The 21st-century American trend to prioritize career, money and personal freedom over marriage is deeply misguided, argued W. Bradford Wilcox, professor of sociology and director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, in Tuesday’s forum.
Wilcox, who researches the quality and stability of marriage and family life in the U.S. and globally, drew his remarks from his forthcoming book “Get Married: Why Americans Must Defy the Elites, Forge Strong Families and Save Civilization.”
To illustrate the deceptive attraction of wealth and status, or “Mammon,” above marriage in our society, Wilcox shared the fable of King Midas. Midas, a well-respected king with a beloved daughter, nevertheless longed for more money and power. The god Dionysus granted Midas’ wish to make everything he touched turn to gold. While at first Midas was delighted with his newfound wealth, his gift quickly betrayed him: when his daughter gave him a kiss, she, too, turned into gold.
“This power that he had sought with such a singular focus, Midas realized, was not a blessing, but a curse,” Wilcox said. “This ancient fable could not be more relevant for us in this day,” when the media, academia and the Internet promote a “Midas mindset” that “discounts the importance of marriage” and suggests that fulfillment “is to be found in a rewarding career, in money, in freedom from the encumbrances of family life.”
Wilcox gave several examples of cultural voices promoting “Mammon over marriage.” These include left-leaning outlets that suggest marriage is an obstacle for women living their best life; on the other end of the political spectrum, they also include right-leaning arguments that men are oppressed by marriage, in part because of the risks of divorce, and should “stay single, make lots of money and use — but not invest in — the opposite sex.”
Noting that he has seen the “Midas mindset” prevalent among the university students he teaches, Wilcox cited Pew data showing that many adults believe a focus on career is more important than a focus on relationships for the pursuit of happiness. For example, in one survey, 71% of U.S. adults said having a job or career they enjoyed was extremely or very important for a fulfilling life, whereas only 23% said being married was critical for fulfillment.
But data refutes the idea that marriage is insignificant for well-being and suggests that married people are actually better off on many counts, Wilcox said.
One study showed that married men and women in their 50s have about 10 times the assets than those who never married. Marriage has also been shown to be a better predictor of happiness than education, work and money: the General Social Survey from 2014 to 2018 found that being married increased the odds of happiness by 151% — and a very happy marriage increased the odds of happiness by 545% — compared to a happiness increase of 88% from a higher income.
Meanwhile, research shows that unhappiness is climbing the fastest among the rising numbers of the unmarried in the U.S., Wilcox said. “Many of our biggest problems — from falling rates of happiness to cratering fertility rates across the U.S. to the stagnant character of the American Dream — arise from the fact that too few Americans are prioritizing or frankly are able now to successfully marry and have a family,” he summarized.
As couples combat the social devaluing of marriage, they can aspire to adopt several common characteristics of fulfilling marriage, he said.
For one, successful marriage partners focus on collaboration rather than taking a “me-first” attitude, including in finances. “Couples who take a ‘we-before-me’ approach to marriage that is predicated on a sense of unity, teamwork and mutual service are much more likely to flourish,” Wilcox said.
Successful marriages are also built on full commitment, which is the number-one predictor of marital quality. Couples should be committed to sexual fidelity and be forthcoming about their marital status in professional and social media settings to protect trust in their marriage.
Additionally, supportive community and shared faith have been shown to promote greater marital happiness; faith in marriage is correlated with lower divorce rates and higher sexual satisfaction. “The family-first values, virtues and social networks supplied by religion typically strengthen and stabilize marriage,” Wilcox said.
Wilcox concluded by encouraging his audience to promote the “marriage mindset” broadly.
“It’s a big mistake to put Mammon before marriage,” he said. “That’s in part because nothing gives us a shot at that quintessentially American pursuit, the pursuit of happiness, like a good marriage and a strong family. The challenge, then, facing us is to revive a ‘marriage mindset’ for the 21st century in our schools, in our colleges, on social media, in our churches and our homes.”