The Good Fight
Brad Wilcox on Why You Should Get Married

Brad Wilcox on Why You Should Get Married

Yascha Mounk and Brad Wilcox discuss how marriage contributes to better outcomes for both children and adults.

Brad Wilcox is Professor of Sociology and Director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Wilcox is the author of Get Married.

In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Brad Wilcox discuss whether more people getting married really would improve their lives; why we might need a political and cultural environment more conducive to marriage; and what explains the “happiness gap” between liberals and conservatives in the U.S.

The transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Yascha Mounk: You point out a strange inconsistency in American attitudes towards marriage and particularly attitudes among the American elite, which is that, for example, at the University of Virginia where you teach, most students say that it's perfectly fine to have kids outside of wedlock, that there's nothing particularly important about being married. And yet they are much more likely than the average American to come from families that are stable in that way. They're extremely likely to say that if they came home and told their parents they're about to have a baby, their parents would freak out. What does that tell us about America today?

Brad Wilcox: In my piece in The Atlantic, I talk about the way in which a lot of my students would be very tolerant and affirming of a wide range of family forms and structures kind of as a public ethic. But when it comes to their own lives, they're very much still grounded in a marriage-focused ethic. And the vast majority of my students come from intact married households, about 80% depending upon the class. I'm just sort of commenting, in my Atlantic piece but also in the book more generally, about the way in which many of our elites talk left but walk right when it comes to family in terms of being much more marriage-minded in their own private lives and their own public lives. That's problematic to me because what ends up happening is that our elites in media and education and in Hollywood and other kinds of important culture-forming domains, from my vantage point, are not necessarily telling the truth to young adults across the country—the truth is that for most of us, marriage is the best way to ground your adult life and certainly to form a family around. And so I think the problem is that our elites personally and privately are benefiting typically from marriage for themselves and their kids, but they're not communicating in their public capacities as culture shapers.

We've seen kind of the greatest decline in marriage and parenthood, in terms of connecting marriage and parenthood, among working class Americans in that kind of second quintile since 1980. So my concern is that our elites, I think, could be doing more both culturally and policy-wise to kind of get behind marriage in ways that would benefit particularly working and middle class Americans.

Mounk: In a way, there's nothing self-contradictory about the facts you describe; which is to say that in a liberal society, I think it’s fine to have seven kids, but I don't plan personally to have seven kids. But I certainly would answer in a survey that I have no problem with somebody else having seven kids, right? One natural response is to say there really isn't anything particularly inconsistent about the views of these students or the views of the American elite more broadly, which is that we live in a free society in which people are encouraged to make their own decisions about how to lead their lives and what family planning they engage in. And it's perfectly coherent to say that there is nothing particularly important about getting married in general, but I, personally, want to do that before I want to have a kid.

I think for your position to get off the ground, you really have to put some meat on the bones of why, generally speaking, it is better for people and better for their kids to have those stable households and particularly in the context of marriage. So can you tell us a little bit about sort of what the evidentiary base of that is? Why should we be so moved by the fact that the sort of basically appealing, tolerant attitude of the students you describe is really leading them to fail to recognize something important about our society and how to have good outcomes within it?

Wilcox: The challenge here is that a lot of Americans think that love and relationships and marriage are entirely private issues, that this is just a concern of me and maybe my partner and maybe my kids, if one has kids. But it doesn't have any kind of broader public import. 

And yet, I think there's a lack of recognition there that there's a good bit of evidence that what happens in our homes matters not just for ourselves and for our children, but for the broader communities that we live in. Obviously, we know the work of Raj Chetty, for instance, which suggests that one of the strongest predictors of mobility for poor kids, going from rags to riches across the course of their lives, and growing up poor, growing up as adults, ending up affluent at the community level, is the share of single-parent families. Chetty's work suggests to us that when there are more two parent families in the mix in our communities and our neighborhoods, kids are more likely to thrive, especially poor kids. And so that's one reason why Salt Lake City has one of the highest rates of mobility for poor kids. And Atlanta, by contrast, has one of the lowest rates of mobility for poor kids because poor kids raised in the Salt Lake City metro area are surrounded more often than not by lots of two-parent families. And so if you're concerned about some of these classic American ideals, like the American dream, you should recognize, from my perspective, that strong families are actually helpful in promoting some of these classic American ideals.

The point I'm getting at here is simply that when families are flourishing and when more people are married, we're seeing not just kids being more likely to flourish (I think some people kind of recognize and realize that case and Melissa Kearney obviously has written about that in The Two-Parent Privilege) we're also seeing that adults are more likely to be flourishing as well when, on average, marriage is a big part of their adult lives.

Mounk: So I have some amount of sympathy for this argument. And I certainly see what it does to people, especially when they grow up in deeply unstable households, right? They may not have people with whom they have a stable relationship of affection. They may have a huge amount of financial and other forms of turmoil. At the same time, I'm trying to think through the extent to which it is marriage, specifically, as an institution that is making that difference and to what extent we are going to solve that by encouraging the marginal unmarried person to get married. 

One of the things that strikes me when I compare life in the United States to life in many European countries I know is that there is an overall lack of social cohesion, that fewer people are embedded in deep family networks, that they move around more, that there's fewer social institutions, not just to provide welfare services to people who may not have stable incomes, but just to provide thriving communities with all kinds of strong and weak ties that are able to buffer for whatever misfortunes particular people face or for the kind of trajectory of the life of a child whose parent may have an alcohol problem or may have a drug problem or all kinds of other challenges. 

My slight skepticism comes from wondering to what extent the studies you've cited have really been able to tease apart those kinds of differences. I could imagine that a higher share of poor people in Salt Lake City are immigrants. Perhaps they're people who've converted to Mormonism and have come to Salt Lake City in the last decades, right? And it's unsurprising, but there's higher rates of social mobility among immigrants and that those immigrants might have more conservative values which make them more amenable to having a stable family household. So perhaps what we're picking up here is something that is cultural, that is very important, which is that one of the keys to success for a lot of very poor immigrant families from Latin America, from China, from all kinds of different places, is a set of cultural values that lead them to family cohesion, that lead them to an emphasis on academic performance and all of the other things that's going to set the kids up for success in life.

I don't know whether the marginal person within that community getting divorced or the marginal person within a community that doesn't share those attributes getting hitched is really going to make that difference. Aren't we talking about a deeper and broader set of cultural determinants of which marriage might be a covariant, but that isn't really causal—it is going to the altar and making that commitment that's driving the outcome here.

Wilcox: Good question. I certainly think that there are a lot of factors that are kind of confounding the kinds of patterns that we see in the data. But I think it is kind of actually revealing that when you look at the data, you find that both immigrants, for instance, and Asian immigrants especially, are especially likely to be married, especially likely to be stably married. 

I think when it comes to sort of understanding the argument, some people say, what about the marginal person, the guy who is not helpful, not caring—getting him married to his girlfriend is not going to help anything. That's a legitimate critique of my argument. But I think that people are not understanding and appreciating that we've seen a massive shift in working and middle-class America away from marriage, where a lot of good folks are not finding their way to the altar, so to speak, or they're not able to keep their marriages together. And so this massive shift from marriage is linked in the research to declines in happiness, increases in deaths of despair, and I think also to the hollowing out of the American dream for those communities. So it's that larger shift that I think is one of the major motivations for my book, Get Married.

Mounk: That data point you cite seems to me to go in the other direction, which is to say it's not at all surprising to me that, for example, immigrants from China are much more likely to be married, much more likely to be in stable relationships, because they come from a much more cohesive culture where they also have a whole package of other kinds of cultural attitudes that help to explain why Chinese immigrants to the United States have been so phenomenally successful. I buy the fact that marriage and happy stable relationships are part of an overall package, but it seems to me unclear how big a part of that overall package is precisely because it goes hand in hand with all of those other attitudes and behaviors.

Wilcox: I think it's part of the package, right? I wouldn't say it's the only part of the package. It's necessarily, for some of these immigrants, the most important part of the package. It's certainly an important part. And in fact, one of the things that's sort of striking to me in terms of just interviewing ordinary Americans is that immigrants from Asia, both from Korea and China and India, and then also second generation immigrants or second generation Asian Americans from those places were much more likely to kind of talk about marriage and family in the context of their view of the American dream, their ability to flourish, and their kids' ability to flourish. And, once, I had a Korean-American mom talking to me about how she kind of rejects the soulmate view of love and marriage that she sees around her because she sees her marriage and the stability of those things as integral to her kids' ability to succeed in school and in life more generally. So I'm just saying that I think, for some Asian-Americans, there is an important way in which they kind of connect the stability of their marriage and family life to their own capacity to sort of flourish financially, to realize the American dream and then for their kids to do well both in school and in life more generally. 

And I, of course, would argue as well that they're correct, right? That they understand and appreciate that having your own kids' parents in the household providing more attention, more affection, more financial support to them on average does boost their odds of flourishing in school and then flourishing in life more generally. But to kind of give you some different kinds of statistics, so too we can think about the way in which controlling for things like race and ethnicity and parental education and family income, what we see is that young men who are being raised in non-intact families are about twice as likely to end up in jail or in prison by the time they turn 30 compared to their peers who are being raised in intact families with their two parents on the home front. Teenage kids in general are about 50% more likely to be sad or depressed when they're in a non-intact family versus an intact family, controlling again for things like education, race, ethnicity, education, parental income. 

So, how much of this is family structure, per se, or some unmeasured factor that my models are not controlling for, that might be genetic or there might be some kind of psychological piece or pieces at play is worth, I think, thinking about. But I think what's important for your audience to recognize and realize is that many thinkers from Alexis de Tocqueville onwards have understood and appreciated the way in which strong families are actually important dimensions of a successful liberalism in America. And when the family is relatively strong, I think our kids tend to do better and end up being better citizens, more successful in our schools, more successful in our economy. And so I think for liberals, there should be more thinking about the way in which maybe having kind of a laissez-faire or what I call a family diversity theory, where they think every family form is equally valuable, might want to rethink that just to recognize and appreciate that it is families and communities where the two-parent family is reasonably strong that are more likely to be doing a lot of the other things that liberals tend to value in our country and culture.

Mounk: I think it's hopefully a sign of how seriously I take that thesis and how persuasive I find much of your work that I'm going to sort of keep pushing on it, so let me paint the picture of two very different kinds of households. Let's say they're both households that got married before they had kids. And in one of the households, the dad is, broadly speaking, a deadbeat. He's not somebody who was ever really that interested in having kids, never that responsible in raising them, didn't really do very much even while he was married to his wife. And at some point decides to divorce, leave the family, and cut contact with the kids. Presumably that is one of the kind of data points that goes into the finding that kids from less stable households often have worse outcomes. And obviously not having that second parent as support and guidance and financial resource would on average have a bad impact on that child, right? They would be better off if they had a father who was involved and stable and loving that I think should be uncontroversial.

Now, let's look at a second family where it's two people who are very involved in child raising, who love their kids, who really care, but they're just not getting along, right? And so at one point, the dad is trying to make a decision, do I stay with my wife or not? It's less clear to me that in that kind of case, the overall observations that you find, which is that kids are going to fare better in a stable household, is going to apply because the aggregate statistic you're looking at includes both the dad that was always a deadbeat whether married or not (which has a bad impact on the kid) and the dad who really cares, who might decide to get divorced, who might decide to break this family up, but who's going to want 50% custody, who's going to be financially involved in the life of the children, who's still going to be emotionally available to them. 

So are the studies you're talking about able to distinguish between these two scenarios? And if not, then are we at risk of telling that marginal person, “You really don't get along with your wife, you're having bad fights with her, nobody's happy in this home, but stay put in the marriage because it's really important to your kids”? When actually what's most important to the kids may just be that they're an involved, loving parent. And in many of those scenarios, it would in fact be better for them to get divorced, get away from each other (they're just not getting along) and find some kind of hopefully decent harmonious co-parenting arrangement where they're still able to provide and care for their kids.

Wilcox: Actually, I would sort of take those two examples and run the opposite direction as you ran, Yascha. So the point is that we have, I think, pretty good evidence from Paul R. Amato and Alan Booth, two scholars at Penn State, that it's actually the high conflict situations where kids actually do benefit from parents parting ways. So in that first scenario, from their evidence, it looks like it's probably better for mom and dad to part ways, given the sort of lack of investment of the father. But it's in the second scenario where both parents are engaged, good parents might have one parent who is kind of drifting apart, feels like they're not as close as they once were, they're no longer in “love”—it's in those situations where it's better for the kids, for the parents, to stay together. So what they're distinguishing in their work is sort of low conflict situations where there's sort of maybe these more subtle senses of disappointment or frustration in the marriage and then high conflict situations where there's regular yelling or fighting. And again, from the kid's perspective in those high conflict situations, separation, divorce is the better outcome for the kids. But in these sort of lower conflict situations where maybe the parents aren’t particularly happy, but they can kind of get along and make it work, it's better for the kids if they can kind of just find a path to sticking together.

Mounk: So how actionable is this advice for people? It seems to me in a way that the data we started the conversation with shows that most people do in fact want to get married, right? So when you look at these relatively elite kids that you're teaching, they have this broad kind of view that it is really not that important to get married, and let's not be all judgy about people who have a kid out of wedlock, and so on. But when you ask them, do you intend to get married before you have kids? Do you think you would like to get married? Even at a pretty young age, when, frankly, I at that age may not have answered yes, they mostly say yes, right? And so the obstacle to many people getting married is finding a suitable life partner. And that is true among the more elite class where there's very strong ideas about wanting to have a soulmate, wanting to have somebody who's exactly right. And obviously in the age of dating apps and algorithms, you can have the illusion of infinite choice. But for a lot of people, that problem is more constrained. And here perhaps I'm more tempted by the structural explanation than other parts of this subject, which is, for example, that among African-Americans in the United States, women now just vastly outperform men in educational outcomes, in income, and in other kinds of metrics. And so many black women say, I would love to get married, I would love to have a stable partner. It's just that the nature of the marriage market is such that it's hard for me to find that partner. 

So to what extent do you think that the decline in marriage is due to an individual reluctance to get married, or people having wrong kind of attitudes about who they should get married to and when, and therefore, to what extent is this actionable advice?

Wilcox: So there's certainly structural constraints. You're right, things like race are constraints, particular regions, neighborhoods, all these things can constrain people's options and choices in ways that are worth acknowledging. But I think it's also important to tell young adults the truth. And that is that if you are more intentional about trying to find a spouse, trying to find a good partner in your twenties, you're more likely to end up, I think, happily married than if you're kind of not intentional about it. And so, the example that I gave in a New York Times interview was when I was talking to a graduate student in my orbit here at the University of Virginia, and I had asked him about his professional plans. And he had kind of a very detailed plan about how he was going to handle education and work. Then I asked him, would you like to be married? He said yes. So what's your plan there? And there was complete silence. He hadn't thought about what the step would be in the next week or year that would kind of increase his odds of being married. 

And so the point I would make to young adults today is don't assume that you're going to kind of hit 28 or 30 and just look around and find the perfect spouse. If you're in college, just be aware of the fact you're never going to be surrounded by so many young adults who are of your age and relatively eligible, for instance. And so maybe college is a good place to find a future spouse, for instance, or the workplace in your early twenties, or if you're religious, your synagogue or your church.

I would encourage young adults, I think, to be more intentional about socializing and dating in their early 20s with an eye towards marriage. And one of the things that I talk about in my book is that I am predicting that the largest number ever in terms of the share of young adults today will never marry because we are much less, at least right now, marriage-focused than we were in previous generations. And so what I would say to them is look, if you would like to kind of minimize your odds of ending up as a permanent bachelor, or permanent bachelorette, recognize that your 20s is a good decade to look around, meet people, and try to find someone who is a good fit for you, a good match. And then recognize too that your friends and family members might be also helpful in connecting you to people who would be good matches for you as well, to recognize that this can be a social undertaking. Be as intentional about your love life and your family future orientation as you are about your education and career. And if they did that I think they would markedly increase their odds of not just getting married, because that's only part of it, but of finding someone who's a good match for them as well.

And I think, when we have these discussions in more elite circles, I think the assumption is that things like race and class are really the controlling factors when it comes to sort of marriage and family in America. And those are huge factors, no doubt. I think where there's less recognition is that culture is also a factor here. And so what we see, for instance, among those who are 18 to 55 in the U.S., only a minority of liberals are married (that's 41%) versus a majority of conservatives (55%). The same kind of dynamic plays out for religious Americans and secular Americans. And we can talk about selection until the cows come home, but the kinds of people who are kind of either being raised in or selecting into more religious and or more conservative milieus are more likely to embrace the kinds of values and virtues that put them on a path towards marriage and tend to increase their odds of succeeding in marriage as well, both measured in terms of marital happiness and in terms of marital stability generally. So I think the lesson for liberals is to ask if we want to maybe rethink to some extent how we're approaching the life course and how much value that we endow marriage with. And that's the challenge I'm offering to your audience.

Mounk: And that leads perfectly into the other topic that I wanted to talk through with you before I let you go, which is about the research you have showing that liberals are much less happy than conservatives in the United States. 

There seems to be something about either liberal political attitudes or the broader social circles that liberals are socialized in, that they inhabit, that appears to be less conducive to them being happy. What is the evidence of this and what on earth could be the explanation for what surely is a somewhat surprising fact, that the view you have about politics should determine or at least co-vary with the amount of life satisfaction that you're going to have?

Wilcox: And to be fair, and clear, I'm not saying that there's a huge gap between liberals and conservatives. I'm just saying that we do see across a wide range of different surveys that there is a gap in happiness between liberals and conservatives, where conservatives tend to be more likely to be in that very happy camp, and liberals are more likely to be in either the unhappy camp or, in one survey, the not-too-happy camp. And this is all statistically significant.

Part of the story here does seem to be that I think conservatives are more likely to kind of look at the world as it is and just sort of say it's fine, right? We're conservatives, we can kind of make our peace with the world as it is. And liberals are more likely to sort of have a more idealistic view of the world. They're more likely to see its faults and failings and flaws. That's, I think, part of the story here. 

Mounk: One quick question about this. How far back does this go? Do we know whether, you know, in 1970 or 1980 it was already the case that liberal Americans were less happy than conservative Americans? Or is this really something that's emerged in the last decades?

Wilcox: Yeah, I don't know how much of this is going back that far, Yascha, but there's certainly been studies done in Pew a while back that were documenting this as well. But there's also, as you know, newer work done by Jonathan Haidt and Jean Twenge and their peers that suggest that, particularly today, progressive young women are especially unhappy. And that, I think, does actually kind of correspond to this idea that part of it is sort of a mindset, and if you're more likely to sort of look at the world through a more critical, maybe social justice kind of lens, you're more likely to sort of see things that are cause for concern.

Mounk: Right, because I think there's two quite different interpretations of this data. And for that, perhaps it does depend on when it started, right? One interpretation is that people who are more left-wing perhaps are more focused on the injustices in the world, are more driven by, as Jonathan Haidt would have argued in his earlier work, the fairness dimension of politics and therefore more affected by the perception of unfairness in the world, perhaps if they have a kind of more critical esprit, that part of what makes you predisposed to be left-wing is just to see flaws in things, right? And that might be a relatively stable disposition, so on that theory (which I'm coming up with here on the fly) you would expect somebody more left-leaning to be less happy in 1970 as well as in 2020, right?

Wilcox: Yes.

Mounk: A second kind of theory is that, no, what's driving this is something more specific. It is in some ways the transformation of the left from one that is more focused on certain forms of economic equality and fairness and so on, to one that really has embraced a sense of ideas about identity and the role of victimhood and the role of trauma in our self-identification that really has created an unhealthy culture and that the influence, as Haidt would now argue, of social media on young girls in particular has something to do with those more specific sets of encouragement about how to perceive yourself as a member of an identity group in the world that is deeply vulnerable and should therefore always be on high alert about insults or injustices and so on. And so if that theory is right, then you'd expect the gap to have grown in the last decade or two as this ideology has spread.

Wilcox: Yes, and that's certainly a possibility. But I did look at a data set in the early 2020s and found that the gap between conservatives and liberals and the share of those who are very happy was not accounted for by differences in income or race or age or gender between liberals and conservatives. But when I controlled for a number of family factors, including marital status, family satisfaction, and then also some civic factors like religious attendance and community satisfaction, the gap between liberals and conservatives disappeared. So it suggests to me that part of the story here is that, I think, particularly when it comes to religion and when it comes to marriage and parenthood, we're just sort of seeing that liberals and progressives are less likely to be kind of ending up a married parent or in a religious community. Emile Durkheim, that great French sociologist, talks about the importance of social integration, right? So just, you know, when you're married and have kids, I mean, life is, yes, it's stressful and all that, but it's full. There's lots of activities, dinners, sports, school activities, all that kind of stuff. And then if you're religious you have services on Saturday or Sunday and you have youth groups and you have special holidays and there's just a lot of sort of social stuff happening. So I think part of the gap again that I'm suggesting between liberals and conservatives is that for a variety of reasons liberals have found both marriage and parenthood as well as sort of religious congregations to be either kind of directly less appealing or important to them, or they're kind of doing things that end up minimizing the odds that they're spending as much time in a family way or in a religious community as well.

Mounk: What does the finding about the happiness gap between liberals and conservatives mean for how people should lead their lives, in particular perhaps more liberal-leading listeners to this podcast who want to be happy? Do they need to become conservatives or are there other things that they can emulate from more conservative peers to become happier?

Wilcox: I wrote a piece in The New York Times kind of speaking to liberals and I said that Aristotle understood that we are social animals. And so when liberals throw themselves in social institutions, from family to faith to some kind of local civic organization, they have just as great a shot at happiness as people on the right. So the point I'm getting at here simply is that I think we just have to recognize that insofar as we're social animals, that liberals should be, I think, more focused on marriage and family in their own way, their own religious traditions if they have them, or other forms of civic and communal life that allow them to kind of experience these in-person communities in ways that sort of will increase the odds of flourishing on multiple domains.

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The podcast that searches for the ideas, policies and strategies that can beat authoritarian populism.