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    Sell Me Marriage

    Brad Wilcox makes the case for marriage in his new book Get Married.

    By Daniel N. Gullotta

    May 14, 2024

    “Sell me marriage,” Ryan Bingham, played by George Clooney in the 2009 comedy-drama Up in the Air, challenges his young colleague, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick). Natalie, struggling to counter Ryan’s anti-children and anti-marriage stances, finally responds with “love,” which he immediately scoffs at. When she suggests “stability,” Ryan points to the instability of most marriages they know of. Natalie then argues that marriage provides “somebody to talk to, someone to spend your life with.” Ryan remains unmoved, stating, “I’m surrounded by people to talk to. I doubt that’s gonna change.”

    Fictional though he may be, Ryan’s views from Up in the Air permeate much of popular culture. This sentiment is evident in works such as Noah Baumbach’s Oscar-nominated films The Squid and the Whale and Marriage Story, both of which portray married life as impossibly difficult and divorce its likely ugly outcome. Instead of working on her first marriage, Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestselling-memoir-turned-hit-film, Eat, Pray, Love, celebrates her journey of self-discovery, self-sufficiency, and self-love. Most recently, in the summer blockbuster Barbie, Ken learns that he can find contentment in being alone, a concept summarized as “Kenough.” In many TV shows today, marriages are portrayed with unhappy spouses, insufferable children, and boring sex.

    In addition to the negative messaging from pop culture, a stream of think pieces reinforces the idea. From the New York Times to Buzzfeed the message has been: marriage, especially of the religious kind, is not only unnecessary but also detrimental to your career, finances, and sex life. While feminist critiques of marriage have been present since the 1970s, a new wave of critics has emerged from the online right, targeting young men. Anti-feminist figures and online personalities such as Andrew Tate and Pearl Davis lead this charge, preaching that marriage is a raw deal for men. The dramatic 60 percent drop in the US marriage rate over the past five decades suggests that these kinds of messaging gained some traction. Many Americans seem to have adopted a negative view of marriage.

    Brad Wilcox, director of National Marriage Project and a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, thinks this is not only bad, but completely wrong according to the data. In his latest book, Get Married: Why Americans Must Defy the Elites, Forge Strong Families, and Save Civilization, Wilcox challenges prevailing narratives about marriage and children using data collected from the outlets such as the US Census Bureau, General Social Survey, the American Family Survey, and his own National Marriage Project. Wilcox argues that marriage, rather than educational attainment, work, money, frequent sex, or regular religious attendance, is the strongest predictor of happiness.

    Get Married debunks myths about marriage such as the oft-repeated claim that half of all marriages end in divorce. The book also identifies key factors that contribute to successful marriages. Wilcox’s research highlights four demographic groups that report higher levels of marital satisfaction: the college-educated, conservatives, Asian Americans, and the religious.  Their successes are attributed to a variety of reasons, such as less financial stress, taking a long-term view of marriage, embracing delayed gratification, pooling their finances and savings together, focusing on family, and being surrounded by other people in healthy marriages. The evidence supplied by Wilcox overwhelmingly supports the notion that marriage is correlated to various aspects of life, including the level of violence in one’s neighborhood, the probability of a child’s future path leading to either prison or college, the condition of one’s retirement savings, and one’s mental well-being and overall health and happiness.

    Marriage, rather than educational attainment, work, money, frequent sex, or regular religious attendance, is the strongest predictor of happiness.

    While not solely focused on religious marriages, Wilcox’s book offers hope for churchgoing partners and singles alike. His research shows that couples who actively practiced their faith were, on the whole, not only happier in their marriages but also more satisfied with life overall. For those attending church regularly with their spouses, 55 percent of husbands and 49 percent of wives reported being “very satisfied” with life, compared to only 27 percent of wives and 28 percent of husbands who did not attend religious services. Wilcox’s research showed that couples who attended church regularly were 30 to 50 percent less likely to divorce than couples who did not. A higher percentage of them reported having more frequent sex and more satisfying sex lives than their non-religious counterparts. Wilcox’s research also showed that these couples were more likely to stay faithful in their relationships and less likely to engage in extramarital affairs or use pornography.

    Get Married offers a wealth of intriguing data. One of its most compelling arguments challenges alternative views on family structures, highlighting the evidence that children raised by their biological parents tend to have the best prospects for future success. This is not to discount the potential for success among children in other family arrangements (Wilcox himself grew up without a father but achieved success) but the data presented indicates that fatherlessness is a stronger predictor of incarceration than race or growing up in poverty.

    There are also plenty of points that should come as no surprise to readers. Couples who neglect their spouses, fail to manage their finances together and responsibly, prioritize their own interests over their family, or engage in marital infidelity are risking marital disaster.

    Fatherlessness is a stronger predictor of incarceration than race or growing up in poverty.

    I found Get Married fascinating, but it left me pondering who its target audience might be. Wilcox’s data-driven narrative offers a compelling analytical defense of marriage, but it’s doubtful that it will convince anyone to get married. It’s also doubtful that the results, showcasing strong, stable, and sexy Christian marriages, will lure people back to the pews. It lacks the argumentative edge of a battle cry, and it’s improbable that a pastor would use sociological data to persuade people to marry, preferring a biblical and sacramental approach instead. A skilled apologist and evangelist might blend these approaches, but Wilcox doesn’t provide a clear roadmap for doing so. With this in mind, it often feels like Wilcox is preaching to the choir rather than trying to persuade skeptics about the moral goodness or cultural value of marriage. An unmarried individual reading Wilcox’s work might feel a twinge of envy toward the married, while someone with vastly different religious or political views might simply dismiss the book altogether.

    Perhaps, despite the book’s packaging, the real audience is policy makers and sociologists. The policy section at the end may appeal to those interested in legislative matters, and the book’s true value lies in its ability to deepen one’s understanding of the current state of marriage. These insights into the factors that contribute to a healthy marriage, as well as into the general trends of marriage in America, will prove valuable to those counseling engaged or newlywed couples, not to mention marriage therapists, psychologists, and social workers. Wilcox’s warnings about self-centeredness, family neglect, social isolation, financial irresponsibility, and marital unfaithfulness, though they may appear to be common sense, are particularly striking due to the data revealing the extent to which these factors contribute to marital breakdown. These messages should complement the messages delivered by Christian leaders. Yet it is crucial not to misconstrue Wilcox’s findings as suggesting that Christian marriages are immune to divorce or that Christians have cracked the code on marriage. As he emphasizes, successful marriages require effort and dedication.

    At a time when the institution of marriage is often portrayed as fragile or unenticing, Get Married offers reason for optimism.

    Contributed By DanielGullotta Daniel N. Gullotta

    Daniel N. Gullotta is the Archer Fellow in Residence at the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University, where he teaches in the departments of history and religion.

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