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Question and Answer with the National Marriage Project

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.


Tim Muehlhoff: It's great to be back.


Chris Grace: Yeah, it's fun to have a guest here, named Dr. Brad Wilcox, who is the director of the National Marriage project at University of Virginia. Brad, thank you for coming all the way up to sunny California, from ... I don't know if it's rainy Virginia, but it's so good to have you here.


Brad Wilcox: It's good to be here today.


Chris Grace: Yeah, and we're ... oh-


Tim Muehlhoff: We've been having some great conversations. We thought it would be kind of fun to close with some, almost some popcorn questions just to get your...


Brad Wilcox: [laughs] Okay


Tim Muehlhoff: After researching for such a long time and yourself being married, raising nine kids, we just had some questions we were dying to ask you and, again there is no wrong answer, just top of your head, what you kind of think.


Chris Grace: And just to set it up again, you're out here visiting with the American Enterprise Institute. We're grateful for them to get you out here and make a presentation to our faculty and our students. We run a Center for Marriage and Relationships and we rely a lot on a lot of your research out there and so just so grateful to you for that so let's start. There's a couple of questions.


Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah, you've been studying this topic for a long time and committed to it. You've been married twenty plus years. If you were to speak to our listeners as married couples, what would be the one thing if you had to try to distill, such a horrible question, try to distill, what it is you think is the priority, what is the thing, the center, the bullseye, couples cannot move away from?


Brad Wilcox: You know I think it's about really kind of the future and it's about kind of your posterity. It's about thinking about what legacy you're leaving for your kids and your kid's kids. We're fortunate to have my wife's parents right in Charlottesville with us and they've been married fifty plus years and there's just, that's a gift that they've given to us and to my wife and to their grandkids, our kids. So I think that just recognizing that marriage is tough, marriage is a long road to walk, there are many peaks and many valleys in married life. I don't take the psalmic view of marriage, there are plenty of times when things are difficult for couples, including for me as a husband but the whole idea is that you live a life together and you pass on this common family experience to your kids and hopefully your grandkids and that sets them on a path that's going to be typically a better one for them.


Tim Muehlhoff: What's great about that is, let's say you inherited not unlike you, you inherited a tough legacy, a legacy of divorce or a legacy of different issues, you can change that legacy. I was thinking of Steven Covey, Beginning with the End in Mind, so you're saying the end is think about the legacy you're going to hand off to your kids and they'll hand off to their kids. We all make mistakes and you can change the legacy if you feel like boy, we've not done this well...we've struggled for a multitude of reasons you can change the legacy. I love that! I think that's great!.


Chris Grace: I think it is too. Brad, let me ask this question. Tell me a little bit about what is the journey you've been on. There's a lot out there. What do you love best about your work? I mean I see your work in the Washington Post, the New York Times, I know you teach classes, we talked about...


Tim Muehlhoff: You've been on the Center for Marriage and Relationships podcast.


Chris Grace: [laughs] of all that we could say


Tim Muehlhoff: The pinnacle?


Chris Grace: [laughs] maybe the pinnacle. I just wanted him to say that. Thanks for ruining that but.


Tim Muehlhoff: I'm sorry. [laughs]


Chris Grace: Of all these things you do, you write, you do research, you work with a lot of different colleagues. Besides Tim and I, which are your most favorite, what are the favorite things that you get to do? What brings you life and energy and excitement that you're looking forward to over the next couple of years?


Brad Wilcox: I do like writing. Writing is difficult for me, as it is I think for most people but when you're in the middle of a writing project and this thing we get to do as professors there's a certain joy to being creative, using your mind and discovering new things even as you write. I think that's part of the beauty of this kind of work.  I enjoy giving lectures to public audiences and students around these questions. [inaudible 00:04:54] was walking down it's called the downtown mall in Charlottesville, it's sort of a closed-off main street in Charlottesville, it's just a pedestrian mall and was approached by a young couple. They said that they had been in a large lecture class and that they had been inspired to get married and so that was a pretty meaningful moment for me and I met a woman at a conference out in Arizona. She said that her daughter had just had a baby with someone a few years ago and was at a conference that I was speaking at in South Carolina, of all places across the country and she was motivated by this discussion to go out and get married to the father of her child. So it's those kinds of moments where you actually will touch people in a personal way when it comes to marriage that I think are the most, I think, meaningful ones to me.


Chris Grace: Oh that's great! Great answer!


Brad Wilcox: That's your legacy. That's powerful!


Chris Grace: It really is and the work that you're doing I think that sometimes when you end up in this kind of work, you don't always get to hear that, right? You're and architect or you build something, you get to see that. Sometimes when you're a professor you impact people in some amazing ways with your writings and your books that you just don't always hear so it's great those kinds of things isn't it? So then, tell me real quickly about your spiritual journey. I know that plays a role in your life and how does that influence kind of what you study and work?


Brad Wilcox: Well I was raised in a Protestant household and my father was an Episcopalian pastor, a chaplain at the University of Connecticut...


Tim Muehlhoff: The University of Connecticut?


Brad Wilcox: Yes. [crosstalk 00:06:46]  but he died when I was three and so my Mom raised my sister and I as a single mom for the rest of...she's never re-married since then. So I left UVA, was a pretty, I think one of the male Episcopalian kid and a couple of professors at the University of Virginia including James Hare, who is a colleague of mine now at the UVA


Tim Muehlhoff: Oh my goodness!


Brad Wilcox: Who kind of challenged me intellectually and otherwise to think more deeply about my faith and I was also kind of coming into the view in college that marriage is an institution that connects men to their kids on average and so those experiences kind of encouraged me to become a more devout young man. About three years after graduating from UVA, became Catholic in part because of the Catholic churches commit men in terms of it's teaching to marriage and [inaudible 00:08:00]. And I've been Catholic since 1995. I'm still a practicing Catholic, since 1995.


Tim Muehlhoff: James Davison Hunter


Brad Wilcox: Yes


Tim Muehlhoff: So my Master's thesis was opening the gay Christian dialogue, just feeling discouraged that so many negative stereotypes while his books were in a culture war, just had a deep impact and I just have a recent book called Winds of Persuasion that he is quoted all over the place. Brilliant, and that's his legacy. Touching so many people.


Brad Wilcox: Right and he's really been committed to sort of this idea of understanding this importance of principled pluralism in our country that we are a very pluralistic country. People have very different perspectives along with different important issues and are there places where we can find common ground?


Tim Muehlhoff: Oh yeah


Brad Wilcox: Can we kind of create spaces where we can cultivate our distinctive communities and yet still live together in civil national context and of course all these challenges are more and more pressing in 2018 today than they were even when he wrote back in the 1990s those questions.


Tim Muehlhoff: Quick side note. I love his description of America as the excluded middle. We forget that because the voices are so loud on the right and the left but Americans are the excluded middle and we have much commonality but it's often not highlighted. But oh yeah, what a great individual, there's a chance he might be coming to our campus soon which is just great. We'd love it. One quick question - we're pop corning questions, real quick and putting you on the spot a little bit but how has it affected your parenting growing up without a dad? How has that kind of shaped how you view being a father?


Brad Wilcox: Yeah, that's a good question. I think for me as someone who's a bit more bookish and when I was a kid I was fascinated with Walter Cronkite and CBS news and was the kind of kid who used to read the newspaper in the morning and it was just so I think for me that I have to be more deliberate about kind of coming home and heading out the back door to play soccer or throw the football or whatever else. Or playing some kind of game with my kids in the evening, like charades for instance. Because I'm not as inclined because I'm not the sports Dad and so I have to kind of work to do that and one of the things of course that I've learned as the student of the family is that one of the things that dads do for their kids is that they play with their kids. The more the kids have rousing, surprising, physical play, you know roughhousing on the family room floor, whether it's playing soccer or football in the back yard,


Tim Muehlhoff: Jumping on a trampoline...


Brad Wilcox: Jumping on a trampoline, all that kind of stuff with their father the more likely they are to flourish socially and athletically and even to control their emotions as well. The point simply being that I think being playful is one of the things that dads often do with their kids and it's and important thing that we don't necessarily


Chris Grace: Great word.


Brad Wilcox: Think about and so that's for me being playful can be a challenge.


Tim Muehlhoff: That's so important.


Chris Grace: Yes it is.


Tim Muehlhoff: So many dads and wives, mothers, you come home just exhausted and you can view that front door as a finish line. Like now I'm home and now I'm done and there's just no way, if you have kids. I love how you esteemed fathers, Brad, because culture today almost makes Dad like a doofus, like he's the butt of a lot of jokes today in sitcoms and movies but dads, research shows that dads have pretty powerful connection with kids and a presence, not to say that mothers don't, but


Brad Wilcox: Well you know and Friends of Dads, as all of you here know I think we've historically known that Dads offer and play a big role financially in the lives of their families and also as disciplinarians but we're learning more about the importance of play as I just mentioned and also the way in which dads tend to kind of challenge their kids to embrace life's difficulties, opportunities, to become more engaged in civil society or politics or sports, just to kind of push the kids out of the nest [inaudible 00:12:34]. It's just an important role that dads play in their kids lives as well.


Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah.


Chris Grace: In all of your research that you've done and continue to be involved in for a long time you have a lot of colleagues out there who are studying, marriage, cohabitation, divorce, fatherhood, things like that. What's the most hopeful findings out there for you? There's a lot of bad news, the institution of marriage is under attack, the role of parents, even the number of cohabitation rates are going straight up compared to some of our marriage rates...


Tim Muehlhoff: This mythical 50 percent divorce rate


Chris Grace: Yeah. Which gets propagated a lot. What, in all of this. I mean you're right in the middle of it so when you think about that which is most hopeful, what comes to mind and yeah so share that with our listeners out there.


Brad Wilcox: Well I think the hopeful side of the ledger here, it's important for us to acknowledge two things. One is that dads are much more engaged, one they're living with the mother of their children today than was the case often three or four generations ago. And so I think we can acknowledge and celebrate the fact that our culture has brought us to a point where we are expecting dads to be more practically engaged with the kids and that's a good thing. The second thing is that we actually I think have learned is at least among the middle class something about divorce since the 1980s. So we had this huge explosion in divorce in the late '60s, '70s, and '80s but there are a lot of scholars working in this area, there were public intellectuals like David Popham, David Blackenhorn, working on this question, raising concerns about the divorce culture, Barbara Defoe Whitehead. So I think a lot of upper middle class folks have gotten the message that divorce is not the best thing for their kids and it still happens, it still occurs but people are a lot more careful about divorce today among the upper middle class, among the college kids set.


One example of this is an article that was published in the New York Times a number of years ago called How Divorce Lost it's Groove. It's just a fascinating kind of portrait of the way in which even in Park Slope which is a liberal neighborhood in Brooklyn, and even in Seattle, obviously a very progressive city, a lot of sort of educated more progressive married folks are just taking things more carefully. Taking their commitments more seriously and they're just much more hesitant to get get divorced today than would have been the case back in the '70s or '80s at the height of [inaudible 00:15:22]. That's an example of where we've learned a lesson here and the challenge I think now is can we extend these kind of lessons across the country.


Chris Grace: And down generations as well...


Brad Wilcox: And to working class and poor communities. Can we make a San Bernardino as stable a place for families as Newport Beach?


Chris Grace: That's really good. What is the divorce rate then just real quickly as a quick aside and right now if someone asked you, hey I need a number of the divorce rate and I know it probably varies...


Brad Wilcox: So my colleagues Scott Dannelly would say it's about 43 percent of first marriages. But again the important thing to sort of know having made that point, beyond that is that it looks like folks who are college educated are about two-thirds less likely to get divorced than Americans who are not college educated.


Tim Muehlhoff: Wow! That is a huge difference!


Chris Grace: That would be in the twenties then. The percent, right?


Brad Wilcox: We have to sort of adjust for the fact that it's going to be higher for the working class or it's going to be lower for the college...but there's a big divide there. Couples who attend church together it's like 35 to 40 percent less likely to get divorced. So if you're talking about like a college educated church-going couple, their odds of divorce are actually going to be much lower, much lower than 43 percent. If you are talking about a working class couple who don't go to church together, their odds are going to be much higher than 43 percent is a way to think about that.


Chris Grace: Wow!


Tim Muehlhoff: Again, I love the fact that you were esteeming dads and I don't know if you're aware of this research, it was Oxford University Press, 2013 but it was Benson, Putney and Harris, Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down Across Generations. They raised a stir up at Viola because this is what they basically said that passing on religious values they kind of ranked it a little bit and again, my wife was here. I don't know if Elise was here, but they basically said dads were the transmission vehicle and second were grandparents. And then mothers were of course important but the research showed that it really was the fathers that set the tone when it came to religion and then grandparents really powerfully augmented that. Of course the women on campus were all like well, I'm gonna go take a nap because apparently I'm not doing anything. That's not what he was saying but I love the fact that he was seeking to esteem the role that dad's kind of uniquely had and grandparents. Man, step in there and your legacy could be again passing this on to the kids and stuff like that.


I actually called Noreen's grandparents and they were awesome! Catholic as well and just said, hey thank you so much for what you've done with my kids, it's just amazing so I love that you've been painting a vision for grandparents.


Brad Wilcox: Right. I think the point there in part is that even today there is a way in which many families, Mom has the kind of, she's the default keeper of the faith.


Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah


Brad Wilcox: And so when kids see their father taking it seriously it kind of opens their eyes, oh this is not just a mom thing, Dad's [crosstalk 00:18:34] and if their grandparents are also, whoa this, you know so a lot of important people in their lives are taking faith seriously and I think that makes it much more salient for the kids. The other point about grandparents too is that their different than the parents. My parents for instance, my father-in-law is a former Air Force officer, really old-school kind of guy and pretty tough minded and pretty imposing in his own way and so like when he does something or says something it gets a whole different kind of reaction [crosstalk 00:19:06] from my kids than when I say something or do something so that's a good thing so it's like they're getting these kinds of messages and examples from very different people in their orbit. So the more people who are taking their faith seriously for whom they have some measure of respect and love, I think the better.


Tim Muehlhoff: We're back to community. Yeah, that's great.


Chris Grace: So then as we wrap up here, Brad, there are some things you have in your future and some plans, obviously writing and continuing. Anything on the near horizon that you're excited about and looking forward to? I know you're on the research leave? That's always an amazing thing for a faculty member to take a sabbatical? But what's?


Brad Wilcox: I'm writing with the class divide and America Family Life this semester but also working with some colleagues on two reports. One on kind of basic African-American Men who are Flourishing. There's been so much research in the last year about Black men, Black boys in the New York Times three weeks ago who are floundering, who are doing poorly but I'm sorry, I know plenty of Black men who are in their thirties, forties, fifties who are doing really well. And they are there and no one is studying them, no one is talking about them, no one is thinking about them, so we're going to be looking at sort of Black men who are doing well in America and what are the things in their lives that have to account for their success in America today.


And the same thing we're doing is a big new report in the fall on Religion and Family globally. Trying to figure out what role religion plays in lives of couples and families and we've got about 12 countries we're looking at right now from Taiwan to the United States, to France, to Australia, just looking to write a context that at this nexus of religion and family life, what's happening today.


Chris Grace: Any interesting findings? [crosstalk 00:20:59]


Brad Wilcox: Not yet. I know the survey is going in the field really soon. I don't know what we're going to find but I'm really trying to [inaudible 00:21:08] for obvious reasons. One thing that had come up earlier in our conversation too is just think about what is the thing has most surprised me in my research and England has qualified my work now as I'm a big fan of fathers and a big fan of the intact two-parent married family and all that kind of stuff. So I was doing a project looking at the role of fathers in education in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia and parts of Latin America. Well I was surprised to find that in some countries having a father in the home was not linked to better educational outcomes for kids. I was just kind of like what's that all about?


That's surprising to me, given my priors as they say in the Academy and I kind of explored the issue more deeply found that in some of these countries, dads weren't expected to play kind of a hands-on role for their kids. So it helped to sort of see that a family structure in and of itself is not the only thing, of course that's obvious to you as psychologists, but the process really matters here too obviously and if a culture doesn't really encourage men to kind of step up and be practically and emotionally engaged in the lives of their kids, we're not going to necessarily see that the presence of a father has an impact, at least in this domain, education, in these countries. So that was helpful for me to see but a thing that I thought to be important even the presence of the child's father in the household, yeah it's important oftentimes but it also depends upon a certain kind of cultural context or expectation that dads will be engaged with their kids.


Tim Muehlhoff: That's great.


Chris Grace: That's good. That's good work.


Brad Wilcox: Thank you.


Chris Grace: Well, Brad, we've had you for a couple of these sessions and we're looking forward to your work and all of the things you're doing out there for this area. I know, Tim, when we go out and talk and speak in different places the data that we have is really most effective in the lives of the couples that we see and individuals when we talk and even on this podcast when it's based upon some of this research that Brad and others are doing and it's such a blessing to be able to see that and so...


Tim Muehlhoff: And we do the podcast as kind of a clearing house for that, right?


Chris Grace: Yeah


Tim Muehlhoff: We're all busy, there's so much information out there and one of the things we like to do on this podcast and in the Center is kind of distill that and get the best to you so that you can just add more to your relational toolbox, your marriage toolbox, your parenting toolbox, and so Brad, again, you're a big part of that toolbox, so thank you!


Brad Wilcox: Well thanks for including me.


Chris Grace: Yeah so for listeners, you can find some of his work at the National Marriage Project, at the Institute for Family Studies,


Tim Muehlhoff: You've got a blog?


Brad Wilcox: has a lot of great pieces Monday through Thursday. So a lot of different stuff there on marriage, sex, parenthood, work, family issues. It's


Chris Grace: And apparently it's one of the two best podcasts in America and blogs. That and CMR’s. Is that right Tim? Is that what you heard? [laughter]


Tim Muehlhoff: That's what I heard!


Chris Grace: Thanks for joining us! for other information about Dr. Wilcox and his work and then just for the podcast and blogs. Events all over the place that we do and so glad to have you listeners with us.


Tim Muehlhoff: Take care everybody! Bye!


Chris Grace: Thanks Brad! [music]