Save America! Get married. Stay married.
Disasters are the chief currency of news media, as daily alarms about the effects of climate change or the possibility of Donald Trump becoming president of the United States again illustrate.
But there is one catastrophe they will never mention: the decades-long train wreck of marriage and family life that is happening in the US and nations like it.
The beginnings and ends of celebrity marriages are always good for a magazine story, but the eclipse of society’s most fundamental institution in large swathes of society is either ignored by the dominant media or dismissed by their contributors as mere social change.
The truth is, it’s up there with the climate apocalypse, a threat to civilisation as we know it, according to the title of a new book by Brad Wilcox, professor of sociology and director the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia.
Get Married, he exhorts his countrymen, adding, Why Americans must defy the elites, forge strong marriages, and save civilisation (released today, just in time for Valentine’s Day).
Though he is talking primarily to Americans the rest of us should listen up, because the greater part of the world is in the same boat.
Missing kin and the lonely future
Marriage rates have plummeted. Demographers predict that less than 70 percent of today’s young adult Americans will be married by age 40. Fertility in the US has dropped to an historic low of 1.6 children per woman; already one-third of women have either no children or just one.
“The American heart is closing before our very eyes. Our civilization is in the midst of an epochal shift, a shift away from marriage and all the fruits that follow from this most fundamental social institution: children, kin, financial stability, and innumerable opportunities to love and be loved by another. Too many young men and women are closing their hearts to marriage and family life – or are unable to find a partner with whom to forge a family in the first place.”
In a recent poll that he cites, only 32 percent of young adults thought marriage was essential to a fulfilling life; education and making a good living were at least twice as important. No wonder, when 88 percent of parents in a similar Pew poll considered financial independence as important while a mere 20 percent ticked the marriage or having children boxes.
Why? Because virtually all the messages they receive from the media and entertainment barons, the ivory tower and cultural influencers, from government policy and the corporate world, tell them that marriage doesn’t matter. First things first: work, money, self-fulfilment. Love and marriage can wait and, really, you could be happier going it alone.
It’s a big lie, and the scandal is that the elites know it, because they are the ones who still get married and reap the benefits. But for some reason they want to keep these for themselves.
Enough, says Wilcox. As a husband, father, teacher of young people and respected social scientist, he wants young people to know the truth about marriage.
Marriage and happiness: the secret is out
More than two decades of his work on this topic, yielding “mountains of data”, he writes, proves that “the happiest, least lonely, and most financially secure people in America today are those who are in stable marriages—and the happiest children with the best outcomes are in married families.”
The happiness part was confirmed last week by two new pieces of research. A University of Chicago study found a 30 percent happiness gap between married and unmarried Americans. And a Gallup Poll of 2.5 million adults in the US from 2009 to 2023 consistently reported happiness levels 12 to 24 percent higher than the unmarried.
Like their elders, younger generations of college-educated Americans also know this, and in the past two decades they have returned to marriage. But they don’t like to talk about it because it might seem judgemental and it doesn’t jibe with their liberal-left values.
If the happiness premium of marriage has been the best kept secret in America lately, the cat is now out of the bag. Get Married shares it with everyone.
In 11 highly readable chapters Wilcox lays out the data, along with graphs, 40 case studies from face-to-face interviews, examples from public life (for example, the Obamas) pop culture (Marriage Story), and his own very relevant experience of family life, including being raised by a single (widowed) mother.
The good news is that many of those college-educated Americans are not only getting married but staying married. Almost 90 percent of the children of these marriages are raised in largely intact families. And it’s not all down to education and money.
The ‘masters of marriage’
Culture matters a lot, so it’s not surprising that Asian Americans, with their strong family norms, lead Wilcox’s list of “masters of marriage”. Indians (from India) are the standouts in resisting divorce: 94 percent of Indian parents are stably (if not always happily) married, compared with 64 percent of American parents in general.
They are followed by Conservatives, the Faithful, and Strivers – the last often secular and left-leaning but family-centred. Conservatives’ traditional family values stand them in good stead, more so if they are also religious (the Faithful).
Contrary to research that purports to show the opposite (and will always get headlines), Wilcox says “the science could not be clearer” concerning the positive effects of faith and religious practice on marriage stability and happiness. This is especially so when both husband and wife practise their faith together. There is a wonderful chapter explaining all this titled, “In God We Trust”.
But first, the author demolishes four myths that have undermined marriage over the last five decades. Namely: men and women are better off going it alone (Flying Solo); families come in all shapes and sizes and are all equal (Family Diversity); if you do want to marry, it’s about finding the one person who can make you feel happy all the time (Soulmates); kids, however, will make you miserable (The Parent Trap).
How the ’soulmate’ myth ruins marriage
It seems that the soulmate myth, so evident in popular culture, has been the most corrosive of marriage. A product of the expressive individualism that puts “self” first in the pursuit of happiness, it inevitably disappoints. Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love fame has been through four soulmates since she left her first husband, Wilcox points out, and at last count was a single 50-something. A caution, one hopes, to her fans.
Her path illustrates something called “the paradox of marital happiness”: those who prioritise marital happiness the most are the least likely to find it. Family first, me second, is the paradoxical route to happiness in marriage, as Wilcox explains in a chapter titled “We Before Me”.
The importance of a commitment that rules out divorce from the get-go, and the continuing currency of complementary gender roles (no, most married women do not want a 50-50 split of the chores, though they do want their spouse affectionate and family oriented) are the subjects of other chapters.
Once again, the college-educated are onto these values, and there has been a “deep decline” in their divorce rate since 1980.
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The unmarried, and the elites’ part in their downfall
But what about the others, the forgotten millions who are missing out on marriage, thanks, in no small measure, to the hypocrisy of the elites? Wilcox is indignant at irresponsibility of the latter and takes aim at them in a final, passionate chapter, “Orphaned: How our political class fails the American family”.
From the “China shock” of the 2000s that threw millions of men across America out of work, to the anything-goes Netflix shows making a farce of marriage; from an education system that fails men at every level, to marriage penalties in the tax and welfare system, the decisions of the elites have thoroughly undermined working-class family life.
Good jobs, not just cheap goods, are fundamental to strong and stable families, yet millions of fathers have only part-time work and can no longer adequately provide for their families. (And, no, this not an opportunity for gender equality in marriage: more than 70 percent of “breadwinner moms” are single parents on low wages.)
Millions more men have no job at all. Among the less educated, writes Wilcox, around 16 million men have completely left the workforce and are therefore “distant from the discipline, direction and dividends of full-time work.” They are also out of luck when it comes to marriage, since women still prefer to “marry up” with a good provider.
The crying need is for family-centred public policy, yet neither “Nikki Haleyism” nor “Bidenism” gets family policy right. Wilcox proposes five key policy ideas that would begin to restore the fortunes of the working-class family. More college and more childcare are not among them.
For ordinary men and women who want a stable and happy marriage, he draws “five pillars” from the masters of marriage playbook: Communion (we before me); Children (prioritise their welfare); Commitment (keep divorce off the table); Cash (men who are good providers are most attractive to women and their “unequal” contribution works); Community (surround yourself with family and friends who take marriage seriously).
And there’s a sixth “C” – Courage! Because that’s what it takes to defy elite wisdom.
Brad Wilcox should know, since it’s the story of his own career. Not just his own fortunate students, but every American adolescent, at least, should have access to the real wisdom he communicates so clearly in this excellent book.
Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of Mercator.
Image credit: Bigstock
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