For many modern men, marriage is seen as an institution that, at best, stifles them or, at worst, sets them up for divorce, and as a result, financial and emotional ruin. But research coming out in recent years suggests that marriage actually offers a lot of benefits to men — from making more money, to having better sex, to enjoying a longer and healthier life.
Today on the podcast I talk to Brad Wilcox, a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, as well as the Director of the National Marriage Project. He’s spent his career researching the impact marriage has on people’s lives. Brad I discuss the effect marriage has on men, and why officially tying the knot actually makes a significant difference compared to being in a committed, non-married relationship. We also discuss what men can do to create a lasting marriage and the best age to get hitched.
We then shift gears to talk about his research on fatherhood, particularly the importance of fathers in a child’s life and the benefits men get themselves from being a dad.
Whether you’re already married and a dad, or thinking about popping the question, you’re going to find a lot of insights and surprising information in this podcast.
- The benefits that married men enjoy over non-married men
- How marriage improves a man’s career
- How marriage improves a man’s sex life
- The physical and mental health benefits of being married
- The differences between marriage and co-habitation
- The detriments to children that can present with unmarried parents
- How Hollywood and pop culture over-idealizes marriage
- Do you need to be financially stable to get married?
- Are there any qualities or attributes one should strive for before marriage?
- What can men do to foster a happy marriage?
- The importance of friends in marriage
- What do dads bring to parenting that mothers might not be able to?
- The benefits of roughhousing
- The benefits that children bestow onto their fathers
- Is there a right time to have kids?
- What’s the state of American fatherhood today compared to back in the 50s?
- What types of public policies can be implemented to encourage and help dads?
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- Men and Marriage: Debunking the Ball and Chain Myth
- The National Marriage Project
- AoM’s “Marriage” archives
- My podcast interview with Dr. Meg Jay
- The Defining Decade by Meg Jay
- Why Marriage Matters by Brad Wilcox
- PSA: No Longer True That Half of Marriages End in Divorce
- This Is Us
- AoM’s “Personal Finance” archives
- The Surprising Benefits of Marrying Young
- Mark Sanford, ex-Governor of South Carolina
- The Importance of Roughhousing With Your Kids
- When Baby Makes Three report
- Reviving Blue Collar Work series
- The Institute for Family Studies
If you’re looking for research-backed insights on the benefits of marriage and fatherhood, head on over to the Institute for Family Studies and the National Marriage Project to read more of Brad’s writing. Also be sure to check out the brief the IFS put out debunking some of the myths about men and and marriage.
Connect With Brad Wilcox
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For many men, marriage is seen as an institution that, at best, stifles them, or, at worst, sets them up for divorce, and as a result, financial and emotional ruin, but research is coming out in recent years that suggests that marriage actually offers a lot of benefits to men, from making more money, to having a better sex life, and enjoying a healthier, longer life.
Today in the podcast, I talk to one of those researchers. His name is Brad Wilcox. He’s a Professor of Sociology at the University of Virginia, as well as the Director of The National Marriage Project. He’s spent his career researching the impact marriage has on people’s lives, and today on the show, Brad and I discuss the effect marriage has on men and why officially tying the knot actually makes a significant difference compared to being in a committed non-married relationship. We, also, discuss what men can do to create a lasting marriage and even the best age to get hitched.
We then shift gears to talk about his research on fatherhood, particularly the importance of dads in a child’s life and the benefits men get themselves from being a dad.
Whether you’re already married and a dad or thinking about popping the question, you’re going to find a lot of insight and surprising information in this podcast. After the show is over, make sure to check out the show notes at AOM.IS/MenandMarriage.
Brad Wilcox, welcome to the show.
Brad Wilcox : It’s great to be here, Brett.
Brett McKay: You’re a Professor of Sociology at the University of Virginia. You’re, also, the Director of The National Marriage Project and a Senior Fellow at The Institute for Family Studies, and you do a lot of research about marriage, fatherhood, and particularly marriage and men, and the benefits that men get from it, as well as the benefits children and the greater society gets from men being married.
Let’s dig into your research a bit. I feel like for men and marriage today in America, it’s either seen as something, at best, will restrain you, hold you back, or, at worst, you’re just setting yourself up for being fleeced in divorce courts, but you’ve done a lot of research showing these benefits that come from marriage. What are some of those benefits that men get from being married?
Brad Wilcox : When it comes to the most basic goods in life, what we find is that men who are stably married earn more money, have more assets. They do better when it comes to their health, and they even enjoy better quality sex lives, so some basic goods that concern many ordinary guys, money, health and sex. We see that men who are stably married are much more likely to be doing well on those outcomes compared to their peers, who are both single and divorced.
Brett McKay: What’s going on there? For example, why do men who are married make more money, because some would say there’s a selection bias going on there. Men who are able to maintain a stable relationship probably have attributes that allow them to go up the corporate ladder. I mean is that what’s going on or is there something else?
Brad Wilcox : Well, certainly part of the story here is what we call selection, where the types of men who get and stay married are more likely to have say good jobs, perhaps better social skills, and other traits that make them more attractive as husbands, but it’s, also, the case, too, that when we look at guys over the life course, what we see is that when men get married, they tend to work harder and they work more hours, and they make more money. Also, when men get divorced, they tend to often cut back on hours and earn less money. It’s the state of marriage itself that looks likes it’s having an impact on men.
There’s, also, been a twin study in Minnesota showing that married twins were doing better financially than their unmarried twin brothers, so that’s a pretty compelling evidence. There’s something about marriage per se that helps men do better in today’s workforce.
Brett McKay: You said that marriage can actually increase the quality of a man’s sex life, and a lot of guys put off marriage because, “Well, I’ll just have this one partner and it will get boring, so don’t want to do that.” Why is it that marriage can improve a man’s sex life?
Brad Wilcox : One study found that 54% of men said that they were extremely satisfied with the physical quality of their sex if they were married, compared to 44% of cohabiting guys, and 43% of single guys. That same survey, also, found that men reported they were more satisfied with the emotional quality of their sexual lives if they were married, versus being cohabiting or single.
I think this runs counter to a lot of what you might see on MTV, or YouTube, or movies, or shows, where there’s this image out there that the single guys or the cohabiting guys get the best sex. In reality, guys who have a ring on their finger tend to enjoy the highest quality sex, and I think that’s for a couple of reasons. One is that even for guys, a sense of commitment, a sense of trust and security matters in the average sexual relationship, and marriage tends to deliver more security, more commitment, and more trust than the alternatives for guys.
Something that’s worth I think noting about sex is it looks like couples who are married are more likely to invest in one another in a whole variety of ways, financially, practically, but, also, sexually, and so if you’re stably married, there’s an incentive and an orientation to try to figure out what your spouse likes and to do that, so to be more sensitive to your partner in the bedroom is just one way of understanding this finding.
Brett McKay: Right. The report that just came out about men and marriage, I mean it did state that married and cohabiting men have more sex than single men, which makes sense. If you’re single, you don’t have a sexual partner there. But cohabiting men typically have more sex than married men, but they report the quality of sex not to be that great.
Brad Wilcox : Right. It’s important to note actually, cohabiting men have the most sex, followed then by married men, and followed finally by single guys, but, again, when it comes to reports of the quality, both the emotional quality of the sex and the physical quality of sex, we see that married men tend to do better than both their cohabiting and single peers. Again, I think you might think about sex as something that’s more exotic, whatever else, is going to be the most exciting or the best sex, but if you look at sex in general, again, what we’re finding is the guys who are doing it in married context are more likely to report that they’re happy with both the emotional and physical quality of that sex.
Brett McKay: What about the physical and mental health benefits of marriage for men?
Brad Wilcox : We know that men who are married tend to be in better physical health and better emotional health, so, for instance, if you look at recent data among guys in their twenties and thirties, and ask them if they’re very happy with life, what we find is that guys who are younger men, again men between twenty and thirty-eight, are about twice as likely to say that they’re very happy with life if they’re married, versus single or cohabiting. It’s a pretty strong association there in some recent data from the general social survey.
Then when it comes to physical health, we know that guys tend to do better on a whole bunch of outcomes. They tend to be less stressed. Their immune systems tend to function better, and they tend to recover from things like cancer more quickly and more commonly if they’re married. It looks like guys live about nine years longer if they’re stably married than their single or divorced peers, and so if you’re the kind of guy, for instance, who likes to smoke, it looks like the positive health affects of a stable marriage are comparable to the negative health effects of smoking a pack a day, so if you are a smoker, it looks like stable marriage can offset the health effects of regularly smoking. That’s just one example of the power of marriage.
You hear a lot obviously today about smoking and health. I think what’s striking is how little we hear about the power of marriage to help men enjoy both psychologically and physically healthier lives.
Brett McKay: There’s a lot of statistics coming out showing that younger people, millennials, they’re not necessarily remaining single. They’re doing a lot of cohabiting. They’re not getting married. What is it about marriage compared to cohabitation, that gives you these benefits. A lot of people would argue that, “When you’re married, things don’t really change from just living with your partner. All you have now is a piece of paper from the state that says you’re officially a couple.” What is it about marriage that provides these benefits that you probably can’t get cohabiting?
Brad Wilcox : Marriage is really profoundly different than cohabitation. A lot of people think about marriage as being just a piece of paper, but I think one way to think about the difference between the two relationships is think about the terms of entry. What’s interesting, when you ask people when they began to cohabitate, if you asked that question of both partners, oftentimes you’ll get a different answer, because one partner might count that moment when they started spending three nights a week together and the other partner might count that moment when one of the partners moved all of their possessions into their apartment, but the point is there isn’t one particular moment that marks that entry into cohabitation for many couples.
By contrast, everybody knows their wedding date, and it’s usually a situation where you are getting married in front of friends and family members, often in some kind of religious institution, and you’ve got music. You have vows. You have people who are looking at you entering into this new relationship. It’s just a very different way of starting a relationship, and one is much more public and social than the other.
That different entry is just one example of the way in which marriage I think conveys a lot more seriousness, a lot more commitment, and those things then engender more trust, more emotional security, and much more stability. We see today in America, and really around the world, that married couples tend to enjoy much more stability than their cohabiting peers.
Again, some people are under this misimpression that the only difference between the two things is this piece of paper, but because marriage is a much more committed institution, both individuals, couples, and their larger community of friends and family tend to view a married relationship much differently than a cohabiting one, and it affects how they view their own relationship and how other people trust them.
For instance, folks who are married are much more likely to get financial support and assistance from their parents or their in-laws, so to speak, than couples who are cohabiting, because the parents have more confidence that that support will be going to the couple and any kids that they might have on a more permanent basis.
Another example, practical example is that guys who are married tend to save hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, on car insurance compared to their peers who are cohabiting or single. Again, this is because companies have done the numbers and find there’s something about marriage that tends to make guys drive more safely, and that’s just one other indication of the way in which marriage is really a distinctive institution, even today for today’s men.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I thought that was interesting, your point about how cohabitation, the date of entry into the relationship is different for everybody. It’s fluid. We had Dr. Meg Jay on the podcast several years ago. She wrote the book, The Defining Decade. She talks about cohabitation as you’re sliding into a relationship. You’re not really making a firm commitment. You’re just going with the flow and it just sort of happens, and something about that doesn’t provide the stability of making a firm commitment.
Brad Wilcox : Yeah. Cohabitation today gives young adults a lot of freedom and flexibility, and it’s obviously appealing and attractive in some ways, but the flip side to that is it doesn’t have the same degree of commitment and the same degree of security. At our deepest levels and in our most vulnerable moments, we really want someone who is there for us, where there isn’t that freedom to leave if you’re not that happy in the relationship at one moment in time.
Of course, the other thing that’s important to put on the table here as well is that today a lot of younger adults are cohabiting and having kids in those cohabiting relationships, and that is I think the most worrisome thing I would say about cohabitation, because those relationships are much less stable than are married relationships. People who are having their kids in a married relationship are much more likely to go the distance with their kids compared to couples who are having a baby in a cohabiting relationship. Again, marriage gives not just adults, but especially kids, a stability premium that’s really valuable to the next generation.
Brett McKay: Yeah. You did a report awhile back ago about the rise of unmarried couples who are having children. I mean besides the lack of stability, what some of the other detriments that that cohabitation poses to children?
Brad Wilcox : Well, kids in cohabiting relationships are, one, more likely to experience instability. Two, they’re more likely to see their parents be physically violent with one another, I think partly because their parents are less likely to have that commitment and trust guiding their relationship, and kids in cohabiting households are more likely to sense that that trust and commitment isn’t as strong or as publicly noted for their parents as it might be for say friends down the block, so to speak.
There are just a variety of ways in which, because it entails less commitment and less trust, and, also, actually less sexual fidelity, it’s not as ideal for child rearing as marriage is.
It’s, also, to note that in all of this, that it’s not just a marriage license that matters. It’s, also, a marriage mentality I think that matters. What I would say is couples who really think of themselves as married, or think of themselves in terms of we, not me, or of we, not I, who think about their marriage of terms of this is a kind of permanent commitment, not a commitment that’s for as long as I shall love, it’s those couples who are more committed to marriage and to a lifelong love, also, tend to, not surprisingly, enjoy more stable relationships. They tend to be happier in their relationships, and they tend to invest more in one another, practically, financially, emotionally in ways that resound to long term typically to both their own benefit, to the benefit of their spouse and to the benefit of their kids as well.
Again, when we’re talking about marriage, it’s not just the law. It’s not just the license. It’s, also, whether or not a couple really embraces what I would call a marriage mentality, shapes their odds of enjoying the highest quality relationship.
Brett McKay: What’s the state of marriage in America today? Is it still a goal for a lot of people, or is it becoming pushed to the wayside?
Brad Wilcox : I think marriage is in a weird spot, because, on the one hand, I think that marriage remains the gold standard. It remains the ideal, but in the pop culture with shows like Bachelor and Bachelorette, with music and movies, I think we often have an overly idealized vision of marriage, as this soulmate relationship or this romantic relationship, where you can signal to your partner, and to your friends, and to yourself that you’ve made it emotionally, relationship wise, even financially oftentimes today.
The problem with that view is it doesn’t appreciate I think the practical character of marriage, and demands that marriage puts upon us. Marriage, of course, for most of us, is not an easy relationship. It’s really oftentimes a pretty hard one to be in, a relationship with someone day in and day out, with all of their faults and failings and with all of your own faults and failings.
I think what’s missing oftentimes today is an appreciation of the way in which marriage is a difficult undertaking, but nevertheless, one that’s really important and valuable, both for us adults, for our children, and for our communities and even the country, because when marriage is strong, we see that kids are more likely to flourish. Communities are more likely to be healthy and thriving. Even our own research suggests that states with stronger marriage cultures tend to do better, for instance, economically than states that don’t have that strong marriage culture.
In terms of talking about the character of marriage, I would say, on the plus side, marriage still is an important part of American ideals, and it’s, also, the case on the plus side, that we’ve actually seen divorce come down since the height of the divorce revolution in the 1970s and 1980s, and particularly among college educated Americans, stable marriage really is the defining feature of family life.
The problem though when it comes to marriage is that we do see a growing marriage divide in the United States. Working class and poor Americans today are less likely to get and stay married. I think partly because they have this soulmate view of marriage that everything has to be perfect for them to either get married or stay married, and partly because they have few economic resources to navigate married life, and then we’re also seeing, too, that a lot of younger adults are needlessly postponing marriage, because they have this idealized soulmate model of marriage that makes them expect perhaps too much of both themselves and potential partners before they go into marriage.
Those are some of the things that indicate the way in which marriage is not as strong or as powerful as it used to be, and my biggest concern I guess in terms of looking at more negative trends related to marriage and family life is that a large share of younger folks, particularly are having kids outside of marriage. About 40% of babies now are born outside of marriage, and that is associated with a lot of instability for those kids and a number of negative outcomes for those children.
Brett McKay: There’s a lot to unpack there. First, the divorce rate being high amongst working class, high school educated Americans. Is there anything that can be done? Is there any research backed moves that can be done to help that, improve that?
Brad Wilcox : I think there are really two big things that could be done. One is on the economic front, to do more both in the marketplace and in our public policies to strengthen job opportunities for men who don’t have college degrees. For instance, we could do I think a much better job in terms of vocational training and apprenticeships on the public policy side of the ledger, and that would help make working class men, less educated men more economically attractive I think as husbands, both in their partner’s eyes and, also, in their own eyes, which is important.
On the cultural side of things, I think it’s important to stress that we need to do more in terms of public messaging. I think we have with smoking, for instance, and in the popular culture, in our movies, our TV shows, our songs, now our vines, to basically show the power of marriage for younger adults, the way in which marriage, even though it’s demanding and difficult, does provide us with so many important social goods and personal goods, and then, also, just to stress if you’re expecting a child, if you’re looking to have a child, really the best thing you can do for that child is to be married before your child comes along, and then do everything you can to remain married once you have kids.
To get those messages out I think to the broader culture and in ways that are accessible and engaging would be really helpful in strengthening marriage and stability of family life in working class and poor communities.
Brett McKay: Are there any pop culture examples where you feel like they’re doing a good job with that?
Brad Wilcox : That’s a good question. I mean I think This is Us is one example of a recent show that does a good job of that, and I think that there are others out there, but I don’t have a bunch of those at the tip of my fingers here.
Brett McKay: You, also, mentioned that young people are putting off marriage longer and longer. I think it’s the highest since I think like the 1930s, the age of marriage. It was really low in the post-war era. People were getting married in their early twenties, and a lot of people feel like they need to put off marriage until they have a job, they finish college, et cetera. Is that necessarily the case? Do you have to be financially stable in order to start a marriage, or is it okay to start a marriage when you’re poor, broke college students?
Brad Wilcox : Certainly I mean I know plenty of folks who have gotten married in graduate school when they were relatively broke and have done well, but I guess what I would say is generally speaking, it’s valuable to have at least some experience in the workforce before getting married. I would definitely say having had at least a year of stable work is a good thing to have under your belt before you go ahead and get married, and we do know from both the perspective of the man and of the woman, that particularly his stable employment is a major predictor of her willingness to go ahead and get married, and then, also, the stability of their marriage after that wedding day.
I think it’s important to do all that you can to find some kind of work. It doesn’t have to be a job that’s bringing in six figures, but I think having had some experience in the labor force can be helpful for grounding people before they go ahead and get married.
Brett McKay: Is there an age where it’s too late, like the longer you put off marriage, does it get harder to actually settle down and find a partner?
Brad Wilcox : Well, I think it certainly is somewhat harder for folks after they turn 30 to get married, and particularly as they approach their forties and beyond to marry. It’s interesting. When you look at the link between age at marriage and divorce, and the age at marriage and marital quality, you see somewhat different patterns in terms of what’s the ideal age to get married.
When it comes to divorce, it looks like the ideal age to get married is in your late twenties or early thirties. That’s when you see the lowest divorce rates for the average American. When it comes to marital quality, we actually have a different story, and there it looks like getting married in your mid-twenties is ideal, so couples that get married in their mid-twenties report the highest levels of martial quality.
I think the conclusion that I would draw from that is that getting married a little bit older might be associated with a mature orientation that is itself linked to a somewhat lower divorce risk, but getting married in your mid-twenties allows you as a couple to establish a common life together, and that tradition of vacations, or holidays, or even having kids and establishing an agreed upon approach to work and professional life can be good.
Brett McKay: Right. In your research, have you come across anything about attributes or qualities that people should have before they go into a marriage? I get a lot of letters from guys asking me, “I’m in my mid-twenties. I’m thinking about getting married, but all my friends say I’m too young. How do I know if I’m ready for marriage?”
You mentioned having a little bit of working experience comes in handy, but anything else that lets you know you might be ready for this commitment?
Brad Wilcox : I think that guys who really do feel committed, deeply committed to this person, who want to go all out for her, that’s pretty important as an ingredient to marital success. I think guys who are willing to cut back on other friendships to some extent and focus on this relationship in particular, are, also, signaling that they’re ready for marriage. I think that guys who have made an effort to get to know their future spouse’s parents and signal their interests to them, that’s, also, a good sign.
We, also, see that couples who enjoy shared religious attendance are more likely to be doing well, both in terms of the quality of their marriages and in terms of the stability of their marriages. If you’re 22 or 23, and you’re attending a church, or a synagogue, or a mosque together, and you share that common religious orientation and commitment, that’s going to tend to ground your marriage in ways that will put you in good shape for a common future together.
Brett McKay: We’ve talked about getting married, but what do you do once you’re married? You don’t want to get divorced, because I think there’s statistics out there, research that divorce for men can just be devastating. It can devastate your finances obviously for obvious reasons, but it can, also, devastate your mental and physical health. How do you avoid that? What can men do to foster a happy marriage?
Brad Wilcox : I think one thing, of course, when it comes to marriage, that men, as do women, need to be careful. I think we often make marriage decisions based upon how attractive someone is. I’m not just saying physically, but physical characteristics. Are they funny? Are they engaging? Are they good in a social setting?
It’s easy to put on a good front in public and we’re out on dates and things like that, but I think we have to be discerning about whether or not this person has the character. Do they have virtues like fidelity? Do they have virtues like charity? Do they have virtues like thrift, today especially, because those virtues are going to be much more predictive of a stable, happy marriage than looks, or humor, or whatnot.
I think one needs to be thinking about do we have the kind of virtues and the kind of common interests, whether it’s sports, or politics, or hiking, or religion, whatever, that will help ground a marital friendship. Couples that have those virtues and that have those common interests, who can see themselves as friends when they’re 75, old and ugly, will tend to do pretty well. By contrast, couples who I think are just drawn together by that sexual, romantic attraction are more likely to run into trouble.
But then once you are married, I would say that generosity is certainly an important predictor of marital success. Shared faith can be an important predictor of marital success. Also, particularly the husband having a stable job. All these things tend to reduce the risk of divorce for couples after the wedding day.
Brett McKay: Love with your heart and your head is what you’re saying.
Brad Wilcox : Yeah. I would, also, add that your friends matter a great deal, and I can remember reading that when Mark Sanford got into marital trouble down in South America, he was with a bunch of his male buddies at this ranch in South America, and that’s when he met the woman who helped break up his marriage, with whom he had that affair, but I was just thinking those guys clearly were not invested in his marriage.
By contrast, we all know friends who take our marriage, who take our family life pretty seriously, and so I think it’s, also, important to think about the kinds of people you’re hanging out with. Are they there for you, and for your wife, and your marriage, or are they likely to say things and do things that are going to put your marriage at risk? Again, we know that your social networks, they matter for a lot of things. One of the things that they matter for is your divorce risk, and if you have a friendship network that takes marriage seriously, that’s going to have a big impact on your own marriage.
Brett McKay: Great. Let’s shift to fatherhood now. I think all of us have read or heard somewhere that fathers are important in a child’s development, but what specifically does a father bring to a child that a mother can’t bring?
Brad Wilcox : I was raised by a single mother, and I think that moms can do many of the things that dads can do, particularly in some kind of difficult situation, as my mom was put in when my father died when I was three. Moms can be firm. They can be decent disciplinarians. They can certainly play with their kids and all those things, but, having said that, I think it’s important for us to understand, in the average family, with the average father and the average mother, dads tend to excel in at least four different areas.
They tend to still today excel when it comes to bread winning, and, of course, that matters for educating your kids, paying for kids’ extracurriculars, all the kinds of financial things that go into raising children today. The fact that he brings typically more money to the table is still an important factor for the average American father.
Secondly though, dads, also, tend to have a leg up … This is, again, more of an old school point, but a leg up when it comes to discipline. The physical size of men, the tone of their voice, and other kinds of features of men make them more likely to be the more authoritative disciplinarian in the average family. They’re, also, more likely to be sticklers for rules than our moms.
My point is not to say that men are better disciplinarians than women, but they provide a different kind of discipline to their kids than do moms, and it’s actually good for kids to experience maternal discipline, which is a little bit more flexible oftentimes, a little bit less attentive to rules and more attentive to the situation, but, also, to experience dad’s discipline, which tends to be a less flexible and more rule based and whatnot. Kids get I think a valuable experience by having both those styles of discipline.
Thirdly, moving beyond those traditional points about men as bread winners and men as disciplinarians in the home, we, also, are seeing today that when it comes to play, the power of play in kids’ lives, that dads tend to be more likely to challenge their kids to rough and engaging physical play. If you go to a local playground, for instance, a local park, you’re more likely to see the dad of that toddler taking that toddler and throwing him up into the air, catching him, to the toddler’s squeals and laughter, and then doing that over again. Mom is much more likely to attend to the toddler’s physical well being and security.
That kind of approach to play is great for kids. In fact, we know that kids who roughhouse with their dads tend to be more socially popular in elementary school than kids who don’t do a lot of roughhousing with their dads, so learning how to handle their bodies and not bite, kick, punch, et cetera in that roughhousing context I think seems to have some impact on kids’ interactions on the playground and other places.
Then, fourth, we know that dads do tend to push their sons and their daughters to embrace life’s challenges and life’s opportunities, to push them out of the nest, if you will, and so both, again, young men and young women who have come from well fathered homes, are more likely to flourish in school and they’re more likely to flourish in the labor force. There’s even almost a feminist case to make for having a good dad in the picture, because he tends to help his sons and his daughters prepare for the world outside the home.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Dads can provide a lot of benefits to children, but do men get any benefits, emotional, psychological, or otherwise from being dads?
Brad Wilcox : I think for many men, fatherhood is enormously generative, and there’s certainly ways in which I think when you are a father, you can be stressed out. You can be temporarily unhappy by whatever challenge you’re facing in terms of a child up at night or a teenage daughter or son who is giving you a lot of difficulty at home, but from a longer term perspective, we see that dads more likely to report that their lives are meaningful compared to men who don’t have kids, and so I think it’s that sense of meaning and purpose that one derives from fatherhood that is enormously important to many of us men.
Brett McKay: You make a distinction between meaningfulness and happiness, because I’ve seen that study that shows that couples who have children, their happiness level goes through this trough. When they have kids and kids leave their home, it goes back up. I guess that’s tracking emotional happiness, like how well you feel on a day to day basis, not meaningfulness.
Brad Wilcox : Yeah. I think, also, it’s important to note that there is a lot of what we call heterogeneity or a lot of variation in the impact that kids have on couples and on the individual mothers and fathers, but for many people, having a kid can be obviously stressful and difficult, and it’s particularly that first child that seems to be something that reorients your whole life and makes you transition into a new mode.
What’s interesting, I think, and surprising though is that work that I’ve done with some colleagues suggests that married fathers of larger families, four or more kids, seem to be more happily married than married dads with fewer kids. Frankly, that could be entirely a selection effect, by which I mean the kids of men who are stably married and have lots of kids, may just be more likely to enjoy family life, more likely to be intentional about investing on the home front, but it does suggest to us that it’s not necessarily the number of kids always, but maybe the approach one takes to family life that seems to be important here.
Brett McKay: Are women with large families just as happy as men? I imagine they’re the ones at home watching the kids probably.
Brad Wilcox : In a report that The National Marriage Project did called When Baby Makes Three, we found that when it came to happiness in marriage, that married couples with no kids and with four or more kids were happier, and this is true for both husbands and wives. Again, it’s not clear here if having a large family makes you happier. I think it’s actually probably more likely it’s the kinds of couples who remain stably married and have lots of kids. They’re probably just more intentional about family vacations, family traditions, really investing in their common life together as a family, doing fun things, crazy things, et cetera, are probably just the kinds of people who just end up having more children and reporting happier marriages as a consequence.
Brett McKay: Is there any research out there about when a couple knows when they’re ready to have children, like other attributes that a couple should have before they’re like, “Okay, we’re going to bring a kid into this relationship?”
Brad Wilcox : I haven’t seen anything really good on that score. I think that coming from my perspective, once you’ve made that commitment to marry and gotten married, and you have both sets of in-laws, in a sense, in your corner, you may be ready to go ahead and have that child, but I honestly haven’t seen anything that really looks carefully at the timing of childbirth and its impact on the quality or stability of married life for couples.
Brett McKay: I’m just curious. Is there any piece of research that you came across or have done that the result surprised you in terms of men and marriage and men and fatherhood, where you weren’t expecting this result, but you got it and like, “Wow. This is crazy.”
Brad Wilcox : The thing that’s most surprised me is that we’ve done some work internationally, a number of colleagues and I have, and I assumed that across the world, kids are more likely to be flourishing in school if they were part of a stably married family, and what we found is that in parts of the developing world, and parts of Latin America, and Southern Africa, and in Southern Asia, that wasn’t always the case. Sometimes kids would do as well or better if they were being raised by a single mother.
As I explored that issue with some colleagues, what it looks like it might be is that in some places, there’s not a great expectation for the father to be really involved with his kids’ education or to devote his money to the kids’ education. In those contexts, perhaps having a father in the household isn’t always going to be helpful on the educational front.
That was eye opening for me, just basically signaled that when we’re thinking about something like marriage and family structure, we, also, have to attend to the culture and to the family process. A culture that basically encourages men to be considerate, responsible, self-sacrificing husbands and fathers is going to be one where I think, generally speaking, women and children are more likely to flourish, but if a culture encourages men to be more macho or not to really attend in deep ways to their wife or to their children, we can’t expect that the presence of a father will typically always be linked to better outcomes for women or children.
Brett McKay: What’s the state of American fatherhood today? I mean has it changed? What we expect from dads, has it changed from say 1950s? What’s the cultural expectation, I guess, of dads?
Brad Wilcox : Yeah. In terms of American fatherhood today, I would say it’s the best of times and it’s the worst of times, and a lot of whether it’s the best of times for kids, the worst of times for kids, depends upon your zip code. If you’re in a zip code that’s more affluent and more educated, or more religious, you’re in a place where typically fathers are spending more time with their kids than ever, and in some ways are more affectionate and more attentive to their children than ever, and in many respects, that’s obviously a good thing.
But if you’re in other zip codes, it’s true for African American kids, White kids, Hispanic kids, you’re going to find a world where dads are not stably connected to their children. They don’t necessarily live with their kids. They often might not see their kids on a weekly basis, and in those working class and poor zip codes, in some ways it’s the worst of times for American fatherhood, because kids are not able to have strong, and stable, and abiding connections to their fathers. They don’t wake up in the morning with dad next to them or dad in the next room, and those kids are more likely to flounder in school, and more likely to end up incarcerated, more likely to have difficulty in the labor force, because they didn’t have the opportunity or the privilege of having a good relationship, a stable relationship with their dad.
The picture for American fatherhood really is pretty schizophrenic, if you will.
Brett McKay: Part of what you’re doing with your work with The Institute of Family Studies and The Marriage Project is to help provide policy suggestions to promote marriage. We talked about that, but anything that your Institute has suggested for policy changes to encourage fatherhood or that ideal of fatherhood that you’re striving for?
Brad Wilcox : I think in terms of public policy measures, it’s important to note that at the end of the day, what happens probably in Los Angeles is more important than what happens in Washington, DC, to recognize that the culture, pop culture has a bigger role in affecting how Americans approach family life than does what happens up on Capital Hill, and Washington, DC, or in the White House.
But having said that, I think it’s important to recognize that we could do I think a better job on the policy front, and I think in particular there are two things that we could do better. One is I think, as I mentioned before, just do a better job of educating young women and young men who are not on that college track in terms of better vocational education, better apprenticeship training, better efforts to connect them to jobs out there that pay a decent wage, whether it’s being a plumber, being an electrician, doing advanced IT or advanced manufacturing, or some other kind of job that pays a good wage and makes our young adults more likely to be good prospects for marriage.
A second point that I think is just to think very seriously and deeply about the way in which our welfare system … I’m using welfare in the broadest possible sense of that word, may unintentionally discourage or penalize marriage, and so because we do have income thresholds, if you will, where if your income goes above a certain threshold, you tend to lose access to some kinds of assistance or it tends to taper. What that means is that in practice, policies like Medicaid, or Food Stamps, or in fewer cases, cash welfare, could end up subtly I think discouraging or necessarily discouraging marriage.
Talking to people, working class couples who say, “We’re thinking about marriage, but we’re concerned, too, that we’re going to lose access to Medicaid if we go ahead and get married,” and that can be a big obviously concern when you’re having a child or when you already have one or two kids.
From a public policy vantage point, I think we should do more to try to minimize or eliminate the marriage penalty facing working class and poor families as one way to make our public policies more marriage friendly.
Brett McKay: Brad, this has been a great conversation. We scratched the surface. Where can people learn more about your work?
Brad Wilcox : I think the best place to go to really understand the work, The Institute for Family Studies is Family-Studies.org on the internet. I’m, also, on Twitter at WilcoxNMP, and those are two good places to learn more about the research that we’re doing on marriage, cohabitation and fatherhood, both in America and around the globe.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Brad Wilcox, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Brad Wilcox : It’s great to be on with you today, Brett.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Brad Wilcox. He’s the Director of The National Marriage Project. You can find more information about that at NationalMarriageProject.org. He, also, works with The Institute of Family Studies, and you can find more information about them at Family-Studies.org, and you can download that study about men and marriage there that we referenced. Go check that out.
Also, make sure to check out the show notes at AOM.IS/MenandMarriage, where you can find links to resources that will be discussing this topic, so you can delve deeper into this topic.
That wraps another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at ArtofManliness.com. This show is recorded on ClearCast.IO. If you’re a podcaster, go check it out. It was developed to make recording remote podcasts a lot easier and sound better for your listeners.
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Until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.
Last updated: March 8, 2017