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What Does Marriage Optimize?

Bourgeois values bring stability, prosperity, and dignity—but happiness is another matter.

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I have found that it is impossible to write honestly about marriage and family life without some personal disclaimers. So, I’ll get this out of the way first: I am 26 years old and I have been married for four years to a woman two years my senior. We met in college, where she was my editor on the school paper. Our relationship has persisted along those same lines ever since. I write; she edits. We don’t have too many other interests to speak of, but we do have a two-year-old daughter. We live in a rowhouse in Georgetown, but we go to church across the river in Northern Virginia. Our tastes skew conservative, but as a rule we don’t vote.  

Am I happy? I have no idea. My usual line is that it doesn’t matter. I didn’t marry my wife for love. I don’t know why I married her. Sometimes we joke that my intentions must have been noble because I married down, at least in socioeconomic terms. Whatever the case, we are both great believers in Fate—the inexorable unspooling of our destinies—and trust that as together we hurtle toward death, and, we hope, eternal life, all will be revealed. I shouldn’t be melodramatic; our time is so occupied by the demands of our jobs, housework, and childcare that only occasionally do we consider these things.

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But I did find myself wondering about it all as I read through Brad Wilcox’s case for marriage, Get Married, the result of his years of sociological research at the University of Virginia. Wilcox argues that marriage for the great majority of people marks the clearest path to happiness, or, to use his word, “flourishing.” It’s a fascinating study, one whose detail forced me to work through it very slowly, and I think it will prove profitable reading for anyone trying to understand debates about marriage in America today.

But it’s also a frustrating book. Wilcox seems to get all the details about the benefits of marriage right, and yet when he tries to look at the big picture, he only sees more details. What I mean is that while it makes sense to argue that getting married might make you happy, choosing personal satisfaction as the selling point and ultimate good for the target audience—in this case, educated American liberals—seems to betray a rather low estimation of those people’s depth of desire. Of course, happiness is understood in many ways, and the case for eternal happiness is nothing to sniff at. But that’s not exactly what is happening here: Wilcox speaks about happiness in terms of “maximizing,” “boosting,” and “promoting,” jazzy self-help terms borrowed from the school of Arthur Brooks, rhetoric which weakens the force of his case.

Wilcox frames his book with a discussion of four often-overlapping groups—regular churchgoers, political conservatives, social climbers, and Asian Americans—all of whom he argues have the greatest success in their marriages. Their reasons are different. Churchgoers tend to be connected to communities that exercise some measure of social control; they also usually regard the integrity of marriage as religiously significant. Conservatives are also often religious (though that is by no means a given), but the main reason why their marriages succeed, Wilcox writes, is that they embrace “bourgeois” and “traditional” values, such as hard work, personal responsibility, and sexual fidelity.

Social climbers, whom Wilcox calls “Strivers,” roughly correspond to Paul Fussell’s Class X and David Brooks’s Bobos. These are upwardly mobile people who are conversant in all the latest bohemian ideas, but in their own lifestyles are comfortably upper middle class, so marriage, children, and a basically traditional family are a must. The final group, Asian-Americans, seems like a funny fit—for one thing, it’s the only racial group examined at any length in the whole book—but Wilcox uses it to make the point that high-skill immigrants tend to prize stability in their lives, which of course includes stable families and high-earning children. 

For these four groups, marriage, Wilcox argues, is a much more powerful predictor of happiness than work and money, two other goods educated adults most often associate with happiness. He cites a study published in 2004 to make his point: Having a job only boosts your likelihood of happiness by about fifty percent. A high-paying job brings it up by 88 percent. But marriage brings it up by 151 percent. “In fact,” Wilcox writes, “two economists found that a stable marriage was estimated to be worth approximately $100,000 per year of extra happiness.” I’m always suspicious of putting numbers on abstract things, so I looked into these stats. As it happens, the two economists behind the study, who looked at happiness in America and England, did their research from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, before smartphones, before widespread deindustrialization, before the mass marketing of oxycontin—in a completely different world, which makes me wonder if radically changed conditions might yield different results.

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In any case, I don’t know if replicating the same research today would yield data from which any meaningful conclusions about society at large could be drawn. This is because the number of marriages has been reduced to the point where, similar to anime, kink, and board games, the institution may soon become effectively just the pastime of another subculture. In the past fifty years, the marriage rate in the United States has fallen 65 percent, from a peak of nearly 86 marriages per 1,000 unmarried people in 1970 to 31 marriages per 1,000 unmarried people in 2021. Less than half of American adults are married today. In the future, that number is only expected to drop. There is some good news: divorce rates are down, but most people suspect that is only a side effect of the bad news.

Wilcox is well aware that marriage, and more particularly lasting marriage, has become something of a luxury good, and he is anxious to demonstrate that it need not be so. The subtitle of the book is Why Americans Must Defy the Elites, Forge Strong Families, and Save Civilization. To justify that wordy exhortation, Wilcox frequently peppers his stats and case studies with invective against the upper orders. These people, he writes, have discovered the secret to happiness, and they are hoarding it all for themselves. 

“The problem isn’t that elites have forged stable marriages for themselves and their kids in the twenty-first century,” Wilcox writes. “The problem is that they are not producing films, developing curricula for public schools, writing articles for the New York Times, or advancing public policies on Capitol Hill that conform to the truth about the realities of contemporary family life. They are not doing much of anything culturally, economically, or politically to strengthen the foundations of marriage for Americans outside of their own privileged circles.”

There is some truth in this, though I have to wonder whether an op-ed in the New York Times has ever changed anyone’s opinion about anything. But what I find more interesting in the anti-elite posturing is that it brings Wilcox into a strange agreement with one of his most vehement critics, the Twitter personality Matt Bruenig. Bruenig argues, somewhat autistically, that marriage today is primarily a vehicle for the preservation of wealth: “With marriage, you have an institution that attracts and retains more economically secure and stable people, not an institution that creates them,” he said in a recent article for the American Prospect. Wilcox responds that while that may be descriptively true right now, marriage historically is also transformative for the people who enter it: “it endows their lives, day in and day out, with more meaning, prosperity, stability, and solidarity, all of which typically boost the sense of satisfaction that men and women take from their lives after they enter our civilization’s most fundamental institution.”

The two think they are in disagreement, but really they are only approaching the same end from different directions. Bruenig, who is a strict materialist, thinks marriage is about preserving material security and that only rich people can access it. Wilcox, who is Catholic and vocal about his faith, thinks that marriage can create—and then preserve—that same security and, perhaps, build up other non-material securities. But in the cold eye of data analysis, it washes out to about the same thing: both believe that people get married to feel happy. 

For Wilcox, this is where the gloves come off. Even though he borrows some of the language, he is no Arthur Brooks; he is not selling a personal wellness regimen. He knows that “happiness” can mean many things, and when represented with charts and graphs, it often means nothing at all. That won’t do. For him, the term has a very clear meaning—even if he doesn’t represent it clearly at all times—and it leads him to this conclusion: “conservative and religious Americans are winning the ‘pursuit of happiness’ game, and their signature move is getting married and staying married.” So, what do you have to do to be happy? Be religious; be conservative; get married.

Here is where I must get personal again. I understand that it is possible to construe statistics to demonstrate the veracity of just about any claim. I understand that it may very well be true that married conservative and religious Americans are actually happier than their peers. But I also have my own eyes and my own experiences, which, for what it’s worth, track pretty closely with the circumstances ofWilcox’s case studies. (Many of the people he interviewed for the book live in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., where I grew up.) And what I have seen—what I think most people see—is that everyone, regardless of race, class, or marital status, lives in a state of ambient unhappiness, punctuated occasionally by alternating states of ecstasy and horror.

Catholics of an intellectual bent call it fallen human nature. Less lofty minds simply call it human nature. But most everyone agrees that it is our lot in life to be dissatisfied. True, lasting happiness, if we should be so lucky, comes after death; any brief, unearned snatches of it we catch in this life are reminders of its existence. I am unconvinced by anyone who tells me that I can become happy, because I don’t think I or anyone else can achieve happiness through our own abilities. I’m also wary of expecting another person to provide me any degree of self-satisfaction. And I think, when pushed, most people would agree on these points. The best we can do for now is hope. And the case for marriage is that it is better not to hope alone.   

Behind all of Wilcox’s numbers and case studies, there is a very different book that only occasionally peeks through the charts. It is a personal memoir, describing his own life and marriage. His father died when he was three years old, and his mother, recognizing that he needed male role models, made sure that a whole cast of mentors looked after him. When he grew older and became married himself, Wilcox and his wife adopted five children. And then, when they thought they were all done with kids, they had twins. Their lives were turned upside down, and life became unexpectedly difficult. Wilcox describes a full year of “bickering, long silences, and sober stares” as he and his wife attempted to raise two newborns along with their other children. Somehow they did it. 

The story Wilcox chooses to relate about his marriage is not a straightforwardly happy one. Even when he looks with pride on his grown twins, the memory of those insane first few months persists. There’s nothing wrong in that. This time of suffering seems to be an important episode in his marriage: the union persisted despite it and strengthened because of it. This is the best case for getting married that Wilcox makes.

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