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Does Marriage Really Bring People Happiness? A Discussion

11 minute read

Brad Wilcox is the director of National Marriage Project and a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia. In his new book, Get Married: Why Americans Must Defy the Elites, Forge Strong Families, and Save Civilization, he makes the case that the decline of marriage, the rate of which has dropped 60% over the past 50 years, has brought with it a decline of happiness and prosperity. He criticizes "liberal elites" for encouraging alternatives to marriage while themselves being married and coming from married parents. In an interview with TIME, he explains why he thinks marriage is better for people and for society, how Medicaid and education spending are making marriage harder, and why we should swap electric-car subsidies for more child tax credits.

You write in your book that many of the biggest problems across America are rooted in the collapse of marriage and family life. What do you mean by that?

Today in America the Jeffersonian vision of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is in trouble. When it comes to life, what we're seeing is that scores of especially men are turning to drink, to pills, or the barrel of a gun, and record numbers are dying in what’s been called deaths of despair. When it comes to liberty, a lot of Americans understand that in terms of the ability to rise from rags to riches, and there are too many places in America where poor kids remain poor as adults. And when it comes to happiness, we've been seeing in both Gallup polls and the General Social Survey that happiness is down.

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Hasn’t a lot else been happening in the U.S. that might contribute to higher levels of unhappiness?

You might think that this is about economic inequality, failing schools, race, or the current or potential future occupant of the White House. But when you look at the research, one of the most important factors is marriage or family structure. When we look at deaths of despair, for instance, what we see is that the impact of marriage on deaths of despair is more important than college, age, or racial factors. And new research from the University of Chicago economist Sam Peltzman tells us that “the recent decline in the married share of adults can explain (statistically) most of the recent decline in overall happiness.”

Isn’t it also possible that people who are less socially anxious are more likely to get married and people who are less socially anxious are also less likely to commit suicide?

There’s no question in my mind that part of the story is a selection effect where the kinds of people today who are getting married are more educated, more socially skilled, more religious, and these are all factors that are linked to greater happiness. But I think what the critics are not acknowledging is that marriage gives people access to a co-pilot who gives you typically a sense of support, is in your corner when times are tough, and is someone to love and care for. Economists find a causal effect on happiness at all stages of marriage.

The book offers data that suggests children from their biological parents in an intact marriage are less likely to be impoverished, in prison, or unemployed. Might that not be because, as you say, people who are wealthier are more likely to get married?

A big part of the story here is about marriage and men. And it is true that the kinds of men who are more educated and more stably employed are also more likely to get married. So there's a way in which money shapes who gets married. But we also see in the research that men enjoy a premium from marriage, even controlling for their background characteristics. A study in Minnesota found that a married twin earned about 26% more than his identical twin who was not married. That’s evidence that there's something about marriage per se that has demonstrable effects on things like money and happiness.

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An alternative theory is that the things that are keeping Americans from marrying—the rise of social media and of an economy that favors the highly educated, for example—are also the things that are causing the unhappiness.

It’s certainly possible. The rise of smartphones since around 2010 is having a particularly independent negative effect on the psychological fortunes of American teenagers and young adults, especially young women. It also has probably contributed to less dating and less marriage. But again, if you think that we are social animals, and that we're hardwired to connect, then the lack of this fundamental human connection between spouses is a major factor here as well.

Does it have to be marriage? Could pair-bonding in the form of living together have a similar effect on people’s futures, as it seems to in Europe?

I think the pair-bonding piece is fundamental. But in the U.S. the quality of relationships, as assessed by couples, is a bit higher for married couples than it is for cohabiting couples. Commitment levels are markedly different between married and cohabiting couples, and the understanding of where you are in the relationship is much clearer in marriage than it is in cohabiting couples. Culture matters, and having ceremonies and customs and laws governing our relationships is helpful. Cohabiting couples just don't have as much of that common culture to guide and orient their relationships.

Some of your book deals with government policies that you believe are marriage-unfriendly. Why would Medicaid, which protects the health of children, be bad for marriage?

When it comes to the marriage penalties that we see in America today, what we are seeing is that with programs like Medicaid, for instance, it's often the case that particularly working-class families, couples with kids who are kind of in that second [socioeconomic] quintile, are more likely to experience penalties if they marry. Couples have a dilemma where they've got to pick between having a higher material standard of living or marriage. The loss of [means-tested] benefits, particularly Medicaid, [if they marry] has been a central issue for them.

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Would you suggest a basic level of health care for anybody, regardless of their marital status?

I have concerns about expanding the scope of public spending in the direction of Sweden, so I'm in favor of having more of a means-tested approach to serving working-class and poor American families.

How is it family-unfriendly to spend more on education?

The point I'm making in the book is that we direct too much of our public spending to higher education. There could be efficiencies gained by devoting more of that money and attention to things like vocational education, both in community colleges and in high schools, to beef up our capacity to serve young adults, particularly young men, who would benefit from learning a trade or some kind of skill that would push them into a middle-skilled job that would help their professional and marital prospects.

What about government-funded childcare centers? How are they family-unfriendly?

We should allow families to best determine what's good for themselves and for their own children. More educated elites tend to prefer paid childcare, and working-class and poor Americans are more likely to prefer family care. Government-supported childcare privileges the two-earner model of family life over a more pluralistic approach to supporting families, and how we determine who gets to care for their kids. I'm in favor of a generous child tax credit that would give families the ability to use that money on those resources to figure out how best to care for their kids.

You raise a number of examples in your book of the media pushing an anti-marriage narrative, but there are pro-marriage shows, such as Love Is Blind, Married at First Sight, and The Bachelor, everywhere on TV. Isn't marriage actually lauded as an ideal?

Stories that say that women who stay single and don't have kids are getting richer and talking about how married heterosexual motherhood in America is a game no one wins are missing the fact that, on average and in general, marriage and motherhood are linked to more happiness for women. And that marriage is linked to markedly more income and wealth for women. There is something about what's happening in the elite culture that is not particularly marriage-friendly. I looked at differences in attitudes towards marriage and children by education and ideology and found that only 30% of liberal college-educated Americans agreed that "children are better off if they have two married parents," compared to 90% of conservative college-educated Americans. There is unfortunately a dynamic playing out where liberal college-educated Americans, who tend to dominate the heights of our culture, have bought into what I call the "family diversity myth," which makes them more skeptical of this idea that marriage matters.

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One of the interesting data points you raise is that the rate of children born to unmarried couples has leveled off since 2009. Why?

Childbearing is down across the board, in part because women have better educational and professional opportunities so they're more likely to postpone or forego childbearing, and in part because of technology, the rise of what I call electronic opiates—smartphones and other social media—are impeding dating and family formation. There's also a possibility that the generation that was raised after a welfare reform in 1996 became more cautious about having kids out of wedlock, because they were thinking there would not be as much economic support. I also think we are seeing more difficulty between women and men getting together in part because a lot of working-class and poor young men are seeing their sort of fortunes fall in terms of things like stable work.

To what do you attribute the rise of men, such as Andrew Tate, who advise against marriage? Is it a real thing or just a thing on the Internet?

This view is derived in part from the view that most marriages end in divorce, and so a man would have to be kind of stupid to put a ring on it. Tate would kind of prefer that men stay single, make lots of money, play with their toys, and use but not invest in the opposite sex. I do think it unfortunately does speak to a minority of men, especially younger men who are experiencing difficulty finding someone to date, and also finding an ideological divide between themselves and the opposite sex, and men who are divorced unwillingly. And then, because men are floundering when it comes to school and work in larger numbers, it can cultivate a certain kind of misogyny. What they're getting wrong is that today most marriages go the distance and that the divorce rates are no longer one in two, and that men who get and stay married are markedly happier, less lonely, and more prosperous than their peers who are not.

So you hold the position that marriage is good for people, and marriage is good for society. Do you also hold the position therefore that same-sex people should be allowed to get married?

I haven't weighed in on that. What I do in the book is mention that less than 1% of married parents are same sex.

I'm aware of the figure, but I'm interested in your view.

It’s important to wait to get some evidence. One of the surprising things about the same-sex-marriage story is that the take-up has, in terms of family life, not been as high as we might have expected. I think the jury's still out on how that's going to play out.

Your book says religious couples have more sex. Why do you think that is?

My colleague Wendy Wang and I did a YouGov survey, and we found that about two-thirds of churchgoing couples have sex at least once a week, and that less than half of more secular couples have sex once a week. I know of research saying that religious couples are happier in general and are happier with their sex lives in particular, but I wasn't expecting to see such a big gap when it comes to sexual frequency. It looks like the pattern is replicated in the 2022 General Social Survey. My hypothesis is that religious couples tend to enjoy more commitment, more trust, more emotional security, that even praying together fosters a unique kind of intimacy. But we don't know precisely what's going on here.

You, a conservative, propose raising the child tax credit to $350 a month. Do you have ideas on how to pay for that?

There are pieces in the federal budget that could be tweaked or removed. We have very generous credits for electric cars, and I would support removing that and allocating that money to the child-tax-credits budget. That particular credit tends to go to richer Americans. I think we could direct that money more to American families.

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