Wilcox wisdom: Dads keep families healthy

Marriage keeps kids safer. Women are happier married to men who earn bigger bucks than they do. Neighborhoods with fathers are less crime-ridden than those with a majority of single mothers.

Think these traditional, Leave It to Beaver values were left in the dust of the social upheaval of  the '60s? 

UVA sociologist Brad Wilcox says no. And his research indicates that so-called family values actually result in happier, more financially stable relationships.

"The country's retreat from marriage has had a disproportionate impact on minorities and the working class and poor," says Wilcox. "They've borne more of the burden in the decrease in marriage."

One surprise, says Wilcox, is the link between relationships and biology. "Girls reared in intact families have puberty on time," he says. If the mother lives with a non-related male, it's earlier. And girls who have puberty earlier are more likely to become sexually active. Wilcox wonders: is it stress or pheromones?

"Among some mammals," he says, "the female does not start puberty until she encounters pheromones of unrelated males."

Another link between biology and relationships: Happily married women have less cortisol, a hormone related to stress, than unhappily married women. And men's testosterone levels are lower when they're married than when single, and sink even more when there are kids in the household.

Wilcox's next book is called Soulmates: Religion, Sex and Marriage in Urban America. His father was an Episcopal priest who died when Wilcox was three. "I was raised in a single-mother household," says Wilcox. "She did a very good job, but I wondered what it would be like with a father."

"Brad's pioneering a new area of focus by combining the study of religion with the study of family," says colleague Steven Nock. "I do think he'll be remembered for his work on fathers." 

Wilcox's most recent research on fathers and families finds that girls are less likely to be abused and boys are less likely to end up in prison if there's a dad in the house.

Nock co-authored a study with Wilcox that concludes that women are happier with higher-earning, emotionally engaged, committed, doing-their-share-of-the-housework spouses. 

"He's showing traditional or more conservative arrangements seem to work– and that's controversial," Nock notes.

Wilcox, 35, walks the walk. He and his wife reside with their three children in their new-yet-traditional-looking house on transitional Ridge Street, and four family wedding photos grace the living room. 

 He applies his research to his own 11-year marriage. "I try to work on being a good listener," he says. "I also do a lot of childrearing." His flexible schedule allows his wife more time to finish her dissertation at Columbia. 

"The whole emotional engagement is the key challenge," he stresses. "I try to indicate my gratitude to her."

But even one who studies what makes happy relationships concedes, "I'm the first to admit I'm not a perfect husband or father."

Brad Wilcox