Defending the Family through Social Science

A Review of Brad Wilcox’s Get Married

Anti-marriage ideologies increasingly dominate late modernity, and each generation needs to relearn how to defend marriage in a culture that is hostile to it.

Social science research in the late 1990s and early 2000s largely focused on the problems with divorce, shacking-up, and nonmarital births. James Q. Wilson’s The Marriage Problem, David Popenoe’s Life without Father, and Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher’s The Case for Marriage: Why Married People are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially were typical of this trend. Waite and Gallagher’s book, for instance, compared marrieds to cohabitators for happiness, health, life expectancy, wealth, sexual satisfaction, children’s health, etc. The data reveal that married people are better off on most scores.

The social problems of the 1990s persist, but they are now compounded by deeper dysfunction. Divorce is, after all, a kind of perverse achievement, since it indicates two people who once were interested in getting married. Fatherless kids presume reproduction, and indicate that at least one person thought having a baby was a good idea. But rising generations hold marriage as a low priority, and increasingly shun parenthood, whether single- or two-parent. America has cratering marriage rates and birth rates to confirm it. 

Enter the indispensable Brad Wilcox, this generation’s most important sociologist on the family. He helped found the Institute for Family Studies. He directs the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. His sixth and latest book, Get Married: Why Americans Should Defy the Elites, Forge Strong Families, and Save Civilization (Harper Collins, 2024), provides a comprehensive defense of marriage from a social science perspective. 

Wilcox explodes today’s anti-family ideology with good hard data. 

Many believe in flying solo since “marriage is a ball and chain.” Not so, according to the data. Married couples have more income than singles or cohabitators in their thirties (marrieds in the $90K range, cohabitators in the $65K range, singles around $40K) and more wealth too. About 40 percent of marrieds report being “very happy,” while only just over 20 percent of singles do. 

Our elite culture especially celebrates family diversity, suggesting that love or money make the family, rather than a man and a woman united in enduring matrimony. Like Melissa Kearney, Wilcox shows that family structure matters, especially for children. Stats show that kids from intact families are more likely to graduate college, and less likely to go to prison, to have problems at school, or to be abused. 

Liberationists inform us that marriage is dull, while polyamory is fun and spicy. Fidelity is passe, and divorce is empowering. The data show otherwise. Married couples are actually happier when they embrace exclusive, enduring marriage. Husbands are happier when they think marriage is a lifetime commitment as opposed to an arrangement that lasts as long as it is fulfilling. Wives are happier too. Fifty-five percent of couples who avoid following old flames on social media report that their marriages are “not at all likely” to end in divorce, compared with 45 percent who follow their exes. 

Our elite would tell us parenthood is a drag and a trap, making life expensive and complicating vibrant social life. Again, the data tell a different story. About 60 percent of adults without children report being lonely, while only 45 percent of parents report such loneliness. Eighty-two percent of parents are happy, but only 68 percent of the childless are.

Liberals and feminists would tell us that male feminists attract women. The data suggest “choreplay” is not all that sexy. Women actually want men who work full-time, provide for the family, and are sufficiently engaged emotionally. 

Social science data, in other words, supports folk wisdom about the meaning and purpose of life. Human beings are coupling animals. Children make life important. Marriage works when spouses commit to sticking it out through thick and thin. Women are attracted to ambitious men who can provide. 

Many subgroups in society continue to act on this old wisdom. Wilcox identifies the Faithful, the Conservatives, Strivers, and Asian Americans as the “masters of marriage.” 58 percent of college graduates—a proxy for Strivers—are married, while only 39 percent of non-college grads are wed. 57 percent of conservatives are married, while only 40 percent of liberals are. 56 percent of regular churchgoers are married, while 39 percent of non-attendees are. 57 percent of Asian Americans are married, as opposed to 50 percent of whites, 43 percent of Latinos, and 27 percent of blacks. All four of Wilcox’s groups are most likely to be happily married. Generally, among these groups, the Faithful outrank the Strivers, and both of those groups outrank the Asian Americans and Conservatives in marital happiness. Who is having babies? The Faithful

Yet these groups would not lead society in the same direction. Strivers embody what Wilcox calls a strange “inverted hypocrisy,” since they generally dismiss the old wisdom in public, but practice enduring marriage and attentive parenthood (if not fecundity) in their own lives. This is an unstable situation that is unraveling, in part due to the decline in the number of marriageable men and in part because more educated women are walking the leftist talk. The Faithful, in contrast, are committed to fruitful, enduring marriage and would like to see norms and laws support it. 

Wilcox’s argument is designed for modern people addicted to “following the science.” Change your ways since your worldview is not (sufficiently) supported by the data! 

It turns out we all have much to learn from the best of sociology. Sociological analysis is, doubtlessly, limited as a means of discovering truth. Sociology emphasizes the nurture side of the nature-nurture controversy. Nurture (or our sexual constitution) ain’t nuthin’, to be sure. As Wilcox shows, the anti-marriage, anti-parenthood culture has changed priorities and behaviors. Yet advocates for the new anti-marriage culture believe that the clay of human nature will eventually adjust to these new conditions. Today’s unhappiness and disorder are birth pangs for a better, more liberated world. The data will change as the liberationist ideology sinks in. 

The liberationists promise to redefine human happiness and create institutions to support it. Right now, birth parents are better for kids, but alternatives can be invented. As it stands, marriage is better for happiness, but a new happiness and a new way of organizing sexual relations will, they promise, foster an even better future. Prosperity and satisfaction are right around the corner, if we would but trust the process.

Wilcox, a devout Catholic, is aware that no sociologist can argue against the liberationist metaphysic as a sociologist. The presentation of sociological evidence can only be part of a larger project of defending the family in liquid modernity. An older generation of sociologists turned to evolutionary psychology to find permanence in human things. This reproduces the problem on another level. Ultimately, defending marriage and the family demands an appeal to enduring moral truths above the flux of sociological data. 

Wilcox’s study demonstrates that marital love still works. This starting point makes way for a defense of eternal truths about the primacy of love in the universe and the need for it to guide human life. Are Christians ready to play our part to complete Wilcox’s worthy project? The love on offer is, after all, the greatest of things.

Image Credit: Unsplash

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Scott Yenor

Scott Yenor is Director of State Coalition at the Claremont Institute’s Center for the American Way of Life and a professor of political science at Boise State University. His Recovery of Family Life (Baylor, 2020) is now out in paperback.

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