Today we bring you our first official column from our sociologist from Framingham State College, Virginia Rutter, “Nice Work.” Nice work, Miss Virginia! -Deborah

Lotta talk about markets and the economy right now. But let’s change the subject for a moment and talk about marriage markets.

A “marriage market” refers to the notion that there are in any given community a bunch of people seeking mates, and they will make the best possible match that they can. Using the marriage market metaphor, researchers have noticed that characteristics of “the market” (I’m not talking Wall Street) will influence what kind of “deal” people get. When we say “he has high market value” on the marriage market, we mean he can get a better-than-average mate. When we say, “she can do better than that,” we think that her market value is above her partner’s.

Turns out that the marriage market itself can influence not just how “good” a partner you can find, but also how good the resulting relationship might be, too. An innovative new study in the current issue of the journal Demography examined what happens when there aren’t enough men in a (heterosexual) marriage market. UPenn’s Kristen Harknett compared unmarried mothers who live in communities where women outnumber men with those in communities that had a more favorable ratio. When the marriage market was tight—that is when women didn’t have a lot of men to choose from—their matches weren’t as good.

Now all this is not saying the guys didn’t have the right degree or weren’t cute enough. (In fact, Harknett found that “the economic quality of a male partner has much more to do with unmarried mother’s own characteristics than it does with the marriage market or local economy.”) I’m saying that the relationships themselves aren’t that good—there is more conflict, less supportiveness, and fewer signals of commitment. That’s right. The market forces don’t just affect what product you get. They affect how you enjoy your product! And so it makes marriage for these unmarried mothers less likely.

This is useful information. There’s a lot of research that shows the benefits of marriage—the benefits of a good, well functioning marriage—to the adults and any children who are in it. But, taking Harknett’s study to heart, marriage may not always be the rescue plan for single moms that we might otherwise think it is. Sometimes, a marriage bailout is a bust.

–Virginia Rutter