The Washington Post’s Marriage Counselor

Today the Washington Post published a piece by W. Bradford Wilcox and Robin Fretwell Wilson originally headlined, “One way to end violence against women? Stop taking lovers and get married.” The subheadline, even more unbelievably, read: “The data show that #yesallwomen would be safer hitched to their baby daddies.”

The headline, after criticism and mockery on Twitter, was quickly changed to “One way to end violence against women? Married dads” and “The data show that #yesallwomen would be safer with fewer boyfriends around their kids.”

But still.

As Caitlin MacNeal writes at TPM, “While the Post chose to change the way it framed the piece, the article, which tells women that marriage will solve their problems, is still up on its website.”

Let’s remember, of course, that editors, not writers, create headlines. But the content of thepiece isn’t much better. Wilcox and Wilson claim that women and children are “safer in married homes,” that married men “behave better,” that women who are married tend to live in “safer neighborhoods” — you get the idea. Why bother addressing misogyny when marriage will fix sexual violence?

In fairness, Wilcox and Wilson admit that “marriage is no panacea when it comes to male violence.” But they then go on to assert that “married fathers are much less likely to resort to violence than men who are not tied by marriage or biology to a female.”

They continue, “most fundamentally, for the girls and women in their lives, married fathers provide direct protection by watching out for the physical welfare of their wives and daughters, and indirect protection by increasing the odds they live in safe homes and are not exposed to men likely to pose a threat.” (emphasis mine, in case you wouldn’t have picked up on patronizing part on your own. After all, without a married man to guide you, you might not have noticed!)

There’s so much wrong with this it’s hard to know where to begin: with the paternalism, the failure to consider that not all violence committed by married men against their families is reported, the bizarre assumption that marriage makes men more caring, committed, and less violent.

Although you wouldn’t know it from the Washington Post piece, it’s worth pointing out here that Wilcox is known for research he says supports the claim that religion makes marriages better.

As sociologist Darren Sherkat has written here:

Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project, is part of a growing movement of conservative Christians in the social sciences seeking to reimagine social relations through the lens of their distinctive faith. The lens of Christian patriarchy provides not only different shading to social scientific findings, but also kaleidoscopic distortion—creating patterns and shapes which simply aren’t there.

For Wilcox, that means that evangelical women, and particularly evangelical women who go to church with their husbands and adhere to traditional gender roles, have happier marriages than everyone else.

In a 2006 interview with Christianity Today, headlined “What Married Women Want” (subhead: “Sociologist Brad Wilcox says one type of marriage makes most women happier”), Wilcox claimed his research showed:

  • “evangelical women tend to be happier in their marriages than other women, particularly when both the wife and the husband attend church on a regular basis.”
  • “The biggest predictor of women’s happiness is their husband’s emotional engagement. The extent to which he is affectionate, to which he is empathetic, to which he is basically tuned into his wife, this is the most important factor in predicting the wife’s happiness.”
  • “We have to recognize that for the average American marriage, it matters a lot more whether the husband is emotionally in tune with his wife than whether he’s doing, say, half the dishes or half the laundry. If the wife had to choose between having a husband who is taking half the housework and having a husband who is really making a conscious, deliberate effort to focus emotionally on his wife, the emotional focus is much more likely to be a paramount concern.”
  • “Women who have more traditional gender attitudes are significantly happier in their marriages. They’re more likely to embrace the idea that men should take the primary lead in breadwinning and women should take the primary lead in nurturing the children and managing the domestic sphere, managing family life.”
  • “What’s more predictive of a woman’s happiness is whether or not her husband is the primary breadwinner. The income actually is a more important predictor of her happiness than whether she works outside the home.”
  • “My theory is that women are looking for, in general, husbands who provide them with emotional and financial support, and support to make the choices that they think are important for them and for their children. Women who have husbands who are good breadwinners have the freedom to decide what they want to do, whether that’s to stay home with their kids, whether that’s to work part time, or whether that’s to pursue work that might be more meaningful but not particularly remunerative.”
  • “Spouses who share weekly [church] attendance had happier wives.”
  • “Spouses who share a strong, normative commitment to marriage—that is, who are opposed to easy divorce, who believe the kids should be reared in married households—have wives who are markedly happier.”

In the Post piece, Wilcox and Wilson appear to be talking about marriage generally, not religious marriages in particular. But behind every successful marriage, for Wilcox, it seems, is a big dose of religion, and with that, traditional gender roles. Which makes him a very odd choice to deliver pointers on ending misogyny.

Sarah Posner, author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters, covers politics and religion. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The American ProspectThe NationSalon, and other publications. Follow her on TwitterRSS feed Email

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