The State of Our Unions

Interview with ELIZABETH MARQUARDT and W. BRADFORD WILCOX Two leading family scholars discuss the state of marriage and family in America

by Elizabeth Marquardt and W. Bradford Wilcox

The national Marriage Project (NMP) is "a nonpartisan, nonsectarian, and interdisciplinary initiative located at the University of Virginia." In 1999, it began publishing The State of Our Unions, an annual report, "which monitors the current health of marriage and family life in America." Since 2009, the Center for Marriage and Family (CMF) of the Institute for American Values — "a nonprofit, non-partisan organization dedicated to strengthening families and civil society in the U.S. and the world" — has jointly published The State of Our Unions with NMP.

In 1955, Frank Sinatra first sang these memorable lines: "Love and marriage, love and marriage, Go together like a horse and carriage. This I tell ya, brother, you can't have one without the other." How has the relationship between "love" and "marriage" changed in America since Sinatra sang these lyrics almost 60 years ago?

WILCOX: For most young adults in the United States, romantic love has not changed much over the last half century. It still happens for many people in their late teens and early twenties. The connection between romantic love and a move toward getting married, however, is now quite divergent. Most Americans are getting married in their late twenties and early thirties. There is a growing divide between

the onset of love and actual marriage. Also, some men have seen their friends treated badly after their divorce. They see marriage and divorce as bad for men. They think, Why would I do that if I can get the sexual part without having to be married?

MARQUARDT: We see this most dramatically in the rapid increase of out-of-wedlock childbearing in the last few decades. Well over 44 percent of children are now born outside of marriage. Many people are delaying marriage, but they are not delaying childbearing.

When you ask them why they do not marry the mother or father of their child, they speak of fears of divorce. This is the impact of the divorce revolution on subsequent generations.

Seventy years ago, romantic love, sex, and marriage were closely tied. Would it be fair say that today they are loosely connected?

MARQUARDT: Yes. People have not changed that much. The longing to bond with another, the feelings of love, and the desire to put the fruit of your love in children — those basic needs to create a human being — have not changed much in the last 60 years.

The social institutions that help channel romantic love to form social behavior such as getting married, however, have been weakened in young people. They do not see marriage as a blessing. There's a lot of pain in young people today. Thus, young people are stumbling through one relationship after another.

I have done some study on becoming a single mom by choice. The desire for a child is natural. These women decided to get pregnant via reproductive technologies rather than wait for the right guy to marry.

These women believe a spouse is supposed to meet them in every possible way, in every possible moment — emotionally, sexually, financially — perfect all the time.

WILCOX: Young adults today expect more — in material and emotional terms — when it comes to starting a marriage and starting a family. Their expectation inflation means that college-educated young adults are still getting married and having kids in marriage in their twenties and thirties. One segment of our American society is having kids but not moving into marriage either for economic or relationship reasons, or because they feel they are not ready.

The purpose of the annual State of Our Unions report is to "[monitor] the current health of marriage and family life in America." As family scholars, what kind of data helps determine the health or sickness of American marriages and families?

WILCOX: Kids are most likely to thrive when an intact biological family raises them. Our indicators tap the extent to which both adults and children are coming close to that ideal — the ideal of a relatively happy marriage, in which married biological parents raise their own kids. We do that by looking at marital quality, the percentage of kids born outside of marriage, the percentage of kids living with two married parents, and divorce rates. Unfortunately, we do not have a good indicator from the government that would easily tap the percentage of kids who are living with their own married biological parents. We try to get that through some indirect means as well with the report.

To examine marital quality we look at social survey reports concerning being "very happy" in your marriage. That is a rather blunt instrument for assessing marital quality. If you look at this in a more academic sense, you will find that scholars look at reports of affection, respect, and commitment.

The first State of Our Unions report in 1999 opened with this statement: "Key social indicators suggest a substantial weakening of the institution of marriage." What reasons did the 1999 report offer for that pessimistic conclusion? How have the key social indicators changed in the 15 years since that report?

MARQUARDT: Around the year 2000, the media and public discussion were more open to the idea that divorce is hard for kids. People were more willing to try to improve their marriage rather than divorce at the first sign of trouble. The indicators rose for African-American children being raised by their married parents. This was a positive shift.

At that moment, if we could have come together as a country, we could have really done some good things. Rather than sustaining that, the marriage debate went off in different directions. We started to fight about a lot of other things besides moms and dads.

In the meantime, we see this emerging class divide in marriage. Those who have the privilege and benefit of having gone to college have gotten the message that to do right by their kids, they need to try not to get divorced. We see a very child-raising-intensive model in the family now. The married dads are some of the best dads we have ever had. They are still the breadwinners, but they also are more emotionally involved with their kids than previous generations of fathers.

On the other hand, more fathers than ever are not involved in their kids' lives at all. They are not married to the moms, which means they are not available in any meaningful way after the child is born. If we could recapture that moment when we were ready to say that kids need intact families — they need their mom and dad — we could do some really good things.

WILCOX: There is some ambiguity in changes in these social indicators. Americans who are getting married and having kids — in that order — are more likely to enjoy a stable marriage and a stable family life than their peers who were getting married in the 1970s and '80s at the height of the divorce revolution. Also, the percentage of kids living in single-parent families has stabilized in the last 20 years. More important, college-educated Americans are enjoying relatively stable, relatively high-quality marriages and families.

The problem, however, comes from a tremendous increase in privatization, family instability, and the erosion of a strong marriage culture among working class and poor Americans. We see this in the change in percentage of children born outside of marriage. In 1960, 6 percent of kids were born outside of marriage, compared to about 44 percent today. Most of those kids are being born to moms who do not have a college degree.

One positive change is in the divorce rate. The divorce rate was about 50 percent in the 1970s and '80s. That rate is about 43 percent now, a modest decline.

Divorce is one of the key social indicators of the health of marriage and family life in America. What kinds of stressors influence a couples' decision to divorce?

WILCOX: A large minority of couples — approximately 43 percent — who are getting married today will get divorced. What leads to divorce? The husband's emotional engagement to his wife is important. After the honeymoon wears off, many men get into their routines of working, helping raise their children, keeping the house going, and they are not emotionally engaged with their wives. This can lead to a downward spiral in many marriages. People expect more in romantic and emotional terms from their marriages. One of the challenges for husbands — and also for wives — is to be affectionate, respectful, and forgiving to one another. In a long-term marriage, that can be quite challenging.

Other factors like unemployment, financial pressures, depression, having a disabled child — any kind of stress can wear away at a marriage and help push it toward divorce.

MARQUARDT: A family's stress is a call to people of faith to help them. If a couple at church has a special-needs child, offer to babysit so parents can go on a date. I do not want people to get too discouraged. One of the recurring features in our Save Our Unions meetings is an article by Brad Wilcox, "Your Chances of Divorce May Be Much Lower Than You Think." We open the newspaper or turn on the television and think, It's hopeless. But it is not hopeless. If a husband and wife come from similar faith traditions, if they come from married-parent families, if they have gone to college, statistically, the odds are lower that they are going to break up.

How does divorce affect children? Are children of divorce more susceptible to falling prey to social pathologies?

MARQUARDT: I wrote a book on the inner lives of children of divorce. We hear a lot about the studies that indicate children of divorce are more likely to end up on drugs, in prison, or pregnant as a teenager — troubling outcomes. I wanted to look deeper than that. Even if you end up "fine" as a child of divorce, does this mean that divorce is not a big deal?

I did a study with the late Norval D. Glenn, professor emeritus of sociology at University of Texas at Austin. We talked to grown children of divorce and people who grew up with married parents. A person's family structure shapes how they approach the big questions of life regarding moral and spiritual beliefs. Children want to know: Who am I, where do I belong, what is truth, who is God, what is right and wrong? If a child grew up traveling back and forth between mom and dad in different worlds, the child must answer these big questions alone.

When parents are married and have differences, it is their job to make sense of the differences; it is not their child's job. Divorce hands children a big task to make sense of the big questions in life earlier. Some children can rise to that task pretty well, but some really struggle.

Mavis Heatherington, University of Virginia, looked at several studies over a number of years. Of people from divorced families, 20 to 25 percent had what she called severe long-term damage, compared to about 10 percent from married families. So those from divorced families were about 2 to 2.5 times as likely to have serious long-term problems.

Some people would say you would want to avoid anything that would double your child's risks of having serious long-term problems. Other people say since 20 to 25 percent of children of divorce have severe long-term problems, that means 75 to 80 percent are fine. Because a person comes through something without obvious symptoms does not mean that it did not shape him or her.

WILCOX: The most severe consequences of divorce are applicable to the minority of children and to a minority of adults — a large minority, but still a minority. Most adults who were children of divorce end up doing well, but we must think about how much pain we are willing to distribute to the population among both kids and adults.

Family breakups affect some communities at much higher rates. That puts a burden on kids, parents, schools, and local and state governments. This is not just an individual challenge facing the country; it is a collective challenge facing the country.

An old playground chant says, "First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in a baby carriage." In America today, people are increasingly ignoring that order — love, marriage, family. How common are cohabitation and nonmarital childbearing? What effects do these practices have on cohabiting couples and on children born and raised out of wedlock?

WILCOX: One of the striking things we see in the research now is that most young women in America are putting love, baby carriage, and marriage in that order. A majority of firstborns are to women who are not married. Kids who are born with unmarried parents are about three times as likely to experience a breakup in their own relationships than kids born to married parents.

MARQUARDT: When we talk about children born outside of marriage, we need to talk about family instability. The divorce rate is troublingly high, but the cohabitation breakup rate is far higher. People say, "Well, you know, little Joey's mom and dad are not married, but they are living together, so what's the difference?" The difference is this: They are less likely to stay together if they have not made that public promise before God and everybody that they are going to stick together. This means a lot of flux in little Joey's life.

Over the course of childhood, over 18 years or so, a child is more likely to go through lots of different parents' partners who come in and out of the household. This exposes a child to more risks. Well-documented federal data indicate a mother's boyfriends are far more likely to harm children than a father's girlfriends.

Sometimes people ask me, "If you are going to get a divorce, what is the best time for kids?"

There is no good time. The older your child is, the more he/she has to lose. A child's identity is built on this intact family story that has suddenly come apart. They have a lot to grieve. The younger a child is when parents break up, the more likely he/she is going to grow up in this post-divorce chaos.

Several of the State of Our Unions reports have highlighted the decline of child-centeredness in our country. What do the reports mean by "child-centeredness," and what is the meaning and significance of this decline?

MARQUARDT: Child-centeredness is a society in which everyone recognizes that reproducing the next generation is important. It is not just a personal choice or a lifestyle choice; it is something that as a society is good and important.

What does that look like in your community? I live in a child-centered neighborhood, with a lot of playgrounds and good schools, a great library, a police force patrolling the streets, and pretty good neighbors. All that costs money; it requires social privilege. When parents cannot rely on their communities to be child centered and child-friendly, people retreat and try to privatize it in their own way.

The phenomenon of helicopter parenting, hyperparenting, and overscheduled children, in part, is a reaction to a loss of childhood in our societies. Parents feel the need to retreat because they cannot count on any institution to help them.

WILCOX: More concretely, about 49 percent of households had children in the 1960s, compared to about 33 percent today. Families had 3.6 kids on average, down to about 1.9 today. In terms of the amount of time adults are spending with kids, the number of kids they are having, and the presence of children in the home, child-centeredness has declined.

What difference do religious faith and practice make when it comes to marriage and family life? Also, what difference do marriage and family life make to religious faith and practice?

MARQUARDT: Some colleagues and I — Brad was part of this group — brought together social scientists, theologians, and others to reflect on how the shape of their family impacts the faith lives of children as they grow up. Our new report is called "Does the Shape of Families Shape Faith?" (

It is becoming clear that churches need to be concerned about helping families and child well-being, not just for the sake of the children, but also for the health of the church in the future. People who grow up without married parents are less likely to be involved in a faith community as an adult. This has real implications for the future of the church and the vitality of the congregation. Those who grow up without their married parents speak of feeling less understood in their congregations. Only about a fourth who were actively involved in church said that someone in their church reached out to them when their parents divorced.

WILCOX: In general, parents who are regular, involved churchgoers in some kind of religious community tend to be happier with their spouse and their children. We most likely find this kind of pattern in couples who share the same faith and who attend church together and pray together. Christopher Ellison, professor of sociology, University of Texas at San Antonio, suggests that praying together is a more powerful predictor of one's satisfaction in marriage than simply attending church together.

Among couples reporting that God is the center of their marriage, 75 percent said they are happy in their marriage, compared with 50 percent of couples who do not have a shared belief that God was present in their marriage.

How does this affect the church? My research suggests we can attribute almost a third of recent declines in church attendance to shifts in family structure. What happens in the family has enormous consequences for what happens in church communities.

How can churches promote healthy marriages and families within their congregations and within the community?

MARQUARDT: Many children of divorce do not have parents bringing them to church. We need to look beyond the doors of the church to figure out how to minister to these kids, how to welcome them.

One of the things I did in one of my studies was to retell the Parable of the Prodigal Son to young people from divorced or married-parent families and have them react to it.

People from married-parent families would tend to say, "Oh, yeah, I recognize that. That reminds me of when I went out and messed up, dated a rotten guy, or when my sister got into drugs. We got our heads together and came home, and our parents were there. That story makes sense to me."

People from divorced-parent families would say, "That reminds me of when my dad left," or "It's like after my parents got divorced and my mom had to work all the time, and nobody was ever there."

They do not see the prodigal son as themselves; they see him as their prodigal parents. Their parents wandered off, and they were waiting in the doorway for their parents to come home.

That is not generally the way pastors preach on that parable. If a pastor comes from a married-parent family or a happy family, he or she needs to learn about how these other family experiences shape their lives and thinking. Hear their voices and let them know you understand them.

WILCOX: First, speak the truth in love. Encourage pastors to articulate the teaching of their own tradition when it comes to marriage and family life.

People need to know the stories; they need to know the values that shape their church's approach to marriage and family life. People might have the best values in the world, but they do not have the virtues or the social support to make good on their commitment to marriage or the values for their families. We need to align our values, virtues, and communities in ways that are most likely to foster a strong family life in our congregations.

You said that only about a quarter of kids going through divorce experience the church community reaching out to them. That seems like a growth opportunity.

MARQUARDT: The intentions here are good. When a child's dad dies, people generally say, "Oh wow, something tragic has happened. Johnny's dad died. This is terrible. What can we do? Let's bring food, let's console the family, and let's gather together."

When a divorce happens, everybody flees. They do not want to take sides; they are afraid they will upset the child; they do not want to make the parents mad, so they say nothing. Kids feel a great tragedy — a major upending of their lives, and nobody says anything.

We talked about the fact younger people are more likely to cohabit, more likely to have their first birth out of wedlock, and more likely to have divorced parents. A young couple asks you, "Why marry?" What is your answer?

WILCOX: The vast majority of Americans today aspire to lifelong love. Marriage still provides young adults, even today, with the highest hope of realizing that goal. Married couples are happier, more stable, and more financially secure than unmarried couples.

You have to be very clear and frank with young adults concerning marriage. Marriage is difficult. It is challenging. It is hard work. The most successful marriages are ones where spouses die to their selfish desires and put the welfare of their spouse and their kids above their own. Fostering this other-centered marriage is going to be challenging, but it is the best hope of enjoying long-term dividends of a lifelong love.

Even a difficult marriage stands as a sign to the community of God's undying love for the Church. I hope that couples in a difficult or unloving marriage can see how their commitment to the marriage is a powerful witness to their children that it is about more than simply the happiness of the adults who are party to it.

MARQUARDT: Marriage is how you give your child the gift of your child's father. Marriage is how you give a child the gift of the child's mother. Marriage calls you outside yourself and puts you into a bigger story that is an adventure. You can have low times and you can have high times, and you can look back and be glad you did it that way.