At the start of this year, we delved into one of Marriage Pact’s most memorable questions: “Would you rather leave someone or be left at the altar?” In other words: would you rather have your heart shattered but earn the sympathy of wedding attendees, or make an empowered, self-preserving choice only to be scorned by your friends and family? It’s a tough one, to say the least.
In our previous analysis, we asked whether students’ unique backgrounds and identities might inform their responses to this question. Interestingly, we didn’t find any large differences between students based on religion, birth order, political affiliation, or class year. However, we did discover that the people who preferred to leave someone at the altar were also more likely to believe there is a place for revenge, and that there is no such thing as unconditional love. Classic.
But there’s one key finding that we missed the last time around. Based on aggregated Marriage Pact data from 13 schools, heterosexual women were significantly more likely to choose to leave their partner at the altar, while heterosexual men were more likely to choose to be left.
To learn more, we narrowed in on students’ average responses from four schools: Middlebury, Bowdoin, Georgetown, and Tufts. Averages lie on a scale from 1 to 7, where 1 indicates a preference for being left, and 7 a preference for leaving.
We then broke things down by school to better visualize the effect of gender on students' responses.
If these findings surprise you, you’re not the only one. I spoke to Dr. Lisa Medoff—a developmental psychologist at Stanford University specializing in adolescent sexuality and mental health—to break things down.
I just want to first say I’m always a bit hesitant to talk about gender differences, because when we look at any data, no matter what characteristics we are studying between groups, we can always say that one group is more likely to do something than another. Different genders have a lot more in common than we like to believe.
But it is true that they are socialized very, very differently. That’s where we do see some differences.
Admittedly, Dr. Medoff was a bit stumped at the data upon first glance.
It’s interesting, because my initial thoughts would actually be that women would prefer to be left. Women are very conditioned to fear rejecting other people. Especially in male-female relationships, I think that women very rightly fear retaliation or verbal abuse, even physical abuse or violence. Women are very conditioned to not reject in a straightforward way to protect themselves.
Upon further examination, however, Dr. Medoff notes that fear of retaliation isn’t the only social force at play here. She theorizes that this difference may lie in students’ desires to push back against the gendered scripts—or the traditional paths created by societal norms and expectations—they so frequently encounter.
I think there’s some sense of empowerment with a woman leaving. Women are very much socialized to think that marriage is what you should aim for. Womens’ value is often rooted in whether somebody picked you as a wife and a mother. It would play into a big part of their identity to be rejected, and feel as though nobody wants you.
By choosing to ditch their soon-to-be-spouse, heterosexual women may be rejecting the hegemonic idea that they should wait for a man’s stamp of approval.
Women may want to feel that they can do this on their own terms. As in, “I want to make a decision and not have it be subject to the whims of somebody deciding they do or don’t want me.” Making your own choice means you have agency, which is something women don't necessarily feel they have in many areas of their lives.
One female-identifying bioengineering student at Stanford shared a similar sentiment. “I just feel like rejection sucks a lot. It feels a lot more empowering to get out of something that wasn't working for you than to get left and be blindsided.”
What about the men? Dr. Medoff offers a couple of explanations. She first notes that male-identifying students might choose to be left to avoid tarnishing their reputations—or simply becoming “that guy.”
Perhaps it’s that men don’t want to conform to masculine stereotypes, and would rather hurt themselves than cause hurt to a woman publically.
As one male-identifying MCS major at Stanford explained, “It would leave me with such a guilty conscience to leave someone at the altar. I’d just feel like a bad guy.” Another male psych major claimed that he’d “rather just deal with the embarrassment and pain of being rejected.”
Further, Dr. Medoff notes that straight men don’t face the same societal pressures that their female counterparts do when selecting life partners.
Women tend to be socialized with a scarcity mindset—that there are only so many eligible quality men. Especially for high-achieving women, because there’s this notion that women need to marry up, which means more money or more education.
There are also stereotypes about age, that women need to marry someone their age or older. As straight women get older, their choices shrink, but as straight men get older, their choices grow. This scarcity is just not sold to men in the same way. It’s easier to feel that they can find somebody else.
Dr. Medoff’s final theory relates to the ways men and women are socialized to cope with the end of a relationship.
Women are socialized to value relationships, and to say that relationships are a large part of their identity. Oftentimes in movies, after breakups, women stay at home and eat ice cream and watch TV and talk to their friends. Whereas men will say things like, “The best way to get over someone is to get under someone else.”
I wonder if that socializes women to find the end of relationships painful if they’re the ones getting left, whereas men may be taught to not find it as painful, or to distract themselves and just deal with it, even if they find it equally painful.
No matter a student’s reason for their choice, it’s clear there’s more to this seemingly innocuous question than we previously thought.
*Stay tuned for upcoming analysis on how this question plays out for LGBTQ+ identifying students.