Skip to main content

Culture Q&A

W. Bradford Wilcox

The state of matrimony

What’s helping and hurting marriages in the United States?

The state of matrimony

W. Bradford Wilcox (Ron Londen/Genesis)

Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project, is a University of Virginia sociology professor and author or co-author of many books: The most recent is Soul Mates: Religion, Sex, Love, and Marriage among African Americans and Latinos. Here are edited excerpts of our interview before students at Patrick Henry College.

Marriage rates are down and the percentage of children born out of wedlock is up. What’s going on in American culture?

More Americans are embracing a secular, unaffiliated kind of identity, with a decline in church attendance. That’s important because religion tends to reinforce strong marriages. We’ve seen a shift away from community, tradition, and authority and toward expressive individualism, following what you desire and feel.

Has feminism had an effect?

A rise in feminism has raised expectations for marriage. In some ways, that’s good: Fathers are more engaged practically with their families and their kids than they were years ago. It also means that people can be almost too picky about entering marriage and more likely to resort to divorce when there is difficulty or conflict. That may not serve your marriage or family well.

Economic factors?

Less-educated men are employed less stably. Their real incomes are down. That matters, because men not stably employed are less likely to get married, stay married, or be attractive as potential husbands. This economic shift away from an industrial economy to a service economy has tended to benefit people with more education and undercut the value of working-class and poor men in our economy.


‘Probably the most powerful predictor of a happy marriage, on the religious side of things, is when a couple prays together outside of just grace at meals.’

What’s the effect of public policies that penalize marriage?

For some lower-income mothers, it makes more sense not to get married when you’re concerned about Medicaid, food stamps, etc.

How are these factors interwoven?

Harvard sociology professor William Julius Wilson has made the point that our higher view of marriage, in terms of delivering both emotional and to some extent financial satisfaction, has made the relative fragility that less-educated men face today in the labor force market more problematic when it comes to marriage. In the 1930s, people forged ahead and maintained their marriages even in the face of tremendous economic difficulties.

When we see marriage as a capstone agreement between people whose careers already are established …

Once you have that model or a soul mate model, where people see marriage as intense romance, people are more likely to wash their hands of marriage with a spouse when financial difficulties hit.

We think marriage should follow maturity and establishment in a career, but marriage is a prod toward maturity and careers.

Many poorer Americans don’t have their “ducks in a row,” so they are not getting married but are still having kids.

George Gilder a generation ago wrote a book mellifluously titled Naked Nomads—his description of unmarried men …

Men who get married work more hours, earn more money, and are less likely to be fired than their single peers. They go to church more often, taverns less often.

Some in the “men’s rights” movement say divorce laws have made marriage a bad deal for men.

They say you invest yourself emotionally, practically, and financially in marriage, have kids, and years later you can be divorced unwillingly: You’ve lost your kids, are stuck with a bill for child support and maybe alimony, and have had to divvy up your property.

Any merit to that critique?

Divorce law now is not just. So often you’ll see where one spouse has an affair and wants a divorce and the other spouse is left reeling, maybe losing primary custody or a substantial share of assets, with the behavior that preceded the divorce not taken into account.

How would you change divorce laws?

Ideally, we wouldn’t go back to a no-fault model, but we would take into account whether either spouse engaged in infidelity, physical or emotional abuse, drugs or alcohol.

Isn’t that getting rid of no-fault?

No. In the 1950s and 1960s you often couldn’t get divorced unless you showed a breach in marital conduct. I would allow divorce but take into account these factors as far as child custody and division of property.

We should also note that most marriages don’t end in divorce.

Men who work diligently, attend church with their spouse regularly, are emotionally engaged in their marriages, and don’t abuse drugs and alcohol have a pretty slim chance of getting divorced.

You published in 2004 Soft Patriarchs, New Men: How Christianity Shapes Fathers and Husbands. How does Christianity shape fathers and husbands?

Christianity turns men’s hearts and minds toward the family. They are more emotionally engaged with their wives and children. They are more likely to read to their kids, to hug and praise their children. Feminists tend to be concerned about the traditionalistic character of religion but miss the familistic side that encourages men to put their families, marriages, and kids first.

Thinking about kids: Secularists tend to favor publicly funded child care; Christians tend to be more family-oriented. What’s best for the children?

Most scholars who are honest about the data would acknowledge that in the first year it is better for children to be at home with lots of bonding time, usually with their mothers. Kids who spend more than three hours a week in some kind of institutional child care are more likely to have social and emotional problems.

Should public policy encourage more staying at home in the first year?

There has been a push to expand child care or expand a tax credit targeting child care. In place of that approach, I’d much prefer that we expand the child tax credit to $3,000 per child age 4 and under, with that money given to families to do as they please. This recognizes that we live in a pluralistic country: Different parents will want to do things differently, and we should let them decide how they want to use that money.

In 2011, in your State of Our Unions project, you noted that God-centeredness in marriage makes a huge difference.

We found couples who reported an intense engagement with God were much more likely to say they were happy. In our new book, Soul Mates, with Nicholas Wolfinger, we find that probably the most powerful predictor of a happy marriage, on the religious side of things, is when a couple prays together outside of just grace at meals.

You found that in the armed forces most couples get married and there’s no racial divide regarding marriage rates. Why?

Progressive takeaway: stable work, decent-paying jobs, access to free or inexpensive housing, and free healthcare. Conservative takeaway: a culture that honors marriage and the traditional family life, and policies that say you don’t get housing on base or other benefits if you are cohabiting.

You reference the findings of Harvard professor Tyler VanderWeele.

He is tracking thousands of women in the United States across many years. He’s found that women who are attending church regularly are about 40 percent less likely to get a divorce than their female peers not attending church.