.
Plan something short and fun, which could be extended if things go well.
Offer the chivalrous courtesies – opening doors, waiting for her, etc.
Plan to pay. (This was a little contentious, but the consensus was that he should pay on the first date, even if she offers to share, because he picked the place and the plan.)
At the end of the evening, politely thank one another in words, and no more.

Two things struck me as important about this plan.

First, they were all supportive of the idea of having a standard protocol for a date, to cut through the debilitating ambiguity of the college "hook up/quasi-married" dating life.

Second, almost all of the ideas about what to do and not do on a date where about him. Even when I asked, "what is the woman's role in a date?" nearly all the answers concerned how she should respond to his initiative. The students thought she should be attentive and attractive, and go with the flow.

I think there is a further unsaid action that both of them are doing on a date, but much more so in her head: assessing the other as a potential mate. In this conversation, and in many other studies, men and women turned out to be different in how long a list they had of what they wanted and didn't want in a potential mate, and how early and automatically they applied it. Women are not passive on a date: they are constantly assessing. Indeed, most of the women will go directly from the date to a post-mortem assessment with their girlfriends. The men, on the other hand, are less likely to go in their minds all the way from first date to first child, much less rehash it with the guys later.

I think there is a crying need for some structures to courtship in college life. My hope is that discussions like this one can help start that revolution, which comes from the bottom up, from the students themselves. It is too late for in loco parentis at campuses like mine. But it is not too late for grownups to help young people pick their mates with more structure and deliberation.

I would very much welcome your comments and suggestions.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

At-Home Mother vs. Housewife

Caitlin Flanagan, in her new book To Hell with All That: Loving and Loathing our Inner Housewife, makes a useful distinction. She is not a housewife, but an at-home mother. The difference is that a "housewife," defined herself "primarily through her relationship to her house and her husband," while "an at-home mother feels little obligation to the house itself." This distinction is especially valuable for women who are wives and mothers, like their own mothers, but unlike their own mothers, have full-time careers even when their children are small.

I am grateful that, among the many forms of compatibility that my wife and I share, we have about an equal tolerance for clutter. We have had to adjust to one another's quirks in that regard – the symbol of which is that one side of our bed gets made each morning, but not the other. And we have hugely increased our mess threshold with each child. We have hopes that that will get better when everyone is grown.

As I think about this distinction, neither of us was an at-home spouse for very long, but both of us have seen our primary family obligations to be to the people – spouse and kids – and not to the house. We are blessed with a goodly place, but only essential work will get done on it until the last tuition is paid.

At-home mother is a workable status. A clean house is gravy.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Second Generation Polygamy Raises Girls to be Child Brides

The ongoing trial of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a breakaway Mormon sect that has been practicing polygamy for decades, shows what happens after polygamy gets established. The patriarchs of these extended clans raise girls for the purpose of giving them as teenage brides to other polygamist patriarchs. The girls are told it is their religious obligation to marry whoever their father picks, and be a dutiful wife and mother to him. Period.

Proponents of polygamy, like the ACLU, are imagining adults who are free to choose whatever domestic arrangement they like. First generation polygamy might even work that way. But after that, girls become a trading asset, passed from one polygamous clan to another. Even the young woman who testified in the trial, who was told by her father when she was 16 that he was marrying her off to "some Barlow boy" (he couldn't remember the name) the next day, was reluctant to testify. When asked to explain why to the mystified jurors, she said, "We were taught that we would go to hell" for speaking out. "After I got away from that religion, I still felt like I would be damned if I 'spoke out' because that's just how I was raised."

If ever there should be a feminist issue, fighting polygamy should be at the top of the list.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

The "Wicked" Gospel of Judas

I went to see the musical "Wicked" last week with my daughters and one of their friends. It tells the backstory of the Oz witches, the good one and the wicked ones. I will not be spoiling the story to say that the title character turns out not to be so wicked, but misunderstood. She is the only one who understands the true nature of the magic of Oz and its wizard.

There has been a bit of a flap recently about the "Gospel of Judas," an ancient Gnostic text recently translated and made available to the public. It tells the backstory of Jesus' apostles, the good ones and the wicked one. I will not be spoiling the story to say that the title character turns out not to be so wicked, but misunderstood. He is the only one who understands the true nature of the gospel of Jesus and His God.

Both seem to me to be interesting explorations of possible alternative pasts. Neither is likely to shake my understanding of the nature of reality. Nor is either text likely to convince me of the intellectual's favorite fantasy – that the universe has a secret at its heart that only special people can know and understand.

And "Wicked" has better songs.