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Living Together: Is It Really That Bad?

Dr. Chris and Alisa Grace pose for the cover of The Art of Relationships Podcast.


Chris Grace: Well, welcome to another Art of Relations Podcast. I'm Chris Grace.

Tim Muehlhoff: And I'm Tim Muehlhoff.

Chris Grace: And we have a special guest joining us today, Tim. Dr. Brad Wilcox, the Director of National Marriage Project at University of Virginia. Brad, welcome to our program.

Brad Wilcox: It's great to be here, guys, thanks for having me.

Tim Muehlhoff: It's our pleasure.

Chris Grace: It's good to have you and we have just been impressed, Brad, with so much of your work. Real quickly, just for the audience. You're a sociologist, trained at Virginia, an undergrad and Princeton grad, it sounds like, and then you're now at both a couple of places. University of Virginia, teaching there as a faculty member.

Brad Wilcox: That's right, yup.

Chris Grace: And then you direct the National Marriage Project. How did all of that start?

Brad Wilcox: Well, there's a guy named David Popenoe, who is a sociology professor at Rutgers University and he started this a number of years ago. Probably about 27 years ago, I guess. And he was retiring in 2009 and thought that it'd be great to, sort of, pass the National Marriage Project from Rutgers to UVA, so that's the quick story for that.

Chris Grace: So you've been doing this now since then?

Brad Wilcox: Since then and then a few years ago, some colleagues, including Scott Stanley, who you just mentioned, at the University of Denver, and I started the Institute for Family Studies and that's designed to do public education and some research around family questions as well. And I'm also a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute doing work there on the nexus between family and economics, so a couple of different things that all are, kind of, in your space.

Chris Grace: Yeah, that's great.

Tim Muehlhoff: Chris, we gotta get better guests. We just have to-

Chris Grace: Somebody who's got some experience.

Tim Muehlhoff: Well what drew you to this topic? Like your grad school, a ton of topics, but what drew you to ...

Brad Wilcox: Sure, yeah, I was raised by a single mother and, so I, in college, had the sense that, in a more personal way, that dads were important and that became the conclusion that marriage was that institution that connected dads, typically, to their kids and that I wanted to work around, sort of, family structure, marriage, fatherhood and religion, as well. I was raised in a home, Episcopalian home, and had some contact with Christianity, at that point, and wanted to explore the nexus between religion and family life, as well.

Tim Muehlhoff: That's great. And we're familiar with your research but not familiar with you. I see you're married.

Brad Wilcox: Yes, I'm married, yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff: Great. Can I ask how long?

Brad Wilcox: Sure. We've been married about 23 years now.

Tim Muehlhoff: Oh, that's great. Nice.  And how did you meet?

Brad Wilcox: We actually met at UVA. Our April 1st, April Fool's Day, 1992, we met and there's a story, but, it's a good story, it's just I ... I'd seen my wife, Danielle, around grounds at UVA. We took a class on Nietzsche that was the first-

Tim Muehlhoff: No way.

Brad Wilcox: And so I noticed her in the Nietzsche class and then I saw her in the library reading First Things and I was like, "This is kind of wild. Here's an attractive blonde, studying Nietzsche, reading First Things." So we had some mutual friends and they set us up on a blind date, so to speak, on that April 1st and it took us about three years to figure things out and then we got engaged and married in 1995.

Tim Muehlhoff: That's great. I met my wife. We were taking a class on Jean-Paul Sartre.

Brad Wilcox: Okay.

Tim Muehlhoff: No, I'm kidding. I'm just kidding.

Chris Grace: Well, I was at the Sponge Bob Movie when I saw my wife. That's kind of on the other side. So, hey, Brad, one of the interesting things is your journey in this, just as a person and just that idea of parenthood, even children raised without family, without fathers. And I just saw a New York Times article that you responded to that pushed back on that a little bit for you. I think it said something like, you know, "Why are we still pushing against single mothers. It's really difficult," and you responded to that saying, "Listen, there's a lot of research out there about the role of fathers" and what, in general, would you like to say about that and, yeah, just your thoughts?

Brad Wilcox: Well, I think it's obviously important to recognize and acknowledge that many kids raised in non-intact families and single parent families and what not, turn out just fine. You know, my sister and I are both doing well now. Happily married, couple of kids. But, I mean, between the two of us and gainfully employed, all that kind of stuff. So, it's important to acknowledge that for any given kid, they can do just fine in a variety of family connects.  But I'm also a sociologist, and I will tell you that on average, kids are more likely to flourish when they're raised by their own married mother and father. Having that connection to their biological parents, having two people who are really invested in them, who know them from birth. All these things are really helpful for kids.

And there's a lot of research, not just on the impact of family structure on kids, but even we're, sort of, finding more and more about how family structure at the community level seems to impact communities. Everything from crime to what's called economic mobility. That's basically the ability that poor kids can, over the course of their lives, realize the American Dream financially. And the American Dream is stronger for poor kids in communities where there are more two-parent families. And so, the point, simply, is that on average, both kids, men, women, and communities are more likely to be flourishing when you have strong, intact, two-parent families in the mix.

Chris Grace: There's just some news out, Brad, today, that I read. The Prime Minister of New Zealand, she's the third female prime minister. Her name is Jacinda Ardern. And she's about to go on leave because she's pregnant and she's going to be one of the first in history as a head of state to have a baby and she's not married. Right? Now she's living with the person. It's that kind of thing that you have found, in your research, that does some damaging things in some respects. Obviously, she could be a wonderful mother and they could be a great family, but I really don't know anything about her other than they love her over there. But this idea of being in a cohabitating relationship and raising a child isn't always the best for a child. Whether they're in America or New Zealand. I know you've studied different countries and America. What's your thoughts when you read about that?

Brad Wilcox: Yeah, that's a great example. I did a report with a colleague, Laurie DeRose, at Georgetown and some other folks. We looked at cohabitation and stability for kids in the United States and in Europe. What we found is that kids who were born to cohabiting parents were 90% more likely to see their mom and dad break up by the time they turned 12. And we were controlling for a variety of factors, including parental education, grandma's education, some things that might have confounded or distorted that relationship. So, the point I would make is that, again, in general, marriage is an institution. It's not even a Christian institution in the sense that we, obviously, see marriage in Egypt, in India, in China, that different civilizations have used a kind of guide, adult relationships and stabilize the connections that parents, typically, would have with their children.

And so when you see a departure from that with cohabitation, for instance, is one good example, like you were mentioning, in New Zealand, even though this prime minister may be a great mom and their family might go the distance, the concern I would have with that situation is that they're not expressing a commitment to one another, [inaudible 00:07:59] to marriage before having a child. And then she's also signaling to her country that this is an okay thing to do. I wrote an [inaudible 00:08:04] in USA Today, about a week and a half ago, kind of calling The Rock here in the US to task for the same thing. He's having a second child with his girlfriend, Lauren Hashian, outside of wedlock and that might just go fine for them. But, again, he's a very prominent figure here in the states and globally, obviously, as a major star and it would be nice if he would just actually put a ring on it and signal his commitment to Lauren and to their family future together before having baby number two, in this case.

Chris Grace: I thought that was well written, by the way. Loved it. And I think The Rock is such an influential person, just like, you know, like you Doctor, [crosstalk 00:08:49].

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah, I was gonna say he's the second most influential bald man I can think of. But, Brad, here's ... we get this question a lot and I think, on one level, people are just confused about why cohabitation is so bad. In other words, we were both talking on the way over here that you and I both teach a class on family communication.

So I do this thing with my students. I don't tell 'em ahead of time, but I come in and make an argument for living together. I just sit down and say, "How many of you have had a roommate situation that just went really badly? You thought it was gonna work out really well and I, actually, did my senior year, undergrad." I said, "So why not live together and give it a trial on many different levels and see each other 24/7 rather than sporadically?" And they're all sitting there, shaking their heads like, "Man, that just makes a ton of sense." And I say, "But you know what's funny, is research points in the opposite direction." Could you, for our listeners, just unpack, a little bit, why this is not a good idea for the long-term health of the marriage as well as the long-term health of the kids you elaborated on, just a little bit.

Brad Wilcox: So I have to be honest here. The important thing to note on this big question is that the evidence is much stronger when it comes to kids, on this issue, than it is when it comes to the adults.

Tim Muehlhoff: Nice clarification.

Brad Wilcox: Although, again, I was gonna say that from a community perspective, the whole point of marriage is for the kids. It's not like, for the adults. So what we know is that, again, people who are having kids and are cohabiting are much more likely to break up than those who are married.

And this makes sense, right? Because it doesn't matter if you're in Poland or if you're in Sweden, if you're in Norway, Italy, the United States, Mexico, people see cohabitation as a more flexible arrangement, as entailing less commitment and this is, saying that we've seen research extra recently where they're interviewing people across Europe and, obviously, differences from these countries in Europe but they do find, across Europe, that people see marriage as really the gold standard of commitment. And they see cohabitation as giving people more freedom and flexibility. So for the adults, it can be attractive. But if you're a child and your parents or the two people who are heading up your household are in a more flexible relationship, the flip side of that is not just less commitment but, oftentimes, more jealousy, more infidelity, more violence and much more instability.

And if you have had kids, if you cared for kids, if you've babysat kids, you know they thrive on stable routines with stable caregivers and that's not what cohabitation gives for kids. So that's the kid point I would make, quickly.

On the adult side, I think the issue there is that, and Scott Stanley at the University of Denver has made this point with Galena Rhoades, his colleague there, is that we're seeing, today, people are often sliding into cohabiting relationships. There's not a ton of commitment. They're often asymmetrical where one party is sort of looking at this as a stepping stone to marriage or something serious. The other party is like "Hey this is a way to save on the rent," or have access to good sex on a regular basis and so the problem, of course, then is that you don't have people on the same page in the relationship.

You can have people devoting a lot of time to someone who's not really that committed to them. And then you also can see people kind of just, they get together kind of willy-nilly. They never had serious conversations about their future. Their common values. But then they spend a year together, they get a couch, maybe a puppy together and then their friends are asking questions. Their parents are asking questions. They just drift into marriage and those couples are particularly likely to suffer more conflict, poor communication, more divorce if they go ahead and get married.  So, the point about cohabitation in adults is that it doesn't seem to really prepare people well for a strong and stable marital future and, in some cases, it can push together somebody who's not really committed to you and also can take you off the market.

So, I had a neighbor, for instance, and she was moved in with a guy who was about three years younger than she was, in her late 20s and they were together for five years. So, finally, she's 33, she's ready to get married and have kids. She's pressuring him in a very powerful way and he's like, "You know, I'm just not ready. I'm just not ready for this." And she's like "This is crazy" and so she just broke off the relationship and she's still single, no kids and she devoted five years of her life to this guy. So, again, the point is that the freedom and flexibility that seem attractive, I think, to a lot of younger adults when it comes to cohabitation can have some downsides.

Chris Grace: One of the studies we talk about, and maybe you could comment on a colleague at the University of Virginia, James [Cohen 00:13:28]. So James Cohen did some work on hand-holding. He's an amazing expert on, if you can believe that, on hand-holding. Yeah, so we've talked about him at this podcast. But, as a colleague of yours there, he found this whole notion, then, about commitment and the fascinating thing is he put people through this group.

Just for the listeners, reminder if they haven't heard this before, that individuals who are about to get shocked, anticipated this shock with a lot of stress and anxiety, but when they held the hand of a stranger, their anxiety went down and it wasn't as high. Then when they held the hand of the person they were married to, it went down even lower but the cohabitating partners, their stress level was about indistinguishable from strangers and I know you know about this study. What do you think about it? I mean, that's commitment. That's cohabitation, that really points to something odd or amazing. I'm not sure if he's, maybe, figured it out yet, exactly what the variable is, but when people don't make a commitment, it's as if something comes in, stress, trauma, anticipation of pain and they feel almost like someone doesn't have my back. They haven't made a commitment to me.

Brad Wilcox: Yeah, I think that is a telling example and he's not a conservative by any stretch, he's just a good scientist doing this work and, again, he found, as you just pointed out, that people derive a lot more comfort in these stressful situations when they're with a spouse rather than a cohabiting partner. It does signal the fact that marriage really is different. It really does signal to yourself, to your partner, to your family members, your friends, that you're really in it for the long haul.

And what I think about, too, just this difference is the thing about the point of entry here. And when we actually asked people about when did your cohabiting relationship begin, oftentimes, the two partners will give different dates. Just fascinating, right? So they don't even have the same, like ... They're not even on the same page in terms of when this thing began. Whereas, when you get married, you often have-

Tim Muehlhoff: A date.

Brad Wilcox: Well, you've got a date and, usually, a ceremony. It might be at a church or a synagogue or it could be down at the county courthouse. But people know when it happened and usually, there are friends and family were there to mark and punctuate the start of your entry into this relationship. So just, the more you unpack cohabitation and marriage, the more you realize that they are qualitatively different from one another.

Tim Muehlhoff: We were in London just last summer and we were in this incredibly long line for the Churchill War Room. It went on forever. And we didn't know if we were gonna make it. And so there was a young couple in front of us so we just got to talking to this couple and we told 'em that we'd been married for, like you, 20 plus years and I said, "Are you guys married?" And he goes, "No, we're dating." And she turned to him and said, "We're living together." And you could see the tension just a little bit. Like, "Hey, we're not dating."  But interesting that they weren't on the same, necessarily, the same page verbally, as well as, maybe even intellectually, they weren't on the same page. I thought that was really telling. And you could tell it bugged her that he said dating.

Brad Wilcox: Right.  Well, one thing too, there is a gender story here and, again, it's not true for everyone, but we do see, generally speaking, that in a cohabiting relationship, she's much more likely to be committed to the long-term than he is. And in a married relationship, there's still a gap where's she's a bit more committed but the gap is much smaller in commitment. So, again, the question is, well whose interests are really being served, at least on a short-term basis, by cohabitation? And that's an open question.

Tim Muehlhoff: I think it's important, though, to remind our listeners that not all couples live together for the same reasons. You've been really astute to say that economics plays a role on why couples live together and that even ... it's not just financially viable for some couples with the current laws and the current structures for them to get married. They actually get punished, a little bit, for doing that. Can you unpack ... 'cause I don't want everybody to think a couple gets married because they're shirking traditional marriage. They're making a protest statement. I don't think that's true of all couples, but you've noticed that for some couples, this is an economic reason why they don't, officially, get married.

Brad Wilcox: Yeah, so there's work done by Sharon Sassler, of Cornell University, on cohabitation. She finds that working class and poor Americans are more likely to cohabit and move in quickly, in part, for financial reasons. You know, they're hoping to save on the rent and they see this as an economically feasible way to do things. And then the related point that gets to your question more directly is that the way that many of our [inaudible 00:18:11] policies like Medicaid, for instance, and food stamps, for instance, are structured is that when you ... if you were to apply for them, having gotten married to someone, say you have a baby together, and let's say that the mother is earning about $15,000 a year and the father is earning, say, $30,000 a year. Their joint income could mean that they're not gonna qualify for Medicaid. They're not gonna qualify for food stamps or they're gonna lose some benefits when it comes to food stamps.

So when it comes to the kind of thing about healthcare or food, lower-income couples can face a difficult choice. And that is "Should we just live together?" And often have the mom apply for or get access to one of these benefits. Or "We get married, pool our income officially, and apply and then, maybe, lose access" ... anything, in particular, that comes to healthcare, there is real concern, obviously, particularly, with a child in the picture and also the costs of paying for the birth, depending upon their situation.

So, anyways, the point, simply, is that I think there's a calculous that orients a lot of working class and poor Americans away from marriage and, unfortunately, there's another calculous for middle-class parents or middle-class adults who tend to enjoy better incomes, individually, and then are thinking about maybe buying a house together and then establishing a 401K down the road. And so the calculous, for them, economically is actually pushing them towards marriage, oftentimes, and in ways that just reinforce the stability of their relationships and their financial advantages, as well.

Tim Muehlhoff: And the point I want people to take away, our listeners, from a communications standpoint, every couple that lives together has a story and for us to stereotype and to think one thing, it's great to hear their background, their story, why they're doing this, their particular struggles. I think, as Christians, we need to be compassionate. I think we need to lead with compassion. So I think that's great, Brad, that there are a bunch of reasons ... When we started speaking at marriage conferences, roughly 22 years ago, we'd do this whole session for pre-married couples. Very few were living together. And now, we've seen that it is easy, 70% of the people at the session are now living together for a multitude of reasons. So it really is a cultural trend that we're seeing quite a bit.

Brad Wilcox: Yeah.

Chris Grace: Brad, just in the idea of marriage, I think you called it a marriage premium, marriage benefit. There's another thing you've written about and studied and that is the benefits of marrying in your mid to late 20s. Real quickly, on that one, I know there's a lot of stuff out there on this. What would you say to couples that are considering this and, I mean, that's such a hopeful thing to say. I love that. That you should be married and that's a great age to do this. Talk, a little bit, about that and what you found there.

Brad Wilcox: Sure, well, there's, I guess, before we get into this, the two important points to make here is that when we look at patterns of divorce. The sweet spot in terms of your lowest risk of divorce in your late 20s or early 30s, when we look at marital quality, the sweet spot is the mid-20s. So the point I'm making is that there's a bit of a different story for marital stability versus marital quality. And when it comes to marital quality, I think the advantage of getting married in your mid 20s, broadly defined, is that you know you are younger, you have a chance to establish a common life together, to establish traditions, and how you handle the summer vacation, how you handle Christmas, Thanksgiving, et cetera with your family. You can think about how you're gonna handle work and family in a more intentional way at a young age. And also for folks who are really interested in having kids, it's a great time to go ahead and have kids. I mean, that's when women are more fertile and biologically primed to have kids.

So all these things play into, I think, the advantage of having a wedding in your mid-20s, probably [inaudible 00:22:24]. And I also find, too, that couples who are on the same page religiously are more likely to get married in their mid-20s whereas if they wait longer, they're more likely to marry someone outside of their own religious community. And maybe it's, you know, they've, perhaps, moved away, to some extent, from their religious community, either geographically or otherwise. Or they're less selective in terms of who they end up with as they get a little bit older.

So there are a couple of reasons, I think, why getting married in your mid-20s seems to make sense. And on the divorce point, it's also important to acknowledge that if couples are attending church together and they're getting married in their early or mid-20s, their divorce risk comes down pretty markedly. So it's, kind of, a protective factor against the immaturity that sometimes couples who are getting married in their ... particularly guys ... who are getting married in their early 20s or mid-20s, you know, will experience.

Tim Muehlhoff: That role of community is so important. You write about that a lot that, it really does take a village. But that people don't do that. People are more isolated is kind of what you're noticing a little bit today is to a multitude of reasons we don't form deep roots with other community members and we're paying the price for that.

Brad Wilcox: Yeah, that's definitely the case and I think it's, you know, on the one hand we're hyper-connected with social media but it's, obviously, can be a superficial connection and so I think, for couples, whether they're young, middle-aged or older, I think it's great to be involved and connected to some kind of small group where there's a regular sense of accountability. Where everyone's able to help one another when someone gets cancer or someone loses a job or there's a difficult teenager. There's other people to seek help from when the going gets tough. So I think, yeah, marriages are much stronger when people are embedded in some kind of local community and a small group would be one good example of that.

Tim Muehlhoff: But what makes that hard is our [inaudible 00:24:27] lives. Like, the work ... we have three boys. All were athletic. And there was one year we just lost our minds. We allowed two of 'em to be on travel teams and it was insane. We were separate every weekend. Church was something you did when you weren't in the finals of a basketball tournament and we would sit with people in the stands that we sort of, kind of knew each other. But these aren't the people that are gonna be showing up at your front step if there's an illness or checking in on your marriage. So we felt the most disconnected we had ever felt during that crazy season of travel basketball and all that different kind of stuff. And by the way, all the parents were in the same boat. We're like "Hey, we know that we're crazy busy. This is imbalanced," but community takes effort and we're gonna have to communicate to the kids, eventually, "Hey, I'm sorry. You're not running the show, completely. You're just not running the show." So, yeah, interesting that we need that connectedness. That's a great point.

Chris Grace: Brad, this has been just great to talk with you. Here's what I think we ought to do. Let's continue the conversation. There are so many topics. Your research. We wanna ask a number of questions about what you're doing now. Some exciting findings and things you're doing. So it'd be great to-

Tim Muehlhoff: I didn't get to my Nietzche question. I had a Nietzche question.

Chris Grace: Well, let's do that in the next podcast. You wanna do that?

Tim Muehlhoff: Okay, yeah.

Chris Grace: All right. Brad, thanks for joining us. Great work where you're at and it's just a blessing. I know a lot of people are reading the works that you're putting out and both of the National Marriage Project and then also AEI and all of the work you're doing there. So thanks for that and thanks for taking time to be on our show.

Brad Wilcox: It's great to be here.