04/01/2013 12:43 pm ET Updated Jun 01, 2013

A Marriage of Equals

We're getting ready to send our oldest boy off to college next year, which has me reminiscing about my undergraduate days. Before I left home, my father warned me to keep up my grades, stay out of trouble and call once a week. Friends and family encouraged me to take challenging classes, study abroad, find a useful major and try not to get arrested. I graduated without an arrest record, so I consider college a success.

Interestingly, not a single person ever told me to dedicate my time to finding a husband. Even my grandmother, who regularly encouraged me to get a boyfriend, and who may have secretly hoped I'd find my future partner in the halls of my alma mater, never suggested that I focus on securing someone to put a ring on my finger. I'm thankful that the people in my life thought I should spend my four years at an institute of higher education reading Moby Dick instead of planning a wedding.

This may explain why I find Susan Patton's cringe-worthy letter to the undergraduate women at Princeton (who she describes as "the daughters she never had") so shocking. Her advice, if you missed it, is as follows:

" . . . the cornerstone of your future and happiness will be inextricably linked to the man you marry, and you will never again have this concentration of men who are worthy of you. Here's what nobody is telling you: Find a husband on campus before you graduate."

My grandmother is rolling over in her grave. I'd like to join her.

I have a long list of people to whom I think Patton should apologize. I'd start with the lesbians at Princeton, because if Patton is to be believed, their only shot at happiness is traditional marriage to Princeton men, which is likely not part of their plan. (Gay men will be OK under her plan, so long as they plan on living in one of the few states that authorize gay marriage.) She may also want to tell her youngest son, a junior at the school, that she's sorry. Patton clearly adores him, noting that "the universe of women he can marry is limitless," but I'd be surprised if he isn't being hazed within an inch of his life right now. No one wants their mother using the campus newspaper to search for a future daughter-in-law.

As a parent raising two boys, I'd like her to apologize to Princeton's male undergraduates for treating them like interchangeable commodities, and rather indiscriminate ones at that. In Patton's eyes, these young men have value only as future husbands and providers. They are complacent fish in a barrel, waiting to be hooked by their female peers. Yet, even as she sings the virtues of catching one of these highly educated men, Patton deems them shallow, noting that they "regularly marry women who are younger, less intelligent, less educated. It's amazing how forgiving men can be about a woman's lack of erudition, if she is exceptionally pretty." Seriously? Did she really pull out the old "guys are just looking for the hottest girl" rhetoric?

I think Patton should save her biggest mea culpa for the young women on campus who were exposed to what is, quite possibly, the worst advice I have ever read on the subject of marriage and happiness.

Patton cautions educated women to find a "smart" man, which she believes they are best equipped to do between the ages of 18 to 22 in the rarified world of a private university. Oh, and did I mention that Patton believes these young women can only date men one to three years older than they are? Once you're a senior, underclassmen are off limits. It's a tiny window ladies, better make the most of it.

As a woman who did not meet her husband until her early 30s, I think it is entirely possible to lead a happy, productive, and satisfying life if you leave college with a diploma, but not an engagement ring. Rather than scare tactics, I'd like to tell young women that you can find personal and professional happiness if you wait to find your life partner until after you've learned something about life. You will not die a desiccated old maid if you haven't married by your 30s or 40s or choose never to marry at all. You do not need a husband to be fulfilled, but if you choose to marry, the partners available to you are as vast as the ocean and one of life's many joys is in unexpectedly finding someone to love at a moment when you weren't looking for them.

There's plenty wrong with Patton's advice to young women today, but what troubles me most is how she distills marriage into a gendered and mercenary pursuit of a "smart" partner with the right pedigree. I wouldn't give that advice to daughters if I had them and I sure as hell won't give it to my sons, because not only do I think the essential truths of marriage are genderless, I also don't think "smart" people are any better at marriage than anyone else. Last time I checked, there isn't a university in the world that confers a degree in how to achieve a successful marriage. Not even Princeton.

If having intellectual conversations with your spouse is important to you, then Patton's advice to find someone with a similar educational background and "smarts" may be useful, but smarts aren't conferred by degrees. There are plenty of dullards with Ivy League diplomas, and brilliant minds at state schools, on farms and in art studios. Even if "smarts" matter, marriage is infinitely more complex than an IQ score, and we should make sure our children understand that.

So what will I tell my boys? The exact same thing I'd tell daughters if I had them. I'll say that marriage is hard and challenging and worth every minute if you pick the right partner. I'll say that the right partner isn't necessarily the person with the best education, multiple advanced degrees, a huge bank account or the straightest teeth. I'll encourage them to look for someone kind, generous, loyal, honest, supportive, passionate and loving and who believes in them even when they don't believe in themselves. When they wonder how they'll know who to marry, I'll ask them if the person they're with understands patience and compassion and trust. I'll awkwardly suggest that there is a difference between intimacy and romance and that both are important. I'll say that a true partnership should be able to withstand a fight, but shouldn't be riddled with battles. I intend to tell them that life is uncertain and likely to veer off course and there is a reason marriage vows contain promises to commit through sickness and health. I'll hold my tongue after I tell them that a successful marriage is made of respect, self-confidence, and laughter, all in equal measure. I won't ever once ask them where their partner went to school, or what their grades or SAT scores were. I'll say that there is no expiration date on finding love.

And I will remind them, over and over again, that no matter what anyone else may say, the cornerstone of their future happiness rests on no one but themselves. Who they are when they enter college and who they choose to be when they leave will determine the course of their lives. They may learn a lot in college, but that's really all they need to know.

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