in: Family, People, Podcast

• Last updated: March 9, 2024

Podcast #967: Busting the Myths of Marriage — Why Getting Hitched Still Matters

The marriage rate has come down 65% since 1970. There are multiple factors behind this decrease, but one of them is what we might call the poor branding that surrounds marriage in the modern day. From all corners of our culture and from both ends of the ideological spectrum come messages that marriage is an outdated institution, that it hinders financial success and personal fulfillment, and that it’s even unimportant when it comes to raising kids.

My guest would say that these ideas about marriage are very wrong, and he doesn’t come at it from an emotionally-driven perspective, but from what’s born out by the data. Dr. Brad Wilcox is a sociologist who heads the nonpartisan National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, which studies marriage and family life. He’s also the author of Get Married. Today on the show, Brad discusses the latest research on marriage and how it belies the common narratives around the institution. We dig into the popular myths around marriage, and how it not only boosts your finances, but predicts happiness in life better than any other factor. Brad also shares the five pillars of marriage that happy couples embrace.

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast.

The marriage rate has come down 65% since 1970. There are multiple factors behind this decrease, but one of them is what we might call the poor branding that surrounds marriage in the modern day. From all corners of our culture, and from both ends of the ideological spectrum, come messages that marriage is an outdated institution, that it hinders financial success and personal fulfillment, that it’s even unimportant when it comes to raising kids.

My guest would say that these ideas about marriage are very wrong, and he doesn’t come at it from an emotionally-driven perspective, but from what’s borne out by the data. Dr. Brad Wilcox is a sociologist who heads the non-partisan National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, which studies marriage and family life. He’s also the author of Get Married. Today on the show, Brad discusses the latest research on marriage and how it belies the common narratives around the institution. We dig into the popular myths around marriage and how it not only boosts your finances, but predicts happiness in life better than any other factor. Brad also shares the five pillars of marriage that happy couples embrace. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at

Alright. Brad Wilcox, welcome back to the show.

Brad Wilcox: Brett, it’s great to be here.

Brett McKay: So you are a sociologist who spends a lot of time researching and writing about marriage, particularly the benefits of marriage and family life. You got a new book out called Get Married, and you start off the book saying that the impetus behind this book is to counter what you see as an anti-marriage narrative in popular culture. What are some examples of this narrative that you’re seeing?

Brad Wilcox: Yeah, Brett, it’s actually funny, when I was finishing up the last-minute touches on the book, one article came across my Twitter screen. It was trending on Twitter. It was an article in Bloomberg that said women who stay single and don’t have kids are getting richer. And so the headline was giving the impression that steering clear of marriage and motherhood was the way to go for women financially, but also gave us lots of stories of single women who are childless, living their best life. And so I think both the financial story told in this story in Bloomberg and the emotional story being told were encouraging them to steer clear of marriage and motherhood, for a bunch of reasons. We’ve seen articles like The Case Against Marriage published in The Atlantic, articles like Divorce Can Be an Act of Radical Self-Love published recently in The New York Times.

So these are just some of the examples that we see in the media, for instance, that give us what I would call a profoundly anti-nuptial or anti-marriage message. You think about the pop culture more generally and mainstream television shows and movies, I think what you often see in everything from that show Friends back in the day, to a lot of the Chicago series on NBC, is a kind of message that your 20s are your years to have fun and focus on career. And then maybe as you approach 30 or 35, you would begin to think about settling down and getting married and having kids. But there’s an implicit message, too, I think, in the pop culture and certain precincts in the elite culture that are encouraging young adults to just postpone marriage or forego marriage and focus instead on career and having fun in your free time. So that’s also, I think, part and parcel of what I’m worried about in terms of giving people the wrong idea.

Brett McKay: Well, you mentioned some of these articles in these magazines, they focused on women staying single and the benefits of that. But you’re also seeing the same sort of thing about men. Men shouldn’t get married.

Brad Wilcox: Yeah, so what’s striking here, I think, is when I began this project, I was thinking about being in conversation primarily with more elite voices on the left that tend to dominate a lot of mainstream media and academia and pop culture to some extent. But now, we’re getting this from the online right as well. And Pearl Davis is one figure that’s got a big following online. She has said that marriage is a death sentence for men. And then you have, of course, Andrew Tate is a very big voice in the manosphere who’s also arguing that marriage has no ROI, no return on investment, for men. He says, “The problem is, there is zero advantage to marriage in the Western world for a man.” And then he goes on to say, “It’s very common that women divorce their husbands.” So what the left has been telling us is that, really, marriage and motherhood can be a bad deal for women. We’re now hearing, though, from the opposite end of the ideological spectrum that marriage is a bad deal for guys. And of course, the common takeaway, sadly, I would say, for young adults is that, “Maybe I should just steer clear of opening my heart to love, to marriage, and family.”

Brett McKay: Yeah, and as a sociologist, you actually research what happens when people get married. We’re gonna talk about… Actually, there’s a lot of benefits when you get married and settle down. But one thing you talk about, what both of these strains of thought have in common, these anti-marriage, anti-family life, strains of thought, whether it’s coming from the left or the right, is that they both have what you call a Midas view of life. What do you mean by the Midas view of life?

Brad Wilcox: So Brett, I gotta give all credit to my wife. I was asking her, “How can I think about some kind of fable or story that would convey the way in which people can become too attached to work or money or whatever else?”, and she said, “What about the King Midas story?” And of course, it’s a great example. I’ve updated the Midas story for a public lecture on the book. But the idea here is that people are thinking that they should be searching for gold and trying to build their own brand. It’s about education, money, and above all, career. We’ve got a lot of data from Pew, especially, telling us that Americans, even parents, Brett, unfortunately are prioritizing for their children, education and career over marriage down the road. It’s just very short-sighted. I think they’re gonna be really regretting that emphasis when they’re 75 years old and there are no grandkids on the horizon.

So, we see that, but again, a lot of data from Pew that Americans think that money and education, especially work, are the way to go. So ax recent Pew study found that 71% of Americans thought that having a job or a career they can enjoy is the path to fulfillment. Only 23% said that being married was the way to go. So it just gives you a sense of this Midas mindset, where all the action is in work and money and building your own brand, and the sort of idea is that investing in marriage and family is the wrong path, and you should instead kind of be free. Free of all the encumbrances that come from settling down, putting a ring on it.

Brett McKay: Yeah. So the idea out there, both in the culture and in the media, is that marriage will hurt your financial life. That’s the message that’s out there. But that actually isn’t the case.

Brad Wilcox: Yeah, so that Bloomberg headline was just completely bananas and was [chuckle] so wrong. I mean, they were relying upon data of just… Taken from singles, they’ve had a study on singles, and somehow they got to this conclusion that summed up that marriage is a bad thing for women. What we actually see is that women who are married, and men, of course, too, are more likely to be flourishing financially. In fact, in their 50s, both women and men have about 10 times the assets heading towards retirement compared to their single peers. So, ironically, both Andrew Tate and Bloomberg should be discounted for folks who are worrying about financial security or prosperity. Because for the average American, the path to prosperity tends to run through marriage and not away from it. But my point, of course, is that there’s a lot more to life than money, and so what we see is that marriage, again, more than career, is a much stronger predictor of American’s happiness in ways that I think that a lot of people would be surprised by.

Brett McKay: So what’s the state of marriage today in America? Are people marrying less?

Brad Wilcox: So, yeah, so, I’ve got bad news in the report and good news. And the good news is kind of what I was just hinting at is that when it comes to loneliness, when it comes to meaning, when it comes to happiness, Americans who are married, both men and women, are markedly happier. They’re less lonely, they report more meaningful lives, especially if they have children in the picture when it comes to meaning. That’s part of the good news. But the bad news, Brett, is that we’ve seen the marriage rate come down by about 65% since 1970. And what that means practically for young adults today, like in their 20s, is we’re projecting that about one in three of them will never marry. And we’ve never been in this territory where so many Americans will be permanent bachelors and permanent bachelorettes. And that’s cause for concern for me, just because, again, what we see is that for ordinary Americans, typically, they’re just more likely to be thriving if they have a co-pilot to travel through life with.

Brett McKay: So one thing you talk about in the book is that while there’s been a big decrease in marriage overall, and for a lot of people, marriage isn’t thriving, your research has found that there are four groups where marriage is still thriving. What are those four groups?

Brad Wilcox: Yeah, in terms of again, the good news, we do kind of see some groups in America today who are, generally speaking, flourishing in their marriages, who are more likely to get married, stay married often, and be happily married. And those four groups are Asian-Americans, religious Americans, I call them the faithful in the book, college-educated Americans, I call them strivers in the book, folks who kind of have more of that focus long-term, work, profession, career, et cetera. And then the fourth group is conservatives. And to be frank, Brett, I didn’t anticipate having conservatives as a separate category. I thought as we crunched numbers, I’d find that being Asian-American, being religious, being college-educated, that these three groups in their own ways would be kind of more likely to be married in America today, among other things. But I found, in crunching the numbers, that when you included ideology in the statistics, you still found that there’s a net effect, a unique effect, of being conservative, ideologically speaking, that boosted your odds of being married and also being happily married, even controlling for factors like religion.

So, that’s why I have four groups in the book. And each of those four groups, Brett, a majority of them, if you compare them to the alternative groups, are married. So for instance, a majority of college-educated Americans, 18 to 55, are married. Only a minority today of less-educated working-class and poor Americans are married. A majority of conservatives are married. Only a minority of moderates and liberals are married. Asian-Americans and the likes are typically majority married. And then Black and Hispanic Americans, only a minority of them are married.

Brett McKay: Okay. And then for the ideology aspect, how do you define what is conservative?

Brad Wilcox: So there’s just… On social surveys, like the general social survey, which we use a lot for this book project, people are just asked, “Are you very liberal? Liberal? Moderate? Conservative? Very conservative?” And we also had a question like that in a YouGov survey that we did for the book of up to about 2000 husbands and wives, where we just categorized people as liberal or conservative.

Brett McKay: Gotcha.

Brad Wilcox: And we found that conservatives are more likely, again, to be married and to be happily married compared to moderates and liberals. Now, what’s interesting about the ideology story there is it’s a little bit complicated. So, it turns out that very liberal Americans, and I did a piece in the New York Times on this a little while ago, are relatively happier, looking at women. So very liberal women are relatively happier than sort of ordinary wives in America, sort of in the liberal to moderate category. But conservative and very conservative women are even happier. So, what I call a J-curve in marital happiness when it comes to women’s marital happiness, and where, again, the very liberal women are a little bit happier than the norm, and then the conservative, American conservative women, are even happier. We see a similar trend, actually it’s fascinating, looking at new Gallup study that we published in Family Studies a few months ago, when it comes to teens reports of the quality of their parent-child relationship. So, teens in variable households are a little bit happier than the norm, And then teens in conservative, especially very conservative, homes, are even happier.

And it’s just kind of surprising. And this Gallup study suggests that maybe the story there is that conservative parents tend to be a bit more authoritative, have clear roles and expectations and consequences for their kids, and that actually teens are more likely to thrive in a context where maybe there’s a clear curfew, maybe there are clearer consequences for getting your chores done or your homework done in conservative homes, and actually, those kinds of boundaries, as long as they’re coupled with an affectionate and engaged style, tend to work out well for kids.

Brett McKay: Can these demographics cross over? So for example, imagine you’re a college-educated or highly-educated, tend to be, I don’t know if the survey says or the research shows this, tend to be more liberal. Is that true?

Brad Wilcox: So yeah, there are cross-cutting… Yeah, that’s a great question. There are cross-cutting pressures here and then they’re overlapping. So I talked to a conservative, religious, Indian-American, well-educated guy for the book. So he would be checking all the boxes, and he and his wife are doing well, and they’ve got three kids who’ve done really well as well. So, there are examples like that. And then we also see a lot of the discussion around marriage is focused on sort of class and education. The assumption has been that college-educated Americans are more likely to be killing it when it comes to marriage. And my friend and colleague, Richard Reeves, he’s been at Brookings, he’s got a new group focusing on boys and men.

He’s kind of made the argument that college-educated Americans have these marriage-minded sort of norms and ideas, but they’re also more progressive on gender. And so that, for him, is the sweet spot. But what I actually find in my own research is that when you separate out the college-educated Americans who are conservative from those who are moderate and liberal, it’s the ones who are conservative who are most likely to be stably married and happily married. So it kind of calls into question some of Richard’s ideas about how this is all playing out. So, the bottom line is it’s sort of the most educated, most religious, and most conservative couples in America are the ones who are most likely to be stably married and happily married.

Brett McKay: Well, it’s similar to what Richard Reeves was saying. An argument that I’ve heard about marriage is that it all comes down to class and money, right? So, if you have lots of money and you’re upper to middle-class, you’re going to do fine. If you’re poor, you’re not going to do fine. What does your research show?

Brad Wilcox: Yeah. So, I’m saying there’s both a cultural story and a class story. And so, I think like Richard and I would tell very similar stories, but kind of the general class story, and there’s just having more education and more money is one big reason why we are seeing that more educated Americans are much more likely to be getting married and staying married and to be reasonably happily married. But I think where my story diverges from the one that Richard Reeves would tell us is that culturally, what we’re seeing is that more religious and more conservative couples, Asian-American couples, are more likely to be getting married and staying married oftentimes and are happily married. And so I think what they have is oftentimes a deeper sense of commitment to marriage as an institution and to the norms of marriage, norms like fidelity and not using the D word when things are tough in your marriage, obviously, divorce.

And they’re also more likely to be surrounded by peers who value marriage as well. And we know that that’s a big predictor of succeeding in marriage, too. If you’re surrounded by people who value marriage and are living more what I call family-first lifestyles, that’s going to, other things being equal, increase your odds of success. So, again, the bottom line here is that both culture and class are important in understanding marriage today, and so folks who have both more income, more education, but also an appreciation for a lot of those classic norms and values around marriage are also more likely to be succeeding at marriage today.

Brett McKay: So yeah, you spend a lot of time in the book countering what you think are some of the myths that are keeping young people from marrying or not investing enough in their marriage. And one myth is what you call the “flying solo” myth. What is the flying solo myth?

Brad Wilcox: So there’s just kind of this idea that, again, being free of entanglements, encumbrances, family obligations, is the path to happiness. That we want to keep our options open, keep our choices before us. We want to focus on our 20s on just having a good time and really investing in our career. And I talked to a number of women and men for the book who were in their mid-30s basically, and regretting the fact that they had spent their 20s focusing more on just career and fun, and now, they’re unmarried. And these two women in the Rocky Mountain West and a man in the DC far suburbs are really unmoored in some important ways. They’re kind of struggling with loneliness and a sense of meaninglessness and just wishing that they had made different choices in their 20s. And I should say, okay, well, so what I found, I found two people in America who conform to my priors. Well, the important point to make here, actually, is that we’re seeing a decline in happiness in America. And this decline is concentrated among unmarried Americans. And the biggest factor driving the drop in happiness in America, according to a recent study from the University of Chicago, is the declining rate of marriage in America.

So, a simple way to say this is like less marriage equals more unhappiness for the country at large. And I think our younger adults should just be a lot more skeptical of the messages they’re getting about the importance of freedom and choice and building your own brand and steering clear of entanglements with the opposite sex, because the people that are able to actually get married and build decent marriages are just flourishing on so many more dimensions than their peers who are not.

Brett McKay: Yeah. And a point you make in the book is that the flying solo idea, it could be great if you have lots of money and you can travel the world. But for average Americans, probably not. You’re not going to be able to do all these things ’cause you don’t have access to money. So if you really want flourishing and happiness, your best bet would be to get married.

Brad Wilcox: Correct. Right, and I profiled a professional from, I think, New York city who was kind of like living the life as a single, 30-something, high-flying guy. And he was perfectly happy. But as you were saying, there are a lot of Americans who are not traveling the world, not making a lot of money, and not killing it at work. And without the benefit of a spouse and family, life can be pretty hard. But again, what’s interesting, too, about the guy that I profiled in the suburbs of Washington, DC is that he has graduate training. He has a good job. He owns his own home. He’s making six figures. And he basically says to me as I interviewed him, he says, “I’ve got degrees in my wall. I’ve got accomplishments and certificates, but it doesn’t mean anything in the end. I have to get up every day and look in the mirror and realize I’m alone. I have nobody.” Okay? So for this guy, the Midas mindset has not worked out. He’s in his mid-30s and he is not happy. He’s not a happy camper. Now, again, I know plenty of single folks who are doing great. But I’m just saying on average, single Americans are more likely to be struggling, and married Americans are more likely to be flourishing. And that average story, unfortunately, Brett, is not being told enough in the media and certainly on social media as well.

Brett McKay: So we mentioned earlier, kind of referenced it. Your research that you’ve done has shown that married people tend to have more money, they’re happier, they’re more fulfilled. Is this a matter of causation, or correlation? Does marriage make you happier, or do happier people or people who have those attributes that can lead to a flourishing life tend to get married more often?

Brad Wilcox: That’s, I think, really the killer question, right? And so, yeah, the smart critics of the kind of argument that I’m making in the academy and in the media would talk about what we call “selection effect,” where the kinds of people who are selecting into marriage are just different. They’re more educated, they’re more affluent, they’re more… They have better social skills. And so they would say, “Brad is confusing correlation with causation here.” Yes, many people are happier, they’re more affluent, that’s because they’re already happier and more affluent to begin with. So like Matt Brunick, for instance, a progressive, says married people are less impoverished, because people who are not impoverished are more likely to get married. He says with marriage, you have an institution that attracts and retains more economically secure and stable people, not an institution that creates them. So this is a great summary of the sort of selection perspective.

But what Matt is missing, though, is just there’s still a ton of research on the way in which marriage is institution that tends to transform our lives. It doesn’t just vacuum up the elites and just put them together. Now, there’s some of that obviously happening now, but we know, for instance, of a study in Minnesota looking at identical twins and paternal twins, guys, and the twins who got married earned about 26% more than their twins who did not get married. So giving us a clear sense, it’s probably something about marriage per se that is helping to make men, and we see other evidence in the score, too, when it comes to men and marriage and work, married men work harder, they work longer hours, they’re more strategic in their job search, they’re less likely to be fired. So these are all the kinds of things that would help us to understand why marriage per se can be transformational.

And then on the happiness front, there’s work done by the economist Sean Grover and John Holliwell and the control for happiness prior to marriage, and then tracked happiness after people got married and after other people did not get married, comparing them over time. And they still found, “A causal effect on happiness at all stages of the marriage from prenuptial bliss to marriages of long duration.” And they found the biggest happiness premium was in midlife, when people in the late 40s and 50s, and we often see adult happiness at its nadir. And again, why is it that marriage is happiness-inducing? I think the point is that we are, as Aristotle said, social animals. And so, money [0:23:12.5] ____ end up being less important for us than our friendships and our family relationships, which give us opportunities to connect with others, to be with and for others. And I think important enough, to really to care for others.

And for both women and men, I think it’s important not just to be cared for, but to have opportunities to care for others. It gives our lives… Certainly, I’ll speak personally for a second. Caring for my wife and children is the most meaningful thing that I get to do. So, I just think people are not factoring in the ways that marriage and family can be so generative on so many fronts for ordinary women and men.

Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show. Well, couldn’t you get the same benefits just by cohabitating, like companionship?

Brad Wilcox: Yeah, great question. So I think if you do like just an immediate look at like people’s happiness, cohabiting and married, often not a big difference, right? But the problem is that cohabitation is much less committed. And so, what that means in practice is that couples who are cohabiting just don’t go the distance nearly as much as those who are married. So you have situations, like a former neighbor of mine, where she invested five years of her life, just like 28 to 33 and her cohabiting partner, and then he just… She kind of made it clear she wanted to get married and have kids. And he’s like, “Well, I’m not ready for that,” And so, he was gone. And [chuckle] that was pretty traumatic, because they hadn’t established that kind of joint level of commitment heading into the relationship. And so her happiness that she’d enjoyed for probably substantial share of that relationship disappeared and turned out to be fairly traumatic. And of course, divorce can happen, too, but I’m just saying that, on average, marriage is markedly more stable than cohabitation, and that’s one reason why I talk about getting married rather than getting together.

Brett McKay: Yeah. So just getting married, it adds more stakes to the relationship, I guess. You take it more serious.

Brad Wilcox: So when I’m talking about this to my students, ’cause I think the cohabitation piece is the most surprising thing that we talked about in my class at the University of Virginia, how marriage and cohabitation are different. I’m just thinking about the terms of entry, or how couples enter into these two different relationship states. When it comes to cohabitation, what you see is oftentimes, couples can’t even agree on the day when they begin cohabiting. Like you have one partner will kind of bring some things over for the weekend, maybe leave some clothes, a toothbrush, whatever. And then some more stuff like a week later, and then move in all their stuff a month later or whatever, two months later. But it’s never been… There wasn’t a discrete moment, where obviously, with a wedding, it’s pretty clear when it happens.

But more importantly, just imagine the social context that these two things are taking place in. So with cohabitation, you have… There’s no assembled multitude of friends and family in that apartment hallway. There’s no music playing in the background. There are no vows being exchanged. You bring your gear into your partner’s apartment for the first time or whatever, for the second or third time. By contrast with the wedding, obviously, everything is kind of scripted, it’s a ceremony, it’s ritualized. And human beings, we’re actually really… We tend to endow things with more meaning when we do them in a ritualized, communal context, and especially when we make public vows in a communal context. So, that just gives you some sense of how marriage and cohabitation are really different things.

Brett McKay: Okay, so flying solo, for most people, getting married is probably your best bet for happiness, fulfillment, and even economic stability. Another myth you explore that might be preventing people from investing too much in their marriage is the myth of family diversity. What do you mean by that?

Brad Wilcox: Yeah. So, particularly in my academic world, there are a lot of folks who would argue that the family isn’t any way getting weaker or marriage isn’t declining; it’s just the family is changing, and that we should embrace family diversity, a wide range of family structures, and family approaches. And that marriage per se doesn’t really matter; what really matters for kids, when it comes to flourishing, is love, and also money. Basically, families have enough love in the household and who have decent income supply are gonna be doing just perfectly. For instance, there was an article in The Atlantic where there was a professor saying that, “All of our research points to the fact that it’s the quality of the relationship that matters and the handling of communication and conflict. And the number of people in the household is not really the key.” Or Philip Cohen, a professor at Maryland, said, “If people grow up with single mothers who have adequate income, they do fine on average. What we find is they do have a lot of challenges from the lack of resources, but family structure per se is not as big a factor.” So again, the idea here is that money matters, love matter, but marriage doesn’t matter per se.

And what these, I think, perspectives don’t really acknowledge is that yes, love matters, yes, money matters, but kids in intact married households are much more likely to be flourishing on any number of fronts. They’re about twice as likely to graduate from college compared to kids from non-intact families. Boys are about twice as likely to end up in prison or in jail compared to their peers from intact families, if they’re in a non-intact family. Girls and boys in non-intact families are 50% more likely to be sad as eighth graders.

So, that’s what the facts are, and I think one of the most striking things that I discovered in looking at this data with my colleague, Dr. Wendy Wang, is that young men today are more likely to go to prison or jail than they ought to graduate from college, if they’re raised in a non-intact family. By contrast, what we see is that for boys who were raised in intact families, only 9% of them end up in prison or jail, and 38% of them are graduating from college. So, that was, for me, when it comes to kids, that was the like, “Wow.” For boys who don’t have the benefit of their unmarried parents, more likely to end up incarcerated, whereas for boys who are benefiting from both their married parents in the household, much more likely to attend and graduate from college.

Brett McKay: So you’re saying there’s a myth that’s out there that, well, it doesn’t really matter if we get married, or if we get divorced, or if there’s just a single parent in the picture. It’s not a big deal, kids will be fine. And what you’re saying is, well, maybe not.

Brad Wilcox: So yeah. And two things to be clear about. One is that I was raised by a single mom, and obviously, many kids go on to do just perfectly fine without the benefit of married parents. I can think of prominent examples like Barack Obama and Jeff Bezos, who, at least obviously professionally, have done extremely well. So I’m not saying that coming from a non-intact household is a death sentence. I’m just sort of saying that on average, kids are more likely to flourish when they have the benefit of their unmarried parents. And the other interesting piece about this is that the proponents of family diversity states about really what matters for kids is love and money. What they do not acknowledge, though, Brett, is that on average, kids who are being raised by intact married parents have access to more attention and affection from their married parents, and they have access to a heck of a lot more money than kids in other family situations. So, even on the love and money front, what we’re seeing is on average, of course, we know that there are dysfunctional intact married families out there, but on average, kids are more likely to get the love and money they need to flourish when they’re being raised by their own married parents.

Brett McKay: Well, in a point you make in the book, you point out there’s a hypocrisy you see. There’s people out there in academia and the media that say, “Well, it doesn’t matter what your family looks like, you just get divorced, whatever, the kids are gonna be fine, you’re gonna be fine.” But then you look at how those people are living their lives. They’re typically… They’re married and they’re living in an intact family.

Brad Wilcox: Yeah. I’ve got a piece coming out in The Atlantic soon talking about how our elites often talk left and walk right. And the story there basically is that I think it’s become kind of fashionable in a variety of ways to articulate your support for family diversity and to discount the importance of marriage, or even to attack it, in certain circles in academia and the media and other precincts of our culture. But it’s also, I think, a fact that prudentially, it makes sense to get married and stay married. And so, that ends up being the path that a lot of elites take, ’cause they recognize, on some level, that it’s the best thing for them and for their kids.

Brett McKay: So another thing that seems to be holding people back from getting married… This is a new one. So before, people weren’t getting married, they’d say, “Well, I’ll miss out on opportunities for my career, I need to make money, I wanna enjoy myself,” whatever. The one thing you’re seeing now, I’ve been seeing more reports of, is political polarization. What’s going on there?

Brad Wilcox: So, my colleague, Lyman Stone and I did a piece for The Atlantic talking about the growing number of young women who are moving left and the growing number of young men are moving right. Although there’s more women moving left than men moving right, but it’s creating a situation where there are many more liberal women than there are liberal men, and a bit more conservative men than there are conservative women. And that’s leading to a gap, where we would estimate about one in five young adults can’t marry someone or can’t date someone who is on the same page with them ideologically. So that’s a problem, because as I’m arguing in the book, marriage is generally a good thing for young adults and for the society at large. It’s this political polarization is one more factor making it harder for young adults to marry.

Brett McKay: Anything we can do about that?

Brad Wilcox: Well, I think one thing to do is just to recognize that what matters here for, I think, marital success is being on the same page, either religiously or in terms of some core commitments, including how you wanna do family and work. So if you meet someone who’s not on the same page as you politically but who shares basically either your faith or your broader worldview in terms of how you wanna do work and family, then I would say consider moving forward. But on the other hand, if you’re kind of not just politically at odds with one another but also have pretty different views on things like religion or on how you wanna… If you wanna have kids, how you wanna raise them, all that kind of stuff, those are really big warning signs. So I think you have distinguish between politics proper and then other things that would really bear on the warp and woof of organizing a family. And unfortunately, I have seen friends in my 20s who grew ideologically apart and then got divorced. So I’ve seen that play out in my own social circle.

Brett McKay: So something else you do in this book is you look at what families or couples that are having thriving marriages, thriving family life, do on a day-to-day basis to make them thriving. And you talk about, you mentioned earlier, they typically have a family-first approach to marriage. What does that look like on a day-to-day basis?

Brad Wilcox: Yeah, so I argue that one of the challenges facing all of us, I think, in this culture today is that sometimes we can think about marriage as kind of like the soulmate thing. It’s like, “I’m gonna find this perfect match, we’re gonna have this intense romantic and maybe sexual connection, we’re gonna fit like this perfect… We’ll have a perfect fit. And she’s gonna understand me, I’m gonna understand her perfectly. And there’s gonna be very little friction and a lot of passion and fulfillment and happiness pretty much all the time.” That’s sort of like the soulmate idea, just in a nutshell. And yet, obviously, once you’re married and in relationship with someone, you discover that she’s not perfect and you’re not perfect. And it’s often extremely difficult to get along in some days or some weeks, some months, whatever.

And by contrast, I think people recognize, realize that marriage is about more than just an emotional connection, more than just a feeling. It’s about establishing a life together, a family together, having kids, if you can, raising kids together, being there for your kin, for your parents, your wife’s parents, doing things together as a family, going trips, going to the park, going to the basketball game, whatever it is that your family does, going hunting for some, going to the beach for others. All these kind of family things end up being also important. Financial security is also part and parcel of a family-first approach to marriage. And so people kind of have a richer view of the many different goods that marriage tends to facilitate or foster are kind of pursuing what I would call a more family-first or more institutional approach to marriage.

And that, of course, is more stable than just kind of one that based on feelings, the soulmate approach. And I think what people don’t realize is it’s often happier as well, because you’re able to appreciate that your spouse and your marriage and your family are about a number of different goods, not just an intense romantic connection. And so even if you’re not necessarily firing all cylinders on the romantic side, but at some point, in your marriage, you recognize, “Oh, my husband’s a great father,” or “Oh, my wife’s a great mother,” for instance, and that is a source of satisfaction for you and for your relationship. So what I find is there’s a slight edge to that the folks have this more family-first model enjoy in marital quality, and then also, they’re less likely to be thinking about divorce compared to folks who have more of a feelings-based, soulmate approach to married life.

Brett McKay: And you get nitty-gritty with this stuff, like how these couples navigate sex, parented responsibilities, chores. What does that look like?

Brad Wilcox: So, what I’m also arguing, too, is that the what I call the “masters of marriage” tend to be more likely to embrace what I call the five pillars of marriage. And these are five C’s. One is communion, a sense of communion, in their marriage. One is proper appreciation of the role of children in marriage, if they have kids. Third C is commitment. The fourth C is cash. The fifth C is community. And so, just to take for instance, the communion piece, what I find is the couples who have regular date nights, to try to maintain that sense of romance and that emotional connection, are more likely to be flourishing both in terms of marital happiness, but also in terms of sexual satisfaction. And not surprisingly, if you’d like to have a healthy sexual life, it’s important to keep the romance alive in your marriage, and so doing fun and different and regular date nights, which can be challenging when you’ve got kids, as my wife and I do, still is important. Try to figure out that piece, I would say.

But also, in terms of community, I talked to you about a way before-me approach to life, rather than a me-first approach. And one example I give is couples who have shared checking accounts are doing better both in terms of stability but also marital quality compared to couples who have separate accounts and more of that me-first approach to money. So that’s communion. Commitment is, among other things, prioritizing the well-being of your spouse and your family, and then also concretely being attentive to the importance of fidelity. So that means steering clear of attractive alternatives, both in the real world and now today in the virtual world, who might obviously distract your attention and your affections away from your spouse. And when it comes to divorce, not putting the D word in a conversation when you’re having an argument or there’s some problem in your marriage. Most couples have problems at some point in their marriage, and I think couples who just keep divorce off out of the picture are more readily able to handle those challenges and overcome them.

And then the community piece, basically, again, if you are surrounding yourself with people who are… Whether you’re secular or religious, but people who are like intentional about being good spouses and being good parents, you’re more likely to thrive. And yet, I do find that folks who are religious are more likely to be succeeding on that front. ‘Cause you find that couples who are going to church, especially together or temple or synagogue, whatever, are more likely to be spending time with their kids, to be capable of forgiving their spouse, to be maintaining surprisingly, I think, to some extent, a more vibrant sexual life than couples who are not part of a religious community.

Brett McKay: You do your research with the eye of suggesting public policy, and you have some public policy recommendations at the end of your book. But then I think it was a recent article or it might’ve been a tweet, you talked about how there’s research showing, and even in these Nordic countries that have very pro-family public policy, people still aren’t getting married and having kids. So, basically, public policy isn’t enough. You have to change the culture about marriage and family life. So how do you do that? That’s a tough hill to climb.

Brad Wilcox: So, I want to be clear here. I do think public policy is helpful, and I think we could do more to promote in our schools what’s called the success sequence, which, among other things, sucks at the value of marriage to our kids in high school, public high schools. I think we could get rid of the marriage penalty that ends up penalizing marriage for a lot of working-class families across America. I think we could have a more generous child tax credit that would help people who are particularly working in middle-class families who are kind of struggling financially to raise the next generation, kind of have an easier time with it. So there are some policies that I think would be helpful in terms of making marriage more financially and culturally appealing, attractive, and attainable, particularly against working-class and middle-class Americans. But I think, at the end of the day, we have to recognize and realize that unless the culture changes, we’re just going to see a continuing decline in marriage and fertility.

And the reason I say that is because we’re already seeing that in the Nordic countries, like for instance, Finland, where they have an incredible, suite collection of great family policies, childcare, and parental leave, and child allowances, arguably one of the best suite of family policies in the world, if you have a high degree of confidence in public policy to help families. And yet, in Finland, marriage and coupling and fertility are way down in recent years. And I think what’s happening in Finland is also happening here in the US, but just not as quite yet as pronounced. And that is it’s a combination, I think, of a couple of things. One is the Midas mindset, which you’ve talked about, focusing on education, work, and money more than other things, focus on having a good time, fun, staying free of encumbrances. Keeping more individualistic mindset among all the 20-somethings and even 30-somethings is part of the problem as well.

And then two, I think we’re seeing men losing ground, doing less well relative to the women in their lives in education and work and in other domains. And so I think women are just more skeptical about investing in a relationship, marriage, and having kids when the men in their lives don’t, from their perspective, meet the bar of what a spouse or a partner or parent should be up for. So, there’s more going on, but the point is that there’s just a series of cultural shifts that are unfolding across the developed world that are both devaluing family and the sacrifices that being a spouse and a parent require of us. And they’re elevating a more individualistic, a more live-for-the-moment ethos that, in the short term, can be attractive and appealing, but in the long term, spells not just demographic problems, but I think, more fundamentally, a very bleak and lonely and meaningless life. Not for everybody, of course, but for a growing share of people who are going to be kinless as they head into mid and late life.

Brett McKay: Well, yeah, speaking of this culture around parenthood. So let’s say someone does get married. You’re seeing a lot of people who are getting married, it’s like, “We don’t want to have kids.” But in the surveys that you’ve done, do people give reasons for why they don’t want to have kids?

Brad Wilcox: Well, there are different theories about this, everything from the cost of parenthood to the environment to, I think probably more importantly, “I just want to like do my own thing.” And we’ve seen obviously DINK videos on TikTok where these couples who are actually married, but they enjoying sleeping in on Saturday morning, they say, and they’re enjoying traveling to Florida on a regular basis, they say, and they’re just saying that they’re living the life. It’s the life that they think that they have without children. And I’m just like, “Okay, let’s check back with you in 20 years or in 40 years and see how you’re doing,” because I just can’t even imagine, to be blunt, my life without my children. I mean, every night, I’ve got a teenage daughter, hunts me down and she’ll give me a hug or a kiss on the forehead. I mean, that’s just like, “Wow.” It’s a nice way to end the night.

And yes, kids are incredibly expensive and challenging and all that kind of stuff, but I mean, just the meaning, the joy, that kids can bring to your life is amazing. And I just feel sad for people who are deliberately closing their hearts to having children. But to be more empirical for a second, again, too, what’s interesting about the research is that we saw some evidence back before 2000 that parents were less happy than childless Americans. But today, it’s no longer true. I published a piece of Deseret News you may have seen just showing that given some newer survey data, parents, particularly married parents, are happier than childless Americans. And there’s no group of happier Americans aged 18 to 55, and that’s the sort of age focus of my book, than married mothers and married fathers compared to their peers who are single and/or childless.

So, that’s often lost in our public discussions and a lot of the social media commentary, that, for all of the hard things of being a mother and a father demand of us, we do see that, compared to their peers, it’s sort of like Churchill’s point, like, yeah, democracy is like… I’m paraphrasing, obviously, it’s flawed. But compared to the alternatives, it’s much better. I think the same thing is true of parenthood. Yeah, being a parent can be really hard and challenging and frustrating and hair-pulling-inducing, but compared to the alternative, I think it often ends up being pretty, pretty good.

Brett McKay: Yeah, and something that I don’t think has helped with this is that, in the popular culture, people just tend to talk about the negatives of being a parent. They just talk about the hair-pulling stuff when your kids are driving you bonkers, and they really don’t talk about the great stuff about being a parent. Being a dad is awesome. Whenever things in life feel flimsy and meaningless, my family is the thing that feels the most real to me.

Brad Wilcox: I agree.

Brett McKay: Well, Brad, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?

Brad Wilcox: So I’ve got a new website, is a good place to go as well. And the National Marriage Week is kind of rolling out from February 7th to 14th this year, and they’ve got a lot of resources for people looking for things about marriage and also tips to improve your marriage. There are plenty of obviously couples out there who are struggling, and so if you’re struggling, I would encourage you to go to the National Marriage Week’s website for some ideas about how you can strengthen your relationship as you head towards Valentine’s Day.

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Brad Wilcox, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Brad Wilcox: Thanks so much, Brett.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Brad Wilcox. He’s the author of the book Get Married. It’s available on and bookstores everywhere. Check out our show notes at where you find links to resources and we delve deeper into this topic, including a link to another survey that just came out by Gallup that once again affirmed that married people are happier. We’ve also included a link to an article by one of Brad’s colleagues and former AOM podcast guest, Lyman Stone, on how the chance of divorce still doesn’t negate this happiness premium for men.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast. Make sure to check out our website at, where you find our podcast archives as well as thousands of articles that we’ve written over the years about pretty much anything you think of. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate it if you take one minute to get your read on the podcast or Spotify. It helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think will get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay, reminding you to listen to AOM podcasts, but put what you’ve heard into action.

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