Sometime in the mid-eighth century BC, shortly after killing his twin and successfully founding his new city, Romulus and his merry band of warriors found themselves in a quandary. It was, one could say, a very Jane Austen kind of quandary—namely, “it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

We could quibble whether these earliest Romans were really in possession of a good fortune quite then, in a marshy new village where mosquitoes far outnumbered humans, but there is full agreement, at least, on the second point: Roman tradition holds that these single guys were desperately in want of wives. But where to get them? In a very Roman way, they solved the problem with war. In an episode that became known in later history as “the rape of the Sabine women,” the Romans went to a festival in a nearby town, and kidnapped the women, forcibly marrying them. A minor war resulted, when the women’s original relatives marched to get them back, but by then, it seems that the wives got used to their new lot and helped broker a peace. So, it all worked out just fine from the Roman perspective.

This tale, mythological as it is, offers a glimpse of the pre-Christian pagan view of marriage. It was, first and foremost, transactional. It was, also, predicated on an imbalance of power in a world where men had all the power and women had none. Only one side’s desires and wants mattered. Much of our ideal of good and happy marriages, by contrast, comes from a Christian perspective on this institution. And now, in his new book, Get Married: Why Americans Must Defy the Elites, Forge Strong Families, and Save Civilization, sociologist (and director of the National Marriage Project at UVA) Brad Wilcox shows clearly that marriage is the quintessential Christian realist institution.

To be clear, Wilcox shies away from phrasing it in quite such strong terms. Based on extensive survey data, he argues there are four groups whose marriages are thriving in America today: the Strivers, the Faithful, Asian Americans, and Conservatives. Wilcox’s Strivers are the highly educated elites—those who chose to pursue higher education, at least at the college level, but often beyond. The Faithful are a catch-all category Wilcox uses for all who are religious—not only Christians, but also Jews, Muslims, etc. The Asian Americans he considers include those of Indian descent, whose family-first ethic comes through in their attitude to marriage. Finally, the Conservatives are those with right-of-center views on the world. 

In a society where fewer people are getting married and op-eds proliferate like mushrooms after an excellent rain about marriage being a bad deal for men (thanks, Andrew Tate) and women (thanks, NYT and its pro-polyamorous ways), Wilcox’s book and, really, his broader body of work, offer a useful service: facts aren’t feelings, and the data is clear. Marriage today is, in fact, the single best predictor of happiness and wellbeing—emotional, financial, physical—for both men and women at all stages of life. 

But while marriages are thriving among the four sometimes overlapping groups Wilcox identifies, the book’s clearest takeaway is that it is the specifically Christian realist aspects of marriage that make it such a beneficent institution. In other words, even those whose marriages are thriving despite not being devout Christians still in fact operate by the sort of ingrained Judaeo-Christian values that continue to permeate our culture. This was particularly clear in the book’s description of marriages by secular Strivers and Conservatives. 

It is worth taking a step back for a minute, though, and considering the enemies of happy marriage. Roman marriages, after all, of the sort that Romulus and his buds contracted, were long-lasting. But were they happy? In the traditional Roman ethic, this question was entirely irrelevant. Marriage in a society where individualism was unheard of was meant to be a practical and contractual institution. In the meanwhile, misogyny was rampant, and often justified in scientific terms (thanks, Aristotle). References to abuse of women and wife-beating are present in literature, suggesting that these were commonplace. We would be remiss not to recognize the negative impact these views had on women in Roman marriages. But then, Christianity emerged with such radical teachings as the mutual submission of husbands and wives and the exhortation to the husband to love his wife as Christ loved the church, willing to give his life for her. Unfathomable.

In fact, for some today (like Andrew Tate), Christian marriage remains unfathomable. For in the modern post-Christian view of marriage, individualism rules supreme. While pre-Christian marriages had no concept of moral equality between men and women, the post-Christian view of relationships is entirely individualistic and selfish. One single man Wilcox interviewed as part of his research for this book explained that in his current life as a single man, he could work out as much as he wanted, and use his well-preserved body to attract any women he wanted, all with the aims of casual sex and no commitment. Life, for a man like this one, is all about self-gratification. Marriage would be no advantage to him. In other words, while Roman misogyny thrived within marriage, modern misogyny flourishes outside of it, among men who use women as nothing but casual entertainment.

The Christian realist response, however, dismantles both the Roman and the modern hyper-individualist views of marriage through the recognition of the preciousness of all human life in God’s eyes, alongside the no less important recognition that we are called to live and love in community with other people. In this regard, Wilcox’s book pairs well with Timothy Carney’s new defense of family life. 

And so, Wilcox pushes against the modern secular ideal of individualism in thinking about happiness, resources, and one’s goals in life. He shows instead (with concrete numbers, based on extensive surveying work) how people who put “we over me” flourish in marriage—meaning, have marriages that are more secure and happier. At the same time, regularly having to think not only of one’s own needs but also those of at least one other person also shapes us in important ways. Living a life of daily service, dying to self in ways minor and major, cultivates the virtues  Christianity has historically called believers to: humility, self-sacrificial spirit, love and care for the weak, and general compassion for others. In other words, Christian realism acknowledges that people are sinful, but when you put sinners together in marriage, they can grow in sanctification in unexpected yet beautiful ways.

As parents, my husband and I wash much more than just the feet of our children. Let anyone who has ever changed a baby with a diaper blowout, or woke up in the middle of the night to a child throwing up—on them—understand. As a wife, I rely on my husband to provide for our family, which in turn allows me to be a full-time homeschooling mother and a part-time writer. Of course, my husband also knows that every morning, as he gets ready to run out the door, there is a really nice lunch packed for him, ready to grab out of the fridge. Most important, we both know that we always have a built-in cheerleader, ready to encourage, support, praise each other’s achievements, and also sympathize in times of sorrow. The cliché about marrying your best friend is unfathomable amidst either the pre-Christian paganism or post-Christian misogyny. 

Marriage, some would say—and some do—is a personal decision; a “you do you” sort of thing. Except it’s not. As our society increasingly moves away from morally formative education, Wilcox’s stories of men and women growing together through their married years show that marriage and family remain a key school of the virtues essential to a healthy democracy. Thus, the marriage debate carries larger implications for societal stability and happiness. How might we be more joyful citizens, more willing to vote (as democracy sometimes calls us to do) against our own self-interest? A happy marriage prepares us for such a time as this.