New study: conservatives are more likely to be happily married than progressives

If you want a very happy marriage, don't be a progressive
If you want a very happy marriage, don’t be a progressive

New study from social science researchers W. Bradford Wilcox and Nicholas Wolfinger.

It’s written up in The Federalist.


In the General Social Survey (GSS), one of the best barometers of American society, ideology is measured by asking respondents to rate their political attitudes on a liberal-conservative continuum (1 = extremely liberal, 7 = extremely conservative). We coded those men and women answering 1 to 3 as “liberal,” those answering with a 4 as “moderate,” and those answering 5 to 7 as “conservative.”

Figure 1 indicates that conservatives are significantly more likely to be married than are moderates and liberals. In fact, they are about 15 percentage points more likely to be married than their liberal fellow citizens. Moreover, this relationship remains strong after controlling for race or ethnicity, age, sex, and… income and education.

[…]Figure 3 examines the effects of political ideology on the chances of being in a very happy marriage among all Americans, not just those who are currently married, as Figure 2 depicted. Figure 3 shows that in the baseline model, conservatives are 12 percentage points more likely to be in happy marriages than are liberals. This gap persists, albeit to a diminished extent, after controlling for race or ethnicity, age, sex, income, and education. After adjusting for these differences between General Social Survey respondents, conservatives are about eight percentage points more likely than liberals to be in a happy marriage.

So basically, if you are a leftist, then you are much less likely to be happily married. And if you are a conservative, then you are much more likely to be happily married.


The answer lies in the design of marriage. Marriage is not about two people moving in together so that they can feel good about doing whatever they want to do. Marriage is a design that works best with a man and a women who are equipped at the worldview level with the capacity for resilient, self-sacrifice love.

Progressives are not equipped for the kind of self-denial, self-control, and self-sacrifice that marriage requires. They don’t believe in God, generally, so they don’t believe in objective morality. And if you don’t believe in objective morality, then there is no foundation there for self-sacrificial love, and honoring moral obligations when it goes against your self-interest. Atheism as a worldview doesn’t have the foundation for the kinds of behaviors that marriage entails. And that’s why you see Peter Atkins, Richard Dawkins, Richard Carrier, Michael Shermer, etc. divorcing their wives. The atheist worldview and the atheist community do not enable the sort of character that is suited for the design of marriage.

In contrast, conservatives typically do have a rationally-grounded morality. They tend to believe in God, and so the rightness of following the moral law when it goes against their self-interest makes sense to them. They think that there is a design to marriage, and design for the flourishing of children. They are more likely to be able to compromise and solve problems in order to keep a commitment going. There is an “ought to do” there in the conservative worldview that is objective – it exists independent of their feelings. The obligations to override selfishness is there regardless of how unfair life seems – it is resilient to challenges.

One of the ways you can tell how serious someone is about their religion, and therefore their morality, is by looking at the person’s church attendance. Church attendance is typically not as fun as other things you can do in life. So people who go are indicating that they put their relationship with God and their dedication to following the moral law above their own self-interest. So does that tendency help religious people to stay married?

Yes it does:

Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, agrees there’s been some confusion.

“You do hear, both in Christian and non-Christian circles, that Christians are no different from anyone else when it comes to divorce and that is not true if you are focusing on Christians who are regular church attendees,” he said.

Wilcox’s analysis of the National Survey of Families and Households has found that Americans who attend religious services several times a month were about 35% less likely to divorce than those with no religious affiliation.

Nominal conservative Protestants, on the other hand, were 20% more likely to divorce than the religiously unaffiliated.

“There’s something about being a nominal ‘Christian’ that is linked to a lot of negative outcomes when it comes to family life,” Wilcox said.

So the bottom line is that marriage is a moral enterprise. It works better when each spouse has a worldview and a community that recognizes objective, prescriptive morality. And objective, prescriptive morality has no rational foundation in a non-theistic worldview. Progressives tend to be non-theists, so of course they are going to struggle with any enterprise that requires them to set aside their natural self-centeredness in order to honor moral obligations to another person.

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