‘My stress levels are up to here,” said Rob, pointing above his head. A roofer from southern Ohio, Rob had recently broken up with Julia, his fiancée and the mother of his two boys. A couple since junior high, they planned to marry once they were financially stable. But what began with flirtatious Facebook messages with “some rich kid” (as Rob described the guy) ended up with Julia cheating and moving out. Rob wondered whether it was because he didn’t have the money to give her the kind of lifestyle she wanted — despite working full-time, he hadn’t had a raise in three years. “Money causes a lot of issues with a relationship,” he said.
Still, Rob didn’t think money was the root of all evil. He thought their problems fundamentally came down to trust. “I would like to trust her,” he said, “but how am I supposed to?”
He also didn’t trust marriage. “They say that once you get married, it turns about ten times worse. People’s told me, ‘Hey, don’t ever get married.’” Marriage was dangerous; it carried the risk of divorce. Rob, whose own parents divorced when he was a boy, didn’t think kids should have an absent parent, but he resigned himself to it. “I don’t believe in split families and sh**, but sometimes it just happens.”
Who or what is to blame for this unraveling of marriage and the complete breakdown of trust in Rob’s world, and in the world of so many white, working-class people like him?
Economic instability is most immediately evident, as it was for Rob and Julia, whose work histories were characterized by the typical challenges: irregular hours and seasonal employment; lack of paid family leave and sick days; low wages combined with rising rent. In this regard, Rob’s predicament is not particularly unusual: Working-class men’s wages have been fairly stagnant since the 1970s even as their spells of unemployment and underemployment have increased.
Less visible but more dramatic is the role of social alienation. At least two generations have now come of age in the aftermath of the divorce revolution, and whatever the original causes — was it economic change or cultural change that mattered more? — the trauma that generations of children in fragmented families have experienced has become a main factor explaining the great unraveling. “Trust issues” run rampant.
Simply put, when you grow up without any positive marriage models, it’s more difficult to trust the opposite sex and to have confidence in marriage. “Back in the Fifties, yeah, love existed,” was how one young gas-station attendant put it. “Now it don’t. . . . Love is just a word. It’s just fake.”
It’s also the case that in the proliferation of trauma and family chaos — high rates of children born outside of marriage, the opioid epidemic — marriage sometimes becomes about filling loneliness and healing broken selves: two emotionally needy people seeking solace and loading marriage with expectations that it can’t possibly fulfill. “Some people are looking just to immediately fall into a relationship. Some people are looking just to escape loneliness,” said Adam, a young married Ohioan who later became addicted to heroin and divorced.
Further, social alienation has left a vacuum in which many working-class young people are even more vulnerable to (misleading) cultural cues about relationships and marriage. In the absence of in-the-flesh marriage models, what entertainers and educators say has unmitigated power.
Particularly damaging is the popular story about love, because it is foundational for all else — choosing a partner, the timing of sex, the meaning and purpose of marriage, the bounds of family. For instance, if love is primarily a feeling that just happens to you, then finding a spouse is less an active process of discernment and more an “aha” moment. You can fall in love, and out of it. Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck contrasts this “fixed mindset” with a “growth mindset” about love, which expects feelings to ebb and flow with the circumstances of life and sees that it takes effort to overcome inevitable differences and create lasting love.
Whereas even ten years ago the public conversation about the marriage gap — that is, the divergence of marriage trends across class lines — felt relatively one-sided depending on a person’s ideology, today it’s common to acknowledge the multifaceted nature of the marriage retreat. There is a growing awareness that it’s not simply about bad choices or malignant forces. There is no one thing killing marriage. Instead, a dizzying array of economic, social, and cultural causes are intersecting with people’s free choices. Conservatives, in particular, need to recognize the role that economics has played in marriage’s retreat among the working class.
To recognize it is to appreciate the shaping power of those mediating institutions that lie between the individual and the state: the family, the neighborhood, churches, schools, and, yes, businesses, too. What those civil-society institutions say and do mediates beliefs, and either supports or fails families. The televangelist who proclaims unceasingly that you should live your best life now sows the seeds of marital unhappiness. The neighborhood that becomes a silent war zone of opioids and other drugs feeds distrust rather than trust. And the big business that celebrates abortion but fails to offer paid family leave for its workers sends the not-so-subtle message that work is more important than family.
To adopt an analogy from the natural world, marriage lives in an environment — in neighborhoods and families of origin, in places of work and places of worship, and in the world of ideas and beliefs and attitudes that make up a culture. Pollute that environment, and you endanger marriage. In working-class neighborhoods, marriage is endangered because the marriage ecosystem — social, economic, and cultural — has become toxic. The culture that tells individuals to prioritize their short-term happiness above all else also tells business leaders to prioritize shareholder profits above workers. In both cases, the divorces are hemorrhaging trust.
That’s decisive, because the loss of social trust, the oxygen of marriage, is the most insidious danger of the toxic ecosystem. The task then is to both repair the ecosystem and rebuild the trust upon which it is sustained. This involves everyone from policymaker to next-door neighbor.
If you’re a business leader, what can you do to make it easier for your workers to get and stay married? Offering a couple of weeks of paid family leave is an obvious way to help. So is paying a living wage. We can learn from conservative leaders such as Seattle businessman Gellert Dornay, who reports that instituting profit-sharing plans has benefited his company and his employees’ families. Dornay, the founder of Axia Home Loans, is part of a network of business leaders advancing what they call “shared capitalism,” which challenges the notion that businesses should exist primarily to maximize shareholder profit. “Instead of profits being siphoned to a small group of outside shareholders who are already financially secure,” Dornay wrote in an article for the Institute for Family Studies (an organization with which we are involved), “shared capitalism emphasizes a wider participation in the profits by including workers, not just shareholders, in the success of a company.” We need conservative business leaders, in particular, who can model and articulate how business is not a separate sphere from civil society but a vital part of it, and therefore a vital part of the marriage ecosystem.
If you’re an active member of your religious congregation, what can your congregation do to become a friend of marriage? Many churches have formal marriage-preparation programs and are in need of mentors and trained facilitators. In the absence of that, invite a dating or engaged couple over for dinner. Cross-class and intergenerational friendships can help to address both social alienation and deceptive cultural cues.
A pro-worker, pro-family coalition of policymakers could eliminate the marriage penalties associated with programs such as Medicaid and food stamps, which discourage all too many working-class couples from tying the knot, or they could introduce a wage subsidy to reduce the kind of financial stress that can tear couples like Rob and Julia apart.
Finally, conservatives should welcome potential progressive allies. For instance, social conservatives have spent the last 50 years resisting the culture of sexual objectification, arguing against everything from porn to sexually degrading television commercials. But in 2019 the loudest movement protesting sexual objectification is Me Too. There are excesses to avoid with the movement, but there are also opportunities for common ground and new arguments to make about why sexual libertarianism has been terrible for marriages and social trust. Amid the wreckage, conservatives can propose a new culture of sexual restraint and a “theology of the body” that tells a positive and holistic story about love and sex.
When it comes to marriage, the task is less to conceive new programs dedicated explicitly to strengthening marriage (though such programs have their place), and more to repair the marriage ecosystem and replenish the collective reserve of social trust upon which it depends.
Rob and Julia eventually reunited after Rob found roofing work at a new company, where he earned raises and promotions along with a new truck and smartphone, tokens of reclaimed dignity. When his mom died from an overdose, it prompted soul-searching and renewed grit: He wanted to leave a legacy his family could be proud of. Mildred, the religious old woman Rob credits with straightening him out when he was an unruly young man, was as ever his model, her lifelong marriage an inspiration. Rob still had trust issues but built enough trust to buy a fixer-upper with Julia and tie the marriage knot.
Not without struggle, Rob and Julia are finding their way. It takes an ecosystem to sustain a marriage.
–Mr. and Mrs. Lapp are research fellows at the Institute for Family Studies and are currently writing a book on marriage and the working class. Mr. Lapp is also a co-founder of Better Angels. Mr. Wilcox is the director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
This article appears as “The Marriage Ecosystem” in the August 12, 2019, print edition of National Review.