The Marriage Bonus

When I was 16, on the recommendation of Oprah Winfrey, I read Eat, Pray, Love (2006). The bestselling memoir tells of “one woman’s search for everything across Italy, India, and Indonesia,” as the subtitle puts it, documenting author Elizabeth Gilbert’s abandonment of her marriage in pursuit of pasta, yoga, and romance.

The book was a transformative cultural moment, sparking the 21st century wellness tourism that became a hallmark of Millennial social media in the 2010s. And it was transformative for me, too. But as I raved about it to a favorite aunt, she wrinkled her nose. “I found the book pretty stupid,” she said, deflating my newfound wanderlust. “I mean, you’d have to be pretty selfish to leave your husband like that,” she continued, complaining that contemporary media seemed obsessed with deconstructing the “white picket fence” ideal of marriage and family life.

A married, Gen-X mother of five living in the Chicago suburbs, my aunt was disgusted by the flippancy with which Gilbert could abandon her marriage in favor of indulgence and self-discovery, a reaction that hadn’t even crossed my teenage mind. In retrospect, however, her contempt for Gilbert’s plot has been a hedge against a culture intent on vilifying marriage, helping me remain skeptical as the forces of “individualism, hedonism, and workism” converge.

Such forces are main characters in an important new book. In Get Married: Why Americans Must Defy the Elites, Forge Strong Families, and Save Civilization, sociologist Brad Wilcox offers a salvo against what he describes as the “closing of the American heart” to the age-old institutions of marriage and family, at the hands of contemporary, progressive values.

Divorce has actually declined, Wilcox points out, since its most notorious heyday, the “Me” Decade of the 1970s, into which he was born. But that doesn’t mean all is well. While divorce has dropped, so too has the marriage rate, close to its lowest level in American history.

For this, Wilcox blames a confluence of cultural, economic, and political narratives, which, he says, are preached by elites in Hollywood, politics, and the media, but not practiced by them, in a feat of contortionist inverse hypocrisy. “Listen not to what our elites say about marriage, family, and gender,” he writes. “Instead of ‘Do as they say, not as they do,’ it’s ‘Do what they’re doing, but ignore what they say.’”

These narratives include the “flying-solo” myth, personified by Andrew Tate, who preaches that men are better off pursuing wealth and sexual pleasure without the liabilities of marriage. Female versions are epitomized in the career-woman divorce accounts that litter the Atlantic and New York Magazine. A viral 2021 essay from Honor Jones, in which she leaves her husband to spend time “thinking about art and sex and politics and the patriarchy,” comes to mind.

There’s also the corrosive “family diversity” myth, which sees the intact nuclear family as superfluous to a child’s success and stability, arguing that socioeconomic status matters more than what economist Melissa Kearney calls the two-parent privilege.

And there’s the myth to which Wilcox connects Gilbert, the “soulmate” myth, which understands love not as a selfless life-giving commitment, but a means for personal actualization. Once the butterflies evaporate, it’s no longer worth sustaining. As Wilcox puts it, “this is a model that assumes that, if your marital connection frays, loses its romantic spark, or becomes difficult to maintain, it’s okay to move on in search of a better soulmate.”

There are, however, a few groups bucking the trends: namely, strivers, the faithful, Asian Americans, and political conservatives. These four groups, whom Wilcox calls “masters of marriage,” are getting married and staying married, despite disparate socioeconomic conditions, ideologies, and regional factors.

They’re reaping fruit from their marriages, too—benefits which might surprise even Wilcox’s most policy-versed readers. I was prepared, for example, to read arguments from Wilcox that marriage and children are worth pursuing for career-minded women, even if they mean forgoing the financial benefits of girl bossing. But that’s simply not the case. Married women in their 50s, even those who stay home to care for children, enjoy a marriage premium that can spike above $300,000 compared with divorced and never-married women.

And while happiness, if not wealth, was once thought to take a hit for married Americans with children, that’s not the case anymore either. Wilcox cites findings showing that 82 percent of prime-age parents are “very happy” or “pretty happy,” compared with 68 percent of childless peers. “In other words, today’s men and women in their prime who have children report the greatest happiness and the most meaning in their lives,” Wilcox writes.

Bottom line: If you’re a technocrat who wants to bio-hack your way into happiness and affluence, ignore the neuroscientist Andrew Huberman on this topic. The data support picking one partner and having kids.

Luckily Gen Z is primed, in some ways, to accept Wilcox’s thesis. Just as there was a countermovement of Gen Xers who came of age in the ’70s and went out of their way to reject the divorce fad of their parents, there’s a countermovement among Zoomers to reject the pessimism that otherwise pervades their peers surrounding marriage.

The controversial trad wife trend is one such example. But less extreme movements exist too. “Polarity” coaches on TikTok, for example, preach about masculine and feminine “polarity” within relationships, garnering thousands of views on videos offering retrograde wisdom about communicating and bonding with the opposite sex to form “secure attachments.”

It’s advice that might seem obvious to older generations. (“If you can really see him, admire him for his true qualities, and validate the things that he does well, to make him feel like he’s competent … that is your feminine power,” Margarita Nazarenko advises her 870,000 followers, alongside tips to activate his “hero instinct” and stop nagging.) But it’s also advice that would have been accused of reinforcing the patriarchy and “toxic masculinity” even 10 years ago when Lean In-style messaging à la Sheryl Sandberg advised women to be aggressive and direct.

Wilcox, for his part, also understands there is a science to contentment between the sexes. He offers his own formula for marital success, based on survey data, emphasizing that men and women value different marital benefits, and that that’s okay. Women want to be provided for and cherished, for example, and men want sex and respect. “Vive la différence,” Wilcox writes.

“Our civilization is in the midst of an epochal shift,” Wilcox says, “a shift away from marriage and all the fruits that follow from this most fundamental social institution: children, kin, financial stability, and innumerable opportunities to love and be loved by another.” But maybe there are reasons for hope. Aaron Renn, a Christian intellectual quoted in the book, is “bullish on Generation Z.” And Emily Gould, one of the most notorious Brooklynite “libtard” writers, recently bucked her peers’ “divorce confessional” genre to write, instead, a viral essay about salvaging her marriage. Even David Brooks, in some ways an emblem of the expressive individualism that motivates divorce, endorsed Wilcox’s book, calling it “vitally important.”

He’s right. As Americans hopefully come around on marriage, Wilcox’s insights will prove prescient.

Get Married: Why Americans Must Defy the Elites, Forge Strong Families, and Save Civilization
by Brad Wilcox
Broadside Books, 320 pp., $32

Nora Kenney is director of media relations at the Manhattan Institute.

Original News Source – Washington Free Beacon

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