The Marriage Crisis with Kathryn Wilson

The following is a conversation between Profectus co-editors Ben Wilterdink and Clay Routledge with Kathryn Wilson. Kathryn works as a psychotherapist in Canada. She has master’s degrees in counseling, psychology, and biblical counseling. Recently, she has participated in a series of discussions on the marriage crisis. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Ben Wilterdink: Thank you for listening to another edition of the Profectus Podcast, brought to you by Profectus Magazine. I’m Ben Wilterdink, and today my co-editor, Clay Routledge, and I are joined by Kathryn Wilson. Kathryn works as a psychotherapist in Canada and has her master’s in counseling, psychology, and biblical counseling. Along with her husband, Eamon, Roderick Hare, and Pastor Paul VanderKlay, Kathryn has been one of the regular conversation partners in a series of discussions on the marriage crisis—the topic for today’s conversation. Kathryn is married and lives in Canada with her husband and three children. Kathryn, thank you for joining us today.

Kathryn Wilson: Thanks for having me on. This is great.

Ben Wilterdink: Great. Well, to kick things off: the marriage crisis. I mean I can go over just briefly a couple of numbers here, at least in the United States. Over the last 50 years, the rate of marriage has declined by nearly 60%. So we’ve got roughly 80% of households 70 years ago were made up of married couples. In 2020, the proportion of households that were made up of married couples fell to 49%. So this is something that we do see in the numbers, but does it really make sense to call it a crisis? This is something that you guys have mentioned when you guys were starting some of your discussions on the YouTube channel hosted by Paul VanderKlay. So, what is the marriage crisis, and how do you know that we’re in one?

Kathryn Wilson: Well, I guess you have to start with the word crisis, right? It’s a really big deal, it’s a big problem, and it needs to be addressed urgently. I think those numbers that you listed speak for themselves. Obviously, marriage is in a massive freefall. Not only are the overall numbers of people who will become married at some point in their life dropping, but the numbers of those who will be divorced are rising.

It’s a crisis because our whole society is made up of households and smaller members and units within that larger society, and the interwoven nature of families is what holds much of that together. And so really a marriage crisis is a crisis in families and a crisis for children. It also happens to be a crisis for individual happiness and health and productivity, all of which are strongly connected with marriage. But, primarily, it’s an issue for children; it’s an issue for ongoing attachment in developing healthily-attached individuals. And so the fact that we don’t have as many stable, secure homes, it’s a big problem. That’s why we call it a crisis, because as these numbers continue to drop, you’re going to see increases in lower levels of educational achievement, higher levels of juvenile delinquency, lower levels of overall health, higher levels of morbidity and mortality. Basically, as marriage goes, so goes the rest of society.

Clay Routledge: Could you say something about the specific issue of marriage versus cohabitation maybe, or how does that relate? Is there something really special about the institution of marriage compared to perhaps alternative models of forming a household?

Kathryn Wilson: Marriage is different in that you have the promise of enduring cohabitation as opposed to simple cohabitation. Now of course, you can always make the argument from experience, “Oh, well I know such and such person and they cohabitate and they would never leave each other and they love each other, yada, yada.” But to have an institute of marriage as an overall social norm, which is reinforced by neighbors, society, friends, reinforcing the idea that once a commitment to marriage has been made, it should be maintained, is really foundational, mostly again, for children.

Often in the West we like to focus on the romantic personal satisfaction side of marriage, but it’s really the children that end up struggling and not flourishing as much as possible when there isn’t marriage. Now, again, there’s going to be some marriages that are very unhappy, that have abuse involved that you could say, “Well, that’s not good.” And there’s going to be some who cohabit that have loving ongoing relationships that don’t end. But to have a societal norm that says, “We will commit to one another, we will stay with one another no matter how we feel about the situation for the sake of our children, ourselves,” which also, individual happiness also is correlated with marriage. But for the broader society, that level of commitment changes the confidence one can place in the relationship, and it changes the way that people overall interact within the relationship.

So yeah, I think you could probably make the case that, well, we could have a society where people cohabit and we care for our children together until the children move on, but how would you reinforce and support that for the couple? Ideally, marriage should be something that supports couples in cohabitation in an enduring way for the benefit of them, their children, and the rest of society.

Ben Wilterdink: That sounds like a really desirable place for people to be, and yet we see more people making the choice just not to get married. In fact, going back maybe even a step or two before that, you see people going on dates less, right? In data, we can see sort of declines of things that might even lead up to marriage. Do you have a theory of why that is, or has that come up in some of your conversations?

Kathryn Wilson: Yeah. Unfortunately at this point, I don’t have any numbers I can point to, so this is all me. So you can feel free to disagree or agree. I think at this point we can only sort of theorize. But yeah, you’re absolutely right. We’re not seeing people engaging with the other sex as much, whether it’s marriage, cohabitation, dating, hookups, anything. The younger people, zoomers, the younger generations are doing even less of them. So you have less people who are 20 and under who have gone on any dates, less of them have a driver’s license, are interested in getting a driver’s license, interested in marriage. There’s less of an overall engagement with the kinds of independences we, in our generation, often most people were looking forward to: dating, driving, that kind of thing. They’re less interested in that overall. But yeah, overall, there’s less interest in relationships.

I have a few theories on why that is. I think there’s a number of factors that come together. I think the first one is there’s sort of a cultural line that there’s an idealized narrative for life. Part of that idealized narrative is you need to have reached a certain amount of financial success and security before you would have a marriage. And then once you have a marriage, then you would bring children to that marriage. But all of that is accessed through a certain level of financial freedom, which is very different than what you would’ve seen in the past. Generations ago, the assumption would be you marry someone and then together you build wealth and stability. Now the thought is, “I need to build wealth and stability until I can bring someone in.”

Frequently, you’ll hear people say, “Well, how could you ever have children in a world like this? I can’t afford things for myself. How will I afford things for them? This world is so unhappy, it’s so polluted, it’s so terrible. I think it’s a moral evil to bring children into the world.” That’s another reason. There’s a lot of people who existentially are so distressed about the state of our world that they think that it’s wrong to have children in the first place, nevermind establish a marriage and intentionally bring them into the world.

That’s two reasons. A third one is sort of the impact of modernity and feminism. You’ve got the birth control pill, that’s a huge factor. So we can delay fertility, delay child rearing until later, which gives us the illusion of control, gives us the illusion that I can plan out my life and make it go the way that I want, and so I can just wait for those things to happen. But at the same time, we have, as you mentioned earlier, a massively declining fertility rate. And so we may think that we can delay it ourselves, but then what often happens is for many people, once they finally decide to marry, decide to have children, then they’re not able to conceive or they’re only able to conceive one or two children. And so our family sizes are also declining, and our birth rates are declining at the same time.

Ben Wilterdink: I think maybe we can look at each of those in turn. The first one reminds me of, I can’t remember exactly where I read it, but it was a few years ago, an author was describing a shift from what he called cornerstone marriages to capstone marriages. The idea was exactly that. And this is something, Clay, you and I have talked about a little bit before, too. But it’s exactly what you were saying, Kathryn, about how the previous model used to be, “Let’s come together, we’ll form a marriage, we’ll form a family, and that will be the foundation on which we sort of build our life and do these other things.” Now, it’s sort of more the opposite where it’s, “I’ve got my career, I’m very financially stable, I have this trajectory, I’ve kind of built things the way that I want them, and now I can have marriage in there,” slotted as sort of that capstone and put a bow on it sort of piece.

That does seem to be a shift that we can observe. I think naturally it does seem like there might be an issue sort of if you have your whole life where you want it, so to speak, without that other piece, you’re kind of looking for someone else to slot into your life rather than build it together. I mean, at the very least, that’s kind of a logistical, practical challenge. I wonder, why do you think that we’ve seen that kind of a shift? I mean, that just doesn’t seem like that was the model for previous generations, or I mean even people who are maybe not as young today.

Kathryn Wilson: There’s been a driving theme across Western society for a really long time, which is that you need to discover who you are, you need to actualize that, you need to achieve that identity. And so there is this sort of derealized you somewhere out there, you need to figure out what that is, and then you need to bring that into reality. And you being yourself and fulfilling your dreams is the ultimate goal of human existence. And so once that becomes the goal, then you need to discover that and achieve that before you might add in other things. And extremely infrequently, honestly never in my life, have I heard somebody posit that presentation of this is the purpose and one of those things about who the true you is might be a mother or a father. Usually, that goes hand-in-hand with a career goal, some sort of personal achievement in strength, maybe sports, maybe politics.

I mean, I’m not saying it’s never happened, but I would at least say it’s vanishingly rare for people to say, “Figure out who you are, achieve that dream. And probably one of the best dreams you could have is to be a parent and a grandparent who’s just around for your kids.” You never hear that. There’s this sense of a very individual self that is disconnected from society at large other than how that society might affirm you as an individual. And so I think that’s a very Western take, and I think it’s a very modern take, but I think that underlying presupposition about what our purpose is has really driven us from the cornerstone to the capstone model. I’m curious for your take on it.

Clay Routledge: I think that’s a really important point about our modern, individualistic society. It’s interesting too though, because I do a lot of research on the psychology of nostalgia. When people look back on their lives, what are the memories that they most cherish that are the most meaningful to them? It’s funny because, as you know, when younger people are looking forward about how to live their best life or find their authentic self or discover themselves, all the things you said, I agree with you, it is very inward-looking, self-focused. But when you ask people to look back on the things they’ve actually done in their lives and what’s meaningful, the focus shifts outward very quickly. It’s like the things that are most meaningful in life are your family, your relationships.

It’s interesting to see that shift of self-orientation to other-orientation as people go through life and accumulate experiences and realize that actually what turns out to be the most fulfilling aspects of my life have been doing things that involve making powerful social contributions. Oftentimes, it’s raising children. There’s good research on parents report higher meaning in life than non-parents and report the highest level of the meaning when they’re actually engaged in parenting activities. Even though some of these activities increase negative emotions like stress and anxiety, they actually also increase fulfillment and meaning. And so I think that’s an interesting point. There seems to be a disconnection between what people think will be the path to a fulfilling life, and what they actually find to experience is a meaningful life.

Kathryn Wilson: I completely agree with that, and I feel like it’s such a shame in our society that… Honestly, I feel like we tell our children just a crack of lie is essentially what it comes down to. And maybe not the parent, but the stories that we tell as a society. How many children’s movies and cartoons are based on the premise of there is some failure with the parents, the children have to go off on their own, figure it on their own, and they have wonderful adventures, and they sort it out? Which is great, but what it loses is the framework that the parents are good, the parents have things to tell you, the parents have things to offer you; the grandmother is good, the grandfather is good, and you could go to those people as sources of wisdom as being a personal goal for yourself. And so the story they get is a very not nostalgic story.

It’s not a story that looks back at all. It’s a story that looks forward, and it isn’t until a lot of people are older and they look back that they realize the gifts of nostalgia and the wisdom of the looking out and the serving others and the raising others and the caring for others and the personal benefit for meaning and joy that can come from that. Often, people don’t get that anymore in our culture until they’re old enough that they’re already 10 steps behind where they wish they would’ve been if they’d realized this when they were 18 years old. So I agree, and it’s part of why I’m trying to have conversations about this is to maybe shift the way that we talk about things to and with young people.

I’m curious—Clay and Ben—for both of you, what was your experience when you were younger? Was your experience that you were told like, find someone, marry young, make that the cornerstone of your life, then you can earn money together, build off of that? Or was it more the achieve your dreams, figure out who you are, make a career, then bring someone in? What did you get when you were growing up?

Clay Routledge: My experience was a combination in the sense that I was raised in a fairly conservative family with a lot of examples of people that married relatively young. And we were poor, so I didn’t have any sense of you have to somehow have a lot of money to get married. I mean, I saw a lot of people that were very, very satisfied with their lives who didn’t have a lot of financial resources. But I went to university, I’m almost 47, so this is in the late ’90s, I went to university. By that time, you’re already definitely seeing a shift towards self-discovery and focus on your career and all that. But my wife and I met in college. We got married within six months of dating. We were seniors in college, so we got married very young, and our friends thought we were crazy.

So I had the family models of, it’s not that out there to get married young. All of our friends in college thought we were insane. We were taking a leap of faith. But this September, we’ll be celebrating our 25th anniversary. So I guess it paid off.

Kathryn Wilson: Well, and isn’t every marriage a leap of faith? Right? It’s always a leap of faith. The difference I think is how much faith are you willing to jump off with? Do you feel like you need to have something in your back pocket in case your wings don’t keep flying kind of thing?

Clay Routledge: Right. Right.

Ben Wilterdink: Yeah. I think I’m a little bit younger, not too much younger, don’t worry, but I’m 33 now. I’m trying to think about this question. I saw models with my parents and my grandparents. When I was younger, my mom’s parents lived with us for most of my childhood, so I had two married couples in the home with me that I grew up with. But as far as an explicit message, I don’t really think it was one way or the other. Nobody discouraged me from getting married or planning or thinking about that early, but it wasn’t something that was really encouraged either. I just don’t really remember very much about strong feelings one way or the other. And so I ended up getting married when I was like, I think 29. So about four years ago now. That was a little bit different because we actually didn’t have a wedding. We did a courthouse marriage. I think that was exactly right for us, and that’s definitely not something I would’ve wanted to change.

We were both a little bit more established in our careers. We actually met as interns in Washington DC. We both interned at the same place, and that’s where we had met. And then we kind of lost contact for a while and then sort of reconnected a couple of years later, again in DC in a professional environment. And so that’s sort of how that shook out on my end.

Well, I think one thing that you had mentioned, Kathryn, is sort of this failure, I guess is maybe the way I’d put it, to pass on this wisdom where maybe older people who have these experiences, these life experiences, have that benefit of nostalgia. That’s not necessarily being communicated very well to the next generation. And so a term that I’ve seen in some of the conversations come up is this concept of an intergenerational handoff. And so is that what you mean by that term? Maybe you can explain a little bit more of what you mean by that term and why we’re not doing so well at that intergenerational handoff.

Kathryn Wilson: Yeah, that’s an aspect of the problem. So the intergenerational handoff not going well, I think is broader than marriage. There’s a lot of skills that don’t get passed down from one generation to the other. There’s a lot of apprenticeship into roles that you don’t see. I mean, you hear a lot of complaining, especially in politics, right? It’s like, “Man, why do we have these 80 year olds in politics? Why are those people leading the country? Where’s the room for the younger generation?” As people are living longer, it seems like they’re just holding power. They’re not having a transition of power to younger people. Again, I don’t have any numbers to back this up, but mostly what you hear online people complaining about is, “Man, the Boomers don’t want to move on. They don’t want to let go and let the next people come up.” And even if they do move on, they aren’t mentoring people into their roles, whether it’s the workplace, whether it’s professions, or family structures.

The general complaint is much more that I didn’t get taught how to do this job. The person in front of me either held onto it forever and wouldn’t bring me into it, or they just left and they didn’t tell anybody. There’s all these books, we have to figure what they were doing. There’s this sense that professionally, but also interpersonally, there’s a lot of skills training that just has not been passed from one generation to the next. And so people feel the need to sort of rediscover the wheel essentially, and that there’s a lot of wisdom being lost in the process.

What’s funny to me is I was talking with my mother-in-law about this at one point, and she is a Boomer, and she was saying how that kind of annoys her because she feels like it was the same way the generation before her. There was something at church where she joined, I think a women’s missions group or something. There were all these older women who said, “Oh, thank goodness a younger woman joined our group. We can all quit now.” And they all quit that day, and they left, and they didn’t tell her and the other woman who had joined what they did, where anything was, any of the jobs. And so my mother-in-law was saying, “Well, I mean people feel that way, but I felt like that too.” And so it’s possible that this is sort of a perennial problem, but whether it’s a perennial problem or not, there are a lot of people who feel like there’s a lack of wisdom, there’s a lack of training, there’s a lack of mentorship/apprenticeship, and people helping guide them forward with wisdom throughout life.

I’ve known a number of young men who were sort of desperate for someone who would mentor them, someone who would be willing to give them wisdom, talk with them, take them under their wing. They asked a lot of older men, but nobody seemed terribly interested in filling a role like that. Now maybe there is something wrong with these young men, but there wasn’t anything glaringly wrong. And structurally, we don’t have some of the same systems that I think we would’ve in the distant past for some of these things. More explicit entrepreneurship systems for most people that join in. More explicit women’s groups that hand down wisdom to younger women. I think there used to be smaller communities with clearer traditional lines of how you would pass down rituals, rhythms, expectations to the next generation.

I do think part of modernity, again, has attacked these things because what we value in our culture is individual achievement, and it’s sort of anathema to get in the way of someone else and tell them, “This is how you should live your life. This is the goal you should pursue. This is good, this is bad. Do this, don’t do that,” which is what that generational handoff would’ve included. But in our culture, we feel you should have children, you will regret it if you’re not a grandparent, that your life will be less happy, less fulfilling. It’s not only that we don’t have those systems anymore. There would be many people who would actively be against such systems being established again.

Clay Routledge: I think that’s a really good point. I remember when I used to teach cultural psychology, and one of the main distinctions that cultural psychologists would make between more collectivist cultures like those in East Asia and more individualistic Western cultures was like a deference for older people. To be fair, there are trade-offs. I mean, part of the economic dynamism and creativity and innovation that we have in the West is driven by a willingness to reject old ideas and to push the frontiers and to explore and to not just defer to hierarchy and all of that. So there are definitely benefits, but I agree with you on the negative side of things where it’s like we can easily go too far and interject the wisdom that other people have figured some of this stuff out, and we don’t have to reinvent the wheel or rediscover this.

I remember talking to a filmmaker a few years ago, and this might sound like a superficial example, but I think it does illustrate the challenge of intergenerational communication in the modern era. He was talking about one of the challenges in Hollywood or in moviemaking in general is that people of different ages don’t really consume the same media. Because we have advanced technology, we’re wealthier, so everyone in the house has their own screen, which leads to individual content, which in some ways is really cool. You know, you want to watch something that you want to watch, and you don’t want to watch something your sister wants to watch or your dad wants to watch. But his argument was there’s something lost in that, because when we share cultural, even pop-cultural experiences, that is a way for the older generation to pass down just ways of talking to each other, shared stories, and narratives and characters.

Certainly, again, going back to the nostalgia research I’ve done, we’ve discovered that there are benefits, I should say, to what’s referred to as intergenerational nostalgia, which people get meaning from hearing older people’s nostalgic stories. You can pass that down, but you have to have the opportunities to do that. You have to be in environments in which you are actually around people of different ages. That seems increasingly rare because of the way we’re fragmenting, not just obviously our entertainment options, but just in general. Smaller families, fewer opportunities, like you said, mentorship to be around people of mixed ages. And so I think that is a challenge we face even if we acknowledge that there are obviously benefits to kind of the individualistic approach as well.

Kathryn Wilson: Yeah. Obviously, there’s been massive benefits to an individualistic society. I would argue that we swung too far. That in exploring the edges of that, we’ve come to the edge and found that there’s a cliff on the other side of it and that it would be good for the majority of the population to come back more to a normative social structure that is more interconnected and supportive, but that we can’t expect the youngest generation to be the one that will ask the questions and instigate the nostalgia.

I also don’t expect those generations to, because if it hasn’t been happening, it hasn’t been happening for a reason. But if we want to restart that process so that the generations that come after us, whoever the X is that’s listening, we need to figure out ways to creatively start that with the people that we’re close to. If nostalgia is so beneficial to people, and I do believe it is, finding ways to do that with children, grandchildren, neighbors, friends, and creating structures where that can happen. And each family will do that differently. I’m in a different country than you, and I’m sure there’ll be people from other nations listening to this, so each society will do this in their own way, but for us to choose to start that, even though it hasn’t been handed down to us, I think is the important piece.

Ben Wilterdink: Yeah, like a lot of other things, it really does come back to us as individual people choosing and opting into making the changes that we think are important. I think part of this is the shift that we’ve seen, whether it’s modernity, whether it’s technology driven, I mean I’m sure it’s all a big combination of all these things, but the institutions that used to be there that would kind of more or less force some of this stuff, or maybe a better way to think about it is it was sort of a default that you would be exposed to these things or you’d be involved in these things and there was kind of mutual commitments and responsibilities going on in much more of like a… I mean, it wasn’t a formal legal sense, but it was a communal kind of sense, an institutional sense. And now, that’s kind of fallen away. And it’s not like you can’t find those institutions or join them, but it’s no longer sort of a default setting. You kind of have to be actively choosing to do that kind of stuff.

I mean, this is just my own kind of theory on that, but I think part of it is it’s so much of the way that we go about decision making is very rational. It’s very articulated. It’s very, “I want to see the pros and cons list, does this make sense for me? Here’s what I think is going to make me happy.” That’s sort of the center of how we think about, should I be a part of this community? Should I join these things? That’s how we’re going about this process of decision making in terms of what we do, what communities we get involved with. That just seems like an inadequate tool for a lot of the things that probably would end up being good for us, but they never get a chance to get off the ground because they don’t cross that rational threshold that we have.

Kathryn Wilson: I’m actually going to disagree with you there, Ben.

Ben Wilterdink: Okay, go ahead.

Kathryn Wilson: I would say that probably it feels like that from the inside—that we’re making these rational decisions and we’re weighing pros and cons—but most of the time, it’s sort of the rider and the elephant problem, where you have most of your mind, which has already made the decision, and then you kind of post hoc justify the decision that you make. I think mostly the problem is we don’t have easy access to these things. We don’t know how to do it, and there’s a threshold of difficulty that would have to be crossed, and there’s some threat there. So it’s much easier to stay in a place that doesn’t feel threatening than to do something that’s novel and you might fail in and will expose you to social shame.

And so I think a lot of it is actually not us weighing out these choices, but making choices and then justifying why we’re not doing the thing that we’re doing, which often leads us to blame other people or find some other random reason because saying, “I’m not doing that because I don’t know how, and it’s somewhat threatening and the risk doesn’t seem worth the benefit,” which is largely informed by the fact that they haven’t heard many benefits for why you would do any of these things for anybody else. I think that’s actually driving things much more than a cold, cognitive process.

Ben Wilterdink: Okay, so you’re thinking people… I mean, I tend to agree with that. I don’t think people are necessarily navigating their lives in that cold kind of rational way, even though that’s how they might explain it. How do we get at that elephant then? How do we start getting at that then, if it seems like we might only have access to the rider?

Kathryn Wilson: Usually the elephant is moved through rituals and patterns and stories. Almost always, we have to see someone else doing it before we think that we would want to do it, and they need to do it successfully, positively, joyfully, meaningfully. So if someone else is doing it, then that would lead us to it. If they’re doing it and the other people around us are saying, “Oh, that looks good, that’s a positive thing, I want that for myself.” The elephant is extremely social. The elephant is extremely moved by what has it done before, where has it been before. And so to go into a new thing requires mimicking of something that’s really positive and nudges, gentle nudges, towards the new thing.

Practically, what that would mean is people going online and talking positively about how much they love their marriages and how great their wife is and how much they love being a parent, despite the difficulties and this sacrifice, how much meaning they get from it. Which is why I’m here, hoping to nudge people’s elephants in a different direction and say yes, despite the fact that there are difficulties, the fact that there are difficulties actually make it better because then it’s more meaningful. Anything done easily doesn’t feel terribly meaningful. But having people talk about it, having movies where a marriage isn’t something that’s holding you back, it isn’t just sort of infatuation that everybody instinctively knows, give it two years, you’re probably not infatuated anymore. There’s going to be problems. It’s actually popularized, positive, realistic visions for this. Idolizing instead of the independent life, a life of care for other people, you have to have a larger, broader change. So screenwriters need to change what they’re emphasizing.

But then those little nudges would be things like, I mean, I’m a counselor, right? So I always think in fairly practical terms, but just inviting people into conversation of like, “Well, what do you think a meaningful relationship would look like with someone that you could establish a family with? What do you imagine that would look like?” And just having them start to imagine that is a nudge. And, “Who’s somebody who had a relationship like that that you think looked good, that you would be happy if you had that life?” That’s another nudge. And so nudging the elephant is possible, but it takes a society to move the elephant in a different direction, which is why so many elephants are being moved in the direction they are right now, because our society overall is moving in a very different direction than it has in the past.

Clay Routledge: That’s a really good point. We just had another conversation where we were talking—Ben and the rest of our team at Profectus—were talking about our recent American Dream report at the Archbridge Institute. We were talking about narratives and the importance of filmmakers and creators and the influencers to push these positive narratives. In our research, we ask people about the American Dream. And, similarly, if you just get online and Google articles about the American Dream or if you consume media, watch movies about the American Dream, it’s displayed in a very materialistic way. The American Dream is about getting rich; it’s about money and nice cars and all of that. But when you actually ask regular Americans what’s most essential to the American Dream, freedom is up there—that’s at the top—but so is a good family life.

The typical view of what it means to thrive in America from the actual population is having the freedom to live how you want to live, and that involving close family relationships and building families. But that’s not what you would see in the media. That’s very much a focus of the work we do at Archbridge: How do we change these narratives? How do we give people better models, better success stories to see that? So I think that’s an important point. With that in mind, and also with you saying you think practically, if you had a young person coming to you and saying, “Hey, I’m already convinced. You don’t have to sell me on marriage. But it’s hard to find people because it’s hard to meet people, and everyone’s online on these dating apps and we work remote.” In modern society, we do have fewer opportunities perhaps to interact with people. What advice would you have for young people, or I guess anyone really who’s single, and said, “I would like to pursue opportunities to find a marriage partner”?

Kathryn Wilson: Three things probably, maybe four. The first thing would be I’d let all the people that I know and trust know that I’m looking for somebody. I want to settle down, I want to find a partner, let me know if you know anybody that you think would be good at that. Let me know if you can think of any person who I would be a good fit with and either give them my email address or let me know who they are, and I’m on the hunt. I think a lot of people are very shy to say that because it seems like, “Well, I should be able to achieve that on my own. Why would I rely on a social network?” But this is historically how things have always happened is that your social network supports you as you try to find somebody, and you trust the people that are reliable in your life. So that would be the first thing. And they might not come up with anybody good, but they might find a few options that you’re like, “Oh, that’s a realistic person I could consider dating.”

The second thing would be to consider the type of person that you would want to marry, and then sort of empathically think, what would that type of person be doing right now? If you’re looking for somebody who’s more compassionate, more altruistic, maybe they’re at a food security site and they’re handing out food to the unsheltered, and that would be a place that you could volunteer and maybe meet somebody like that. Or maybe they’re volunteering with kids, because you want to find somebody who’s going to be good with kids. So you’re going to find a place where other people are volunteering with kids and see if you can find somebody who’s already living the kind of life that the type of person you want to meet would be living. So you have to sort of imaginably figure out who they would be and then go the places you think that person would be.

The third thing I would say is, if you’re wanting to catch the highest caliber of person that you think that you could achieve, you’re going to want to be the best version of yourself so that you can attract that person and make them think that you would be a good person to settle down with. That means just looking at yourself honestly and being like, “What do I need to work on? Am I bitter about things? Am I resentful? Do I need to be more forgiving? Do I need to be more outgoing? Do I need to work on assertiveness training? Do I need to… ” whatever, but being honest about what the things are about you that might get in the way and addressing those. But not in a fatalistic way like, “Those things can never change, and if I can’t change it, I’ll never find anybody.” But just be like, “Okay, if I’m trying to find somebody, there’s going to be someone out there who’s trying to find me, and I want them to be able to see that I’m here, so I’m going to figure that out.”

The fourth thing is, whatever your tradition is—whether it would be more religious, so maybe you’re praying, or not religious, so maybe you’re just going to do some visualization—but you’re going to start thinking about meeting that person and what that would be like and how you might go about it. And imaginatively preparing yourself for that encounter to be open to it when it happens, so that you’re emotionally, spiritually ready for it when that person comes. I mean, you could also go on dating apps, but I feel like I would rather meet somebody in a more natural setting. Either somebody already knows that person or I meet them where they’re at in their life. And then if that really doesn’t go anywhere, then finding a dating app that seems to fit with your values would be a good idea.

Clay Routledge: I think that’s all really, really great advice. I’m glad you brought up the dating app one, because I was going to ask what your thoughts are on that. We probably all know people—I know I do—I know several people that that’s how they met. They’re very good couples that have been happily married for a long time. Of course, we also read about all the horror stories of certain, I guess, maybe more hookup-oriented apps. I’m sure you can find the best and the worst out there on that. But I think all those things are very good advice and very action-oriented, which is a big theme at the Human Flourishing Lab. If you want to change your life, you actually have to go out and do things. So that’s great.

Ben Wilterdink: Yeah, I think those are all really great, practical tips, which I certainly appreciate. I wanted to ask too, are there any institutions or communities or storytelling venues, however you want to phrase it, that you think are doing particularly well, that people might want to pay a little more attention to? Or is there something positive that you’re aware of that that might be worth people looking into to model, or to join, or anything like that?

Kathryn Wilson: Well, the communities that do the best, not surprisingly, are the more conservative, closed communities that have tight connections with one another, a very clear vision of what a flourishing life would look like, what rules to follow to achieve that life and family social networks that support individuals in following through with that. So you have Orthodox Jews, you have Mormons, you have Hutterites, Mennonites, you have these groups that are self-consciously separated from broader Western society. Several of them, the Amish and the Orthodox Jews in particularly, consciously not participating in especially the technological aspects of different parts of society, at least for different seasons of time for some of them.

Those groups have maintained higher marriage rates, more cohesive family bonds. If you’re wanting to work backwards and backwards-engineer how do you get to a place where you have more stable families and more stable marriages, looking at what those societies have in common would probably be really helpful. Some of the things that they have in common, which again we’re wrestling with right now as a broader society in the West, we’re sort of reaching a bit of a zenith and having to wrestle with these issues right now because we are so fragmented as a society and the resulting social trauma for everyone is reaching a somewhat overwhelming point in the West. But to have stable families, we need to have a more cohesive vision of who people are: what does it mean to be human, what is our purpose here, what is our meaning, how do we achieve that meaning, what are the good paths, what are the bad paths, what are the good ways to live, what are the bad ways to live.

Currently in the West, our moral landscape has sort of shrunk to autonomy and compassion as the only moral virtues that we are willing to push on other people. But the problem is, as soon as you have two individuals and their autonomy is in conflict with one another, we fall back fairly quickly off of autonomy as the highest virtue, and we have to have a way to negotiate whose autonomy comes before the other person’s autonomy. At this point, we sort of have intersectionality as the answer to that, which then removes autonomy fairly quickly again. And so we have something of a moral ouroboros in our society right now where it doesn’t hold up very well. And so what that ends up meaning is you can’t build anything off of it. So we have to broaden our moral landscape as a society, but we have to decide which moral pillars we want to include in that landscape.

So if a group was to do that and to choose which moral pillars they value and sort of rank order them, which again, I don’t think you can do just cognitively. You can’t just by fiat decide this is what we value and this is how we will achieve it. We all sort of have to work our way there together. Probably it will happen mostly unconsciously, and then we will articulate it at some point what we unconsciously all decided to do together. But the way to more quickly achieve that unconscious solidarity in a direction, I think, is having more and more people come together and talk about what they care about and value in an honest way, because individuals value much more than just autonomy and compassion. But those are the socially sanctioned values that we have in our society. And so having people honestly talk about what else they value creates room for other people to join them in those values, and then a new form of society to shake out.

So I think practically what that means is more people coming together and talking honestly about what they love, which I think is a good thing.

Ben Wilterdink: I think that makes a lot of sense. Before we kind of close it out here, I wanted to bring it back to Richard Reeves. He’s somebody who wrote a book, Of Boys and Men. He’s recently started this institute for the advancement of boys and men. That seems to be something he’s very focused on. Men and boys in particular don’t seem to be doing super well these days. There’s a lot of statistics that we could run through, at least I have some of the American statistics. But kind of getting back to this idea about models. One theme that keeps coming up is that there aren’t very many good masculine role models for men to follow. Sometimes this is framed as toxic models are filling that void. I really don’t love the way that Andrew Tate and Jordan Peterson are often mentioned in the same sentence in that way, but I have seen that from some different sources and some things like that.

I wonder, could you talk a little bit about that? Do you kind of agree with that framework in terms of a vacuum? Do you think that’s mistaken? You’ve been really good at giving some practical advice here. Are there practical models that you’d recommend?

Kathryn Wilson: Yeah, so I do agree with that framing. I would push it back a little further and say that I think the problem is actually more with femininity. I think that with the rise of feminism, what actually happened was our society decided that the masculine virtues were more valuable than the feminine virtues, and that women should embody the masculine virtues as well as the feminine virtues. Historically, classically, it’s been understood that men and women both have masculine and feminine aspects to them. So we all have an aspect that’s masculine and an aspect that’s feminine. What our society strongly endorses is the masculine for both men and women. That means achievement outside the home, achievement period. As opposed to the feminine virtues, which tend to be more opening up space, being nurturing, caring for others over yourself, the chaotic and open as opposed to the hierarchical and procedural; feminism essentially pushed that women are just as good as men and should have access to all the masculinity men do, and we’re encouraged to be masculine and take space in masculine spaces.

What got denigrated as a result was the feminine all along the way. So then what you end up having is a society where everyone is trying to be masculine, and you don’t have almost anyone trying to be feminine. If they’re trying to be feminine, they’re told that’s really foolish, and they should stop being a doormat, and they should stand up for themselves and go live their dream, which couldn’t possibly be a feminine dream, because that’s not even considered having a personal dream. What comes when you have all of the people trying to fill the space of the masculine is you are narrowing any room for men to fill the masculine space. And so I do think that there are demonstrably huge negative effects for men. There are also for women, but I don’t think those show up in the same way as it does for men.

For men, you see it much more in the less academic achievement, less overall enjoyment in life, shorter lifespans. With women, I think it comes to more of a satisfaction, joy, connection. It just comes out differently than it does for men. I think it’s more clear and more on the surface with men—the problem that we’re having now. I do think it’s a huge problem. I think the fundamental societal problem is a denigration of the feminine in men and in women. And so it maybe sounds a little backwards, but I think that the best way to help men is to start to value the feminine, whether it is in men or in women, and the feminine being the part that asks the question, the part that creates the space, the part that builds interconnection and nurture with one another, which for a man to express that is going to look like some of these things we’ve been talking about. You’re going to have mentorship, you’re going to have connection with other men, you’re going to pursue marriage because you’re not going to see that as overly dependent, which is not valued in our society.

The feminine has been denigrated with men, but also with women. And so actually building space for that allows there to be a proper realignment on a society-wide level of men and women. That would be my opinion. In terms of practically, how would you do that? I think it begins with a reinstitution of clearly masculine and clearly feminine engagement for both men and women; meaning, a clearly masculine engagement for men and women that they could participate in would be more clear, hierarchical structures that you can join from the bottom and work your way up. Men thrive in hierarchical structures that give them agency and autonomy while also providing affordances for increased relationship with one another. This would be things like brotherhoods, trades guilds… That type of group is wonderful for men, and it is built around the masculine aspect of a person.

But also things like discussion forums where you can sit around and talk about ideas and ask questions without that being seen as a negative thing. For men to participate in that is the feminine aspect of a person: to ask the question, to sit in that space with other people, to explore the ideas. Those are very feminine ways for men to engage. And so to be able to create both of those spaces would, I think, be hugely beneficial for men. What are your thoughts on that?

Ben Wilterdink: I can’t find a thing wrong with it. I can feel the heat from what you’re describing, where I think a lot of people would push back on this idea that… Well, I think this is really a big heart of this problem, that there are sort of masculine virtues and ways of being and feminine virtues and ways of being. I think that there’s a kind of default consensus that that’s a little bit archaic. We can all just be good people. There’s just these virtues, and we can all just embody these virtues and we don’t have to code them one way or the other.

This is something that I was thinking about from a Washington Post article from Christine Emba. She wrote about, “Men are lost. Here’s a map out of the wilderness.” It’s very short on the map out of the wilderness part in that essay. I don’t begrudge her for that, it’s very difficult. But she had some video clips where she was talking with young men kind of embedded in the article. At one point she was asking, “What do you think it means to be masculine? What does it mean to be masculine to you?” He’s describing things like strength, “I learned this from my dad,” this kind of thing. And then he kind of turns and he says, “But women can also do that too. It doesn’t have to just be learning about that from men.” I was kind of thinking, now it’s tricky because you’re kind of just describing just more generic virtues that are not kind of in one category or the other. And there seems to be a resistance to dividing it like that.

Do you think the division is necessary? Do you think that there’s a way that this can be done without that division? Do you think something would be lost if we don’t have that division? Because sometimes I think people get sort of ingrained with, well, separate but equal is a very denigrated, it’s almost like an oxymoron type of an idea. I think that’s what maybe people sort of recoil from a bit. And so I guess all of that to say, first of all, do you agree with that, or maybe pieces of it? Or where would you depart, and how can we bridge the gap for a broader culture that might be a bit allergic to some of those ideas?

Kathryn Wilson: Well, first of all, I don’t think that you have to make the differentiation to be a good person. You don’t have to do that. But it’s kind of like vegetables. You could say it’s all vegetables, why do we need to say which ones are cucumbers and which ones are tomatoes? Why would you make that differentiation? You don’t have to, you can just eat vegetables and be full and move on with your life. It won’t kill you not to. But are there meaningful differences between the vegetables? Yes. Are there different vitamins and minerals and things that taste better when you combine them? Yes. There are real differences that are genuinely valuable, but do you have to make that if you have some moral opposition to exploring the differences between the masculine and the feminine, do you have to go there? No, you don’t have to. Do I think it’s wiser and better to go there? Yeah. I really, really do. I think we lose a whole lot when you try to obfuscate the differences between the two.

Again, I think part of what we’ve lost is that men and women both have masculine and feminine aspects to them. Trying to flatten it usually, at least in our current society, means we only value the masculine, and the feminine is dismissed as foolish, wrong, lesser. So in the goal of trying to equalize things, what we have is men and women who all try to be masculine and nobody values the feminine. So I think it’s a huge issue. What you lose, I think, often is warmth, creativity, tension. I think without tension, you don’t get a lot of the things that we enjoy that come out of such tensions. There’s a lot of differences between masculine power and feminine power, masculine sexuality and feminine sexuality, masculine forms of growth and feminine forms of growth. When you just flatten it, you lose a lot of wisdom and opportunity for growth and change.

So I agree. I think a lot of people in our society do not like this. Although I will say the latest wave of feminism is a lot of women realizing, hey, actually we just threw all the feminine out and decided to try to become just as good as men in all the masculine ways that men are male, and that’s not actually benefiting us at all. There were some freedoms and some good things that came with earlier forms of feminism, but the current form is not actually serving women terribly well. And so there’s been a big push against that. Often women discover once they become mothers that being a mother is actually really, really important and valuable to them, and it’s different than just being a person, that they experience a personal transformation through motherhood that allows them to realize the value and the difference of the feminine from the masculine.

So yeah, I understand the heat you’re talking about. I think it’s somewhat of a cultural taboo to talk about the differences between people, and yet they exist. I would say the fact that every society throughout all of time until the last 100 years has said, “These are real differences. These are valuable differences. We can understand the universe through exploring these differences, and this is important for us.” It’s not meaningless. That everyone everywhere around the world has seen those differences as valuable. Now they may have engaged with those differences in different ways, patriarchal versus matriarchal cultures, goddesses versus gods. But everyone has said these differences in gender and sexuality are meaningful, are real, and are valuable to explore and take into consideration.

Again, the fact that we have denigrated the feminine in our society has led us to the point where we have so many problems—and not just the ones we’ve discussed so far—but we have overall issues with interpersonal intimacy within our society. We don’t have the same kinds of connections with one another, connections within ourselves. We’ve become very rigid in our society. To say like men, why would you say that a man has a feminine and a masculine aspect? Why would you say a woman has a male and a female aspect? It ends up flattening the way that we view men and women. So if you’re a woman, you’re just supposedly feminine, although in our culture, that’s actually masculine, but usually masculine with makeup and boobs, but you’re a guy. And if you’re a guy, you’re a guy, but don’t be too much of a guy, because if you’re a guy, you’re probably just violent and angry, and so you should learn from women.

But we try to have these discussions without actually saying there are masculine women and feminine men, and that’s okay. And there are feminine women and masculine men, and that’s okay. And not only is it okay, but they bring different things to our culture, and we can explore what those different elements are. What is the mix of masculinity and feminine within the artist community or within the blue collar labor force? How does that shake out? What are the benefits that those things bring to society? How can we orient our education around a person’s particular mixture of those aspects and explore our spirituality as a society around those things? We’re locked off from all of those conversations because we don’t want to engage in this essential element of personhood. So yeah, I think it’s a huge conversation, and I think the fact that our society won’t have it and therefore is having a lot of problems is an issue. But I think we’re approaching it. I think there’s a lot of people who are starting to edge into these conversations.

Ben Wilterdink: Yeah. Clay, any final thoughts before we sign off here?

Clay Routledge: No, I think that was great. I mean, when you were saying all that, I remember I did my PhD training in social and personality psychology 20-some years ago. At that time, I don’t remember it being controversial, at least not in the context of the academic setting, us talking about sex differences. I mean, it was well understood in personality psychology that there’s these universal, sometimes small, sometimes medium, sometimes large, sex differences across cultures and across time. In the scholarly context, that’s been a more recent shift to act like that doesn’t exist or that it’s somehow a problem. So maybe there’s reason for hope that we will rediscover that it’s fine that there’s differences, and it’s still important to judge people as individuals; there’s a lot of variability within groups, within men and women, and all of that. So I remain hopeful, I guess.

Kathryn Wilson: Oh, good. Oh, good.

Clay Routledge: Yeah.

Kathryn Wilson: I do think a book that talks more explicitly about, from a biological perspective, what is different about the genders is, Why Gender Matters. That’s a great book. He doesn’t get into the differences in the masculine and the feminine, but just the biological differences between men and women I think is a good place to start.

We do this weird thing in our culture right now where we try to figure out who we are in this abstract agnostic sort of sense. We have some secret sacred self we have to discover, and then we try to remove body. One, I think that’s basically impossible, and it always goes wrong and creates trouble for you. But also, I think the wiser way to move forward is to understand yourself through your body. What are you actually good at? What are you talented at? What have you been made to do and be?

So starting off with saying, “Okay, how are boys and girls different” is a great place to start off. Say, “Okay, well, girls literally see more colors than boys do, and boys hear different decibel ranges than girls do, and they engage with moving objects differently than girls do. So what could we learn about men and women out of just moving out from the biology and start there? And then from that, where do we see social proclivities?” And moving out from a place of, “This is what I’m designed to be. So then what does that mean about who I am instead of what do I wish I was, and how can I force my body into the shape of what I wish I was?” Even things like the fact that women go through menopause, like out of all mammals, there’s women, and I think it’s whales, humans and whales are the ones that go through menopause. Why do we go through menopause? Why do we end fertility as a female of the species?

I mean, my personal opinion is it allows us to support our children as they care for their children and our grandchildren. It gives us the time and freedom to do that, and it also allows older women the room to contribute differently in society than they do as younger women. If that’s the case, how could we restructure our society so that women are optimally positioned for their best fertile years when they’re younger, to find a lasting partnership and have children and then transition into different forms of societal engagement as they age and their children move on? It would make much more sense to design our society that way, and could we start moving things in a direction that would support that instead of the flip, which is right now women train while they’re younger, attempt to force fertility to happen when they’re older, and then catch up again in their later years.

That doesn’t line up very well with our natural biology. Why are we doing that? There’s ways that we could restructure society if we were able to do so in a gendered way, if we don’t have to just have women do education the way men do education and try to live out their lives the way men live out their lives, because men don’t have an end to their fertile period. There’s just a lot of functional ways that we could re-engage with society for the benefit of everyone. If we could deal with the fact that men and women are different biological beings, we’re not the same, and that’s okay. I like it that way. It’s a good thing. We get a lot of benefits from the fact that we have people partnered with one another who bring different strengths to the table. It’s a good thing for everybody.

Practically, Ben, you asked me what would I say practically for people about this topic? What I would say is people should think about themselves. What elements do they see are part of their nature? If they had to describe themselves to somebody, what would those elements be in that description? Who do they most see reflected in that of themselves? Do you see a grandfather, a grandmother, a parent, an aunt, an uncle, a sibling? Are there ways where you can see a masculine element to some of those things, or a feminine element to some of those things that are true about you? What do you think makes it masculine or feminine? Why does that matter to you? I would just begin with a personal exploration of your lived experience on that and see where that takes you.

Ben Wilterdink: All right. Well, I think that’s great advice, and we’ll have to keep this conversation going and revisit it. Kathryn, thank you for taking the time to talk with us today.

Clay Routledge: Thank you so much.

Kathryn Wilson: Yeah, it was really good. Thanks guys.

. . .

Kathryn Wilson is a psychotherapist in Canada. She has master’s degrees in counseling, psychology, and biblical counseling. Along with her husband, Eamon, Roderick Hare, and Pastor Paul VanderKlay, Kathryn has been one of the regular conversation partners in a series of discussions on the marriage crisis. She lives with her husband and three children in Canada.

Explore additional categories