". . . and having done all . . . stand firm." Eph. 6:13


Expert: Married Americans Are Thriving despite Negative Cultural Narrative

February 19, 2024

While the decline in marriage has eased somewhat in recent years, the fact remains that in the U.S., the marriage rate has dropped by almost 60% over the last 50 years. Social science shows that the reasons behind this decline are multi-faceted, but what has become increasingly clear is that with the precipitous decline in marriage has also come an increasingly fragmented and unhappy American society. A new book by sociologist Brad Wilcox tackles the complex and foundational reality of marriage with a simple solution for our current cultural malaise: jump in and get married.

Wilcox, a professor of sociology and director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, joined “Washington Watch” last week to discuss his new book “Get Married: Why Americans Must Defy the Elites, Forge Strong Families, and Save Civilization.” He shared that despite negative headlines regarding matrimony, there is some good news.

“[W]e’ve actually seen divorce come down since 1980,” he pointed out. “A lot of people think that one in two marriages will end in divorce. But the reality actually is that most marriages today go the distance. And that’s the good news, because our kids are more likely to flourish when they’re raised by their own married parents. We’ve actually seen an uptick in the share of kids who are being raised by their own married parents.”

The flip side, Wilcox related, are the effects of a culture that has turned inward. “[B]ecause fewer and fewer Americans are getting married and having kids, more and more adults are what I call ‘bare branches.’ It’s a term from China that refers to adults without kin, without a spouse, and without children. It’s a closing of the American heart that we’re seeing unfold that’s marked by less dating, less marriage, and less childbearing as well.”

As Wilcox went on to summarize, multiple factors come into play in order to explain this phenomenon.

“One is that in the new economy, a lot of men who are not college educated are not thriving, and so they’re not as marriageable,” he noted. “A second issue is that we’re seeing a more secular country. And because religious Americans tend to be more marriage oriented … that’s a big factor as well. We also have what [I] call the ‘Midas mindset’ playing out where too many Americans are assuming that the key to a good life is education, it’s money, it’s work above all things, and that marriage and family are not as important. … [This] can lead people to de-emphasize … the importance of finding a spouse, of getting married, staying married and having kids.”

Wilcox, who also serves as a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, further observed that a peculiar pattern has emerged among America’s cultural elites: they publicly eschew the very institution that they personally embrace.

“[T]he elites actually are tending to get married and stay married in higher numbers than most Americans,” he explained. “… [T]hey’re not using their bully pulpits to preach the value of marriage [or using] their positions to advance the value of marriage. … I talk about Reed Hastings [of] Netflix in the book as one example of a guy who talks [leftist] oftentimes, and his network often promotes more of a progressive view on family issues, [such as] the ‘Marriage Story’ movie — a negative view about marriage, and yet in his own personal life, has managed to forge a strong and stable marriage for him and his wife and their two kids for more than 30 years. … We’ve got to resist a lot of the more ‘me first’ messaging we get oftentimes from a more elite culture.”

How do declining marriage rates affect society? Wilcox argued that the results are stark. “[W]e’re seeing falling fertility, in part because there are fewer unions being formed. We’re also seeing … more and more deaths of despair. There’s a new study from Gallup showing that one of the biggest predictors of deaths of despair is less marriage across this country. I think we’re seeing [that] poor kids who are being raised in communities with many single parent families, they’re much less likely to realize the American dream. … So not having strong families impedes the American dream. [In addition], more and more Americans are having difficulty realizing [happiness], and the number one factor there is declines in marriage based upon a new study from the University of Chicago. So the point here simply is that the falling fortunes of marriage really poses a fundamental threat to the fabric of our American civilization.”

Wilcox went on to contend that despite cultural forces that attempt to paint men and women into different “ideological corners” by arguing that marriage is a “bad deal” for financial and personal freedom reasons, “there is no group of Americans, both male and female, who have more meaningful lives, less lonely lives, more prosperous lives, and more happy lives than married Americans.”

So why is there a persistent cultural narrative that claims that marriage is the enemy of happiness?

“I think there are a couple of reasons, but one thing is that our culture tends to prioritize freedom,” Wilcox explained. “Our culture tends to minimize sacrifice and suffering, and our culture also has oftentimes a more short-term mindset. And of course, being a good spouse requires sacrifice, requires compromise, it requires suffering, and it requires having more of a long-term perspective when it comes to how you organize your life. [P]eople can do that well [by putting] their spouse and their kids first in important ways [and] living for the other. … [W]e just have to continue to try to find creative ways to [help] young adults … realize [that] living for one dopamine hit after another [and] taking for granted a lot of the anti-marriage messages that the pop culture elite culture sends their way is not the way to do it.”

Wilcox concluded by expanding on ways that the church can build up a culture of marriage.

“One thing they can do is to work in partnership with some new organizations like Communio and National Marriage Week that have begun sponsoring a number of events and activities and classes and trainings to help both churches and couples and families thrive more in their marriages and also steer clear of difficulties and handle major problems in a marriage as well, or in a family more generally. … But I think churches also have to be more intentional, too, about thinking through new ways to have young adults date, meet, [and] do volunteering together just to foster a social context where young adults can meet one another and move on to date and marry.”

Dan Hart is senior editor at The Washington Stand.