‘Me First’ to ‘Family First’: Brad Wilcox ‘Gives Voice to the Value of Marriage’

Sociologist and father of nine expounds on why marriage and family are the way to personal fulfillment.

‘One recent poll found that only 32 percent of young adults ages eighteen through forty think that marriage is essential to living a fulfilling life, compared to 64 percent who think education and 75 percent who think making a good living is crucial to fulfillment.’
‘One recent poll found that only 32 percent of young adults ages eighteen through forty think that marriage is essential to living a fulfilling life, compared to 64 percent who think education and 75 percent who think making a good living is crucial to fulfillment.’ (photo: Artman / Shutterstock)

Young Americans are choosing to marry and have children at much lower rates than their parents and grandparents. “In 1980, just 6% of 40-year-olds had never been married,” according to the Pew Research Center, but by 2021, 25% of 40-year-olds had not married. 

And while college graduates are more likely to find a spouse than their peers from poor or working-class families, young adults from all backgrounds now face a blur of confusing, often counterproductive advice from experts, who have lately encouraged experimentation with polyamory. 

W. Bradford Wilcox, by contrast, urges the young to drop a “me-first” approach to love and marriage in favor of a “family-first” path to the altar. In his latest book, Get Married: Why Americans Must Defy the Elites, Forge Strong Families, and Save Civilization (HarperCollins), the University of Virginia sociologist, who also serves as director of the National Marriage Project, deploys a trove of research and data to back his claim that marriage and children bring personal fulfillment. This is presented in the face of arguments to the contrary mounted by right-wing social-media influencers like Andrew Tate and feminist anti-marriage ideologues

Brad Wilcox
Sociologist Brad Wilcox of the National Marriage Project(Photo: Courtesy photo)

A Catholic convert and the father of nine children, Wilcox is the author of several books and numerous articles on marriage, fatherhood, parenting and religion in both academic and popular publications. In a March 16 interview with Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond, Wilcox explains how U.S. elites engage in “reverse hypocrisy” by continuing to marry at higher rates than the general population, even as they produce college textbooks, articles and films that downplay or question the benefits of marriage.  


You have developed a deep expertise on marriage trends and their impact on society over three decades. What attracted you to this field, and how did your personal history jive with your research?

I was raised by a single mom. And while I was in college at the University of Virginia, I had the sense that marriage was the institution that connected men to their children. That dawning recognition led me to begin studying marriage and family both as an undergraduate at UVA but then also later as a Ph.D. student studying sociology at Princeton University. I came to teach at UVA in 2002. And in the 2010s, I worked with a group of scholars and researchers at the Institute for Family Studies. 


Your book arrives at a key inflection point for the institution of marriage and its future in the West. On March 8, Irish voters defeated two referendums that would have broadened the definition of the family and deleted any mention of mothers from Ireland’s 1937 Constitution. The unexpected outcome was viewed as a repudiation of secular elite values. Meanwhile, Get Married spotlights how U.S. elites, from policymakers to business leaders, ignore or even dispute the value of marriage and family life, but encourage their own offspring to tie the knot. So what is going on?

I’m not an expert on the Irish referendums. But I think that a certain segment of the population is chafing under the radically progressive ideas of many of our elites when it comes to things like marriage and motherhood. This segment is saying, “Enough is enough. You’re not going to jettison our appreciation for the role of moms in the family.”

What’s striking here in the United States is that many of our leaders tend to publicly discount the role and value of marriage. Yet [most] are married themselves, and they and their kids benefit from a stable marriage. 

I wrote Get Married, in part, to encourage elites to stop being hypocrites and start publicly giving voice to the value of marriage, in their capacities as professors, journalists, school superintendents, Hollywood moguls and politicians, so that more Americans can benefit from the institution of marriage.


Back in the 1970s, when the rise in unwed mothers first provoked alarm about the likely consequences for their children’s futures, some experts said it was wrong and hurtful to challenge the decisions of vulnerable women. Today, our culture harshly judges perceived outliers of all stripes, but little is said about out-of-wedlock births, which now constitute an estimated 40% of live births. Is there something else going on? 

It’s partly driven by a desire not to be seen as intolerant or insensitive. But [that approach also reflects] the progressive assumption that the arc of history bends towards the new and that which is traditional is necessarily archaic and outmoded.

The problem with that perspective is that it … leads people to embrace every alternative to marriage. Most recently, there has been a push to normalize and celebrate polyamory.


In a culture of expressive individualism, and what you call “workism,” “flying solo” in adulthood is also presented as a more solid bet than taking on familial responsibilities. Where is this message coming from?

For a long time, women have been encouraged to live their best lives and embrace education, work and freedom from family life. What’s striking today is we’re getting that same message for men, as well. 

People like Andrew Tate, the social influencer, are telling men that there’s really no good return on investment for marriage. Most marriages end in divorce, and it’s better for men just to steer clear of love and marriage.


So voices on both the left and the right are discouraging the young from marrying. 

In some ways, there’s not a dime of difference between the left-wing critiques of marriage with women in mind and the right-wing critiques of marriage with men in mind. They both are basically pushing women and men to abandon love and marriage and embrace the life of the “lone ranger.”


A crisis of masculinity has also driven down marriage rates. And one culprit is what you call “limbic capitalism”: the gaming and online pornography products that generate addictive behavior and sideline young men from more worthy pursuits, including real relationships. 

There’s a malaise that affects a lot of young men. 

Many are floundering in school and at work. They don’t have a clear sense of mission and purpose in their lives. And so, for that reason, they’re less attractive as boyfriends and especially as husbands.

Conservatives, in particular, talk about how bad the culture is without being more cognizant of the political economy at play here. Some of the biggest companies in America are profiting off of our teenage boys and young men. And I think we should be thinking about new ways to tax and regulate Big Tech and the big gaming industry, as well.


Your book explains why a newly married adult should embrace a “family-first” mindset. And you show how faith and parish life can support that process. 

My research shows that religious couples are more likely to be happily married and stay married. They are about 30% less likely to get divorced. 

Parish communities also help. We are our friends: If you’ve got good friends who are trying to be good spouses and good parents, they’re going to challenge you to do the same thing. 

And they will be there for you when the going gets tough in your own marriage and family life. 

So the research is pretty clear that having lots of religious friends is linked to better marital outcomes. And that’s because we are so affected by who we hang out with and whether they’re giving us good messages and good examples. 

Or doing the opposite: We know, for instance, that divorce is heavily networked. If your best friend gets divorced, if your sister gets divorced, you’re more likely to get divorced in the face of ordinary marital difficulties.


Your research shows that active churchgoers have higher rates of marriage, but so do Indian Americans as a group. Why?

Indian Americans are the most stably married Americans in the country, especially those who immigrated from India. And I think that’s because there’s a strong tradition of arranged marriages in India, and there’s an assumption that once you get married, you will go the distance.

There are exceptions, of course, but arranged marriages in that context are often done with an eye towards matching adults in ways that reinforce the stability of their marriage. 

When speaking with a lot of Asian-American parents more generally, what’s striking is their keen appreciation for how the path to financial success, and to their kids’ ability to succeed in American schools and life, is predicated on a strong, stable home where the family can prosper and realize the American dream. 


What can we do to strengthen marriage in the Church, in particular, and beyond? 

It's important to acknowledge here that there are ministries out there, like Communio, which is working with Catholic and Protestant churches to educate adolescents about family life, dating and marriage and prepare them for what lies ahead. 

They also encourage married couples to go on regular marriage retreats, when things are good and before there’s any trouble. And they provide counseling and retreats for couples who are struggling. 

I think it’s important for pastors to regularly talk about marriage and family life, the good and the bad, so people know they are not the only ones struggling. 

Priests should give constructive advice and invite people to reach out during tough times. 

It would also be good to have a men’s ministry that really encourages men to be better husbands and fathers. 

When men are more intentional about being good spouses and good fathers, that will make a real difference. Oftentimes, we can get distracted by work or some hobby, sport or device, and lose sight of the importance of focusing on our spouse and children.


You argue that “family-first” policies could help reverse declining U.S. marriage and birth rates, and thus should get the public’s attention and support. What are your priorities? 

The federal government should, at the very minimum, “do no harm” when it comes to marriage. Many of our means-tested programs and policies, from Medicaid to the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), penalize marriage, especially for working-class families earning between about $25,000 and $50,000. For many parents in this income bracket, living together unmarried, with one parent collecting means-tested benefits and tax credits, often makes more sense than marrying and losing access to these benefits and programs.

Second, we should have a more generous Child Tax Credit, which would also optionally have a little marriage bonus, to acknowledge the sacrifices people make to stay married and encourage marriage, as well, for parents. 

Third, the federal government should support public campaigns and programs that promote the “Success Sequence.” This is the idea that taking three steps — getting at least a high-school degree, working full time and getting married before having children — give young adults an unparalleled shot at reaching the middle class by their 30s.  

Fourth, we need to do more to support school choice. Parents need real options for their kids’ schooling, which can affect the family budget in major ways, especially for those of us, say, who have kids in Catholic school.