Brad Wilcox is a professor of sociology and the director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, the Future of Freedom Fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, and a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Below, Brad shares five key insights from his new book, Get Married: Why Americans Must Defy the Elites, Forge Strong Families, and Save Civilization. Listen to the audio version—read by Brad himself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. Mammon or Marriage?
Our culture is increasingly sending us the message that money, work, and freedom from family are the recipe for a prosperous and happy life today. I call this the “Midas Mindset.” Many left-leaning mainstream organs of opinion make this argument with women in mind. One prominent financial outlet ran with this headline: “Women Who Stay Single and Don’t Have Kids are Getting Richer.” Another big outlet offered: “The Case Against Marriage.”
Meanwhile, on the right, prominent online influencers like Pearl Davis and Andrew Tate are also pushing the Midas Mindset—but with a focus on men. They argue that marriage is a bad deal for guys. In Tate’s words: “The problem is, there is zero advantage to marriage in the Western world for a man”—especially because “it’s very common that women” divorce their husbands. So, any man in his right mind ought to stay single, make lots of money, and use—but not invest in—the opposite sex.
Messaging like this helps explain why today more Americans think education, work, and money are more “important” for fulfillment than marriage and why the marriage rate has fallen 60 percent in the last fifty years.
But this messaging about marriage and family could not be more wrong. That’s because nothing predicts happiness in America like a good marriage—not education, work, money, or even sex. The data tells us that men and women who are in a good marriage are a staggering 545 percent more likely to be very happy with their lives compared to their fellow Americans who are unmarried or in unhappy marriages. Moreover, no group of American men and women (aged 18-55) are happier than married mothers and fathers. So, in the real world, marriage matters more than Mammon when it comes to endowing our lives with meaning, purpose, and happiness.
2. Why marriage matters.
Why does marriage matter so much? We are, as Aristotle taught, social animals. We are hardwired to connect. That’s why our ties with others— family and friends—end up being so much more crucial to our welfare than things like the size of our bank account or the degree on our wall. And because for most of us no relationship is as important as our marriage, that’s why nothing compares to a good relationship when it comes to giving us a shot at being happy—most of the time.
Of course, marriage is not just about happiness. It’s also about money, meaning, and being less likely to feel alone. We know, for instance, that men and women who get and stay married earn more and save more. This is why married men and women have about 10 times the assets of their peers who are single in their 50s. And they are significantly less likely to be poor across the course of their lives.
“Of course, marriage is not just about happiness.”
Married men and women with children also report much more meaning and significantly less loneliness than their peers who are single and childless. For instance, they are over 50 percent more likely to report that their lives are meaningful.
Consider one thirty-something man from the outer suburbs of Washington D.C., whom I call Scott. By the standards of success in today’s culture, nothing should bother Scott, 34, who is unmarried. He’s got a college degree from Clemson University, an engaging career as a military contractor, a house of his own, and a six-figure salary. However, these educational and professional accomplishments are not enough. “You know, I’ve got degrees on my wall, I’ve got accomplishments and certificates, but it doesn’t mean anything in the end,” he told me. Scott feels alone and at sea on many days. “I have to get up every day and look in the mirror and realize I’m alone. I have nobody.” Not surprisingly, Scott is struggling with a toxic mix of loneliness, meaninglessness, and sadness.
Of course, we all know single people who are thriving and married men and women who are struggling. But, on average, the meaning, direction, and sense of solidarity supplied by marriage are invaluable to ordinary men and women.
3. Is marriage a bad bet?
Many Americans worry that marriage is a bad bet, partly because they think one in two marriages end in divorce. But that statistic is no longer true. The divorce rate has fallen 40 percent since 1980, which means that most marriages go the distance today. This also means that most kids born to married parents today will be raised in a stably married home. In other words, the majority of Americans who marry today manage to make it.
And it’s not just that they are stably married but happily married. Today, 62 percent of husbands and wives say they are “very” happy in their marriages, and an extra 34 percent say they are “pretty happy” in their marriages. Of course, most couples have ups and downs, days, weeks, months, and even years when marriage and life are tough. But, on average, most of the time, American husbands and wives report they are happily married.
“The divorce rate has fallen 40 percent since 1980, which means that most marriages go the distance today.”
I identify four groups of Americans who are “masters of marriage”—Asian, religious, college-educated, and conservative Americans—who are especially likely to be forging strong and stable marriages today. Asian, religious, and college-educated couples lead out in marital stability. Religious, college-educated, and conservative Americans top the charts in marital happiness. So, marriage is an especially good bet for these groups.
4. Defy the elites and forge a strong family.
One reason today’s masters of marriage are more likely to succeed at marriage is that they reject many of the messages coming from the elites who control the commanding heights of our culture. Too often today, journalists, professors, Hollywood types, and other professionals stress a “me-first” approach to love and marriage that privileges autonomy, freedom, and self-interest. Articles in mainstream publications celebrate extramarital sexual choices, financial gurus talk up separate checking accounts, and celebrated therapists encourage men and women to prioritize number one in their marriages.
But this me-first approach to marriage is a dead end in the real world.
Couples who adopt a “we-before-me” approach to marriage and embrace time-tested virtues like commitment and fidelity are much more likely to be flourishing in their marriages. The data tell us, for instance, that couples who hold to the classic ideal that infidelity is “always wrong,” who share their money in joint accounts, and who embrace an ethic of marital generosity are markedly happier in their marriages. They also seem less likely to land in divorce court.
5. For the sake of the kids and the country?
“Isn’t divorce less of a big deal for kids these days?” A colleague’s wife asked me this question during a break from an academic conference. “After all,” she added, “we’re more accepting now of all sorts of families.” Her theory was this: because kids in nontraditional families are less likely to feel ostracized or stigmatized nowadays, they are also less likely to be harmed by family breakdown than they would have been a half-century ago. This view is increasingly common. Many people think marriage and a stable family are less important for children and adults in the contemporary world than they once were.
“The advantages of being raised in an intact family have grown in recent years.”
But this view could not be more wrong. In fact, for many outcomes, the advantages of being raised in an intact family have grown in recent years. For instance, the connection between family structure and school suspensions, as well as college graduations, has grown tighter in recent years. More generally, kids raised in intact, married families are significantly more likely to be thriving financially, socially, and emotionally. Probably the most striking finding regarding kids is that young men raised in any kind of non-intact family—from a single-parent to a stepfamily—are more likely to have spent some time in jail or prison than to have graduated from college. This is very much the opposite for young men who grew up with their own married parents.
And when you look at poor kids’ odds of realizing the American Dream—going from rags to riches over the course of their lives—you see that the number one factor predicting this kind of mobility at the community level is the share of two-parent families in a community. This is but one of the findings that tells us that strong and stable families matter not just for individual kids but for the country as a whole.
To be sure, many kids raised outside of an intact, married home turn out fine. I was raised by a single mom and am doing fine. But as a sociologist, I can tell you that, on average, kids and communities are more likely to thrive when they are rooted in strong, married families. This is why, if you wish to “save civilization,” you should care about the health of our most important social institution, marriage.
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