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Can People Be Persuaded to ‘Get Married’? 
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Can People Be Persuaded to ‘Get Married’? 

Brad Wilcox’s new book wagers that a marriage-skeptical culture can see the upshots of tying the knot.

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A little over a decade ago, I was sitting in a graduate history seminar when the topic of single motherhood came up. Since the 1960s, my classmates alleged, women have been freer to have babies without husbands. That development ostensibly reduced the necessity of women having to resign themselves to an imperfect heterosexual marriage and broadened the range of options for female fulfillment and self-actualization. 

Then 24 years old and an ideological outlier in the uniformly leftist world of academic hopefuls, I ventured a measured push-back: Sure, but what about the feminization of poverty or the decline in women’s reported happiness since the 1960s? The professor replied that “bourgeois Western values” privileging marriage are not necessarily shared by women of “other cultural backgrounds.” She added that unmarried child rearing is a lifestyle choice we should facilitate by using the state to reduce its correlation with poverty, not one that we should discourage or deem less than ideal. 

My white, female, and tenured professor was, of course, married to a man. She had college-age children whom she had raised in a married, two-parent home. Like many of today’s elites, she talked Sex and the City while living something closer to Leave It to Beaver

A new book by the University of Virginia sociologist Brad Wilcox, Get Married: Why Americans Must Defy the Elites, Forge Strong Families, and Save Civilization, makes an affirmative case for marriage in defiance of critics like my former professor and classmates. Terming predominantly left-leaning, college-educated professionals the “strivers,” Wilcox dives into the data on how and why this group—along with Asian Americans, conservatives, and the religious—continues to build marriages that thrive even as marriage, fertility, and the social fabric on which both rely all steeply decline. Beginning from the premise that “many of the biggest problems across America are rooted in the collapse of marriage and family life,” Wilcox deftly shows throughout this data-rich yet highly readable book that marriage and family end up being more important to people’s well-being than education, income, or professional pursuits.  

Wilcox begins by firmly establishing the dire nature of the problem. He marshals alarming statistics on the decline of marital stability, which he argues is to blame for, among other ills, about half of “our country’s class gap in happiness.” Because “the marriage rate is in free fall among our country’s poor and working class,” and because marriage is arguably the single greatest predictor of life satisfaction, it follows that an increasingly unmarried working-class is also an increasingly despairing one. 

Beyond working-class woes, Wilcox skewers several of today’s popular (and politically correct) myths about marriage. Think marriage is “not worth” sacrificing sexual and logistical freedom when you can “fly solo”? In fact, married men and women have more than twice the average household income of single men and women, and they are almost twice as likely to describe themselves as “very happy” as those who are single and childless. Think love and money matter more to kids’ well-being than marriage? In fact, children are less likely to experience abuse and neglect when they are raised by their own married parents. Think marriage is best understood as an individual commitment between “soulmates”? In fact, most stable marital partnerships are predicated on the idea that marriage is an institution larger than the two people in any given union. Seventy-three percent of husbands and wives report embracing this “family first” model of marriage, rather than a “soulmate” one.

Wilcox also explores why Asian Americans, conservatives, religious people, and the strivers are disproportionately likely to enjoy happy marriages. These subsets of Americans, whom he calls “masters of marriage,” tend to exemplify five pillars of strong, “family first” marriage. They: 1) put “we” before “me,” and are particularly likely to share finances with their spouses; 2) center child rearing as a focus of their union; 3) believe that marriage is for life and that divorce is not an option; 4) make room for sex differences by rejecting the false notion that most men and most women want exactly the same things when it comes to work and family; and 5) forge community among those who also prioritize marriage and family, which often involves attending religious services. 

Beholden to neither of our increasingly polarized political ideologies, Get Married does include criticism of our political class. Wilcox (rightly, in my view) lays some of the blame for marriage’s decline on “a bipartisan failure to serve families.” Republicans have too often incorrectly assumed that “tax cuts, deregulation, and higher GDP growth” will make the American family great again. Meanwhile, Democrats continue to wrongly presume that their “elitist and workist” agenda (i.e., marriage penalties related to the earned income tax credit and policies that privilege state-sponsored daycare and full-time work for mothers) reflects the needs and values of most Americans. 

Instead, Wilcox insists that any top-down, bipartisan, government-sponsored attempt to revitalize marriage should involve: 1) investing in vocational education (more blue collar men with good jobs should mean more blue collar marriages); 2) expanding the child tax credit; 3) eliminating marriage penalties; 4) universalizing school choice; and 5) promoting the “success sequence” in a sustained way that mimics past movements against smoking and teenage pregnancy.

I would sign on to each of these prescriptions without delay, but I’m not optimistic that any significant number of politicians endorsing all parts of this family-first agenda will soon emerge from the morass of polarization that has inflicted so much harm on the American family. And I’m even less hopeful about the likelihood of anyone being convinced to get married by a book—even a book as exceptionally thorough, eloquently written, and objectively persuasive as Get Married

Per the book’s title, Wilcox is trying first and foremost to offer Americans counter-cultural self-help that persuades married readers to prioritize their spouses and children, and unmarried readers to prioritize tying the knot. He does the first successfully; Get Married clearly shows marriage’s personal and societal importance, and it’s reasonable to hope that husbands and wives alike come away from the book wishing and intending to be better spouses. But I am not sure that Wilcox succeeds on the second score—persuading the unmarried to marry—mostly because I am skeptical about whether such persuasion is possible at all.

Get Married’s manifold insights into the habits, characteristics, and beliefs that set “masters of marriage” apart arguably belie the notion that there is any argument capable of convincing people to enter into a marital contract. Per Wilcox, “husbands and wives who surround themselves with friends and family who take marriage and family life seriously are much more likely to thrive” amid a wider world lacking respect for marriage and family. It makes sense that being surrounded by marriage-minded people is the single biggest predictor of being marriage-minded (and happily married) oneself. But in practice, marriage-mindedness is not an argument of which one gets convinced. Rather, marriage-mindedness is a social reality, and one that cannot be easily choreographed. 

I am surrounded by stably married people because I’m a practicing Catholic who attended an Ivy League school and holds a terminal degree. My husband, whom I met at the Catholic student center of said school, is a fellow practicing Catholic; he also identifies more or less as a conservative. Between the two of us we are members of not just one “master of marriage” subset, but three. So, we nodded along with every page of Wilcox’s book, as would most of our friends. Which is why we’re all married.

But convincing people who are not already ensconced among the elite, the religious, or the conservative to prioritize marriage is, I fear, beyond the scope of books. Accomplishing this end would, unfortunately and uncomfortably, involve a return to broad social realities that have no prospect of making a comeback. Think of the social isolation of “spinsterhood” for unmarried women; the widespread assumption that an unmarried man is an unreliable business associate; and the shame of nonmarital sex and out of wedlock births.

These erstwhile stigmas are gone, never to return. Indeed, I am not arguing that they should return; there was, after all, a cost to maintaining them. But there is also a cost to eschewing them, and no affirmative argument in favor of marriage can be expected to make up the difference. 

Disproportionately influential elites who want to have their wedding cake and eat it too have wrought a reality in which most American parents now profess not to care whether their adult children establish fruitful marital partnerships. 

Nevertheless, those of us who are with Wilcox in his quest to reestablish marriage as a norm should have a copy of Get Married on the shelf. One never knows who might benefit from the book on loan, or how the long future will unfold. Eventually, perhaps, the truth about marriage will set us free—so, it’s a good thing Wilcox wrote it down. 

Marriage is contagious. Spending time in communities that value and prioritize marriage and family makes one likelier to do so as well. And to the extent that people are inspired to marry, it’s likely the result of watching the successful marriages of others. Especially in a modern marriage landscape sorely in need of direction and clarity, Wilcox does us all a service by illuminating what makes successful marriages tick and explaining how to emulate them.

Elizabeth Grace Matthew is a regular opinion contributor at The Hill. Her writing on books, politics, and culture has appeared in various outlets including USA Today, Deseret News, Law and Liberty, America Magazine, and The Bulwark.