Leading sociologist of marriage Andrew Cherlin writes an important piece on a recent large-scale study of couples receiving extensive marital support services. He summarizes the project and its key result:

The Administration for Children and Families engaged well-known and dedicated researchers and clinicians to design new “relationship skills” programs to improve communication, avoid conflict and build trust — an approach that had previously seemed to help middle-class couples remain together. With high hopes, it hired a leading research firm, Mathematica Policy Research, to recruit about 5,000 couples in eight sites across the nation. Half of the couples, chosen at random, were offered the program and some additional services, at an average cost of $11,000 a couple. The other half weren’t offered the program and served as a control group. Both sets of couples were followed for three years.

The agency released the long-awaited final results on Nov. 30: Relationship-skills education had failed to contain the forces that pull young, unmarried couples apart. Couples who were offered the program were no more likely to have remained together or to have married than were those who weren’t offered it. Nor was there a difference in relationship quality between the two groups. Only the Oklahoma site showed some positive effects.

This is an important finding, for one reason Cherlin highlights and for another he doesn’t. Cherlin draws a conclusion that is also strongly support in his book-length study, The Marriage-Go-Round, that family breakdown today in the US appears deeply related to economic insecurity and instability:

Yet the lesson of the marriage-promotion experiment shouldn’t be to simply give up trying to encourage stable relationships. There are broad hints elsewhere in American society about where we should go next. While marriage has been in decline among the poor and the working class, it has strengthened among the college-educated middle class.

Young adults who have graduated from four-year colleges are more likely to marry than are less-educated young adults. More than 90 percent wait to have children until after they have married. Since 1980, the divorce rate has dropped sharply for the college-educated and is now down to the levels of the mid-1960s.

…Meanwhile, less-educated young adults…are hesitant to marry. Instead, they are increasingly having children in brittle cohabiting relationships. Is it just a coincidence that the winners in our globalized and automated economy are turning toward marriage while the losers are turning away? If not, then marriage and childbearing patterns have become one more manifestation of the growing economic inequality in American society.

I agree with Cherlin here; the data cannot be interpreted any other way. Family breakdown is an economic problem, not simply about adequate income (though this is part of it), but even more about longer-term economic security. This security makes it possible to engage in longer-term life planning, insulates a couple from external shocks, even makes it far more possible to locate one’s family within a stable community and form important ties to neighbors and healthy civic institutions.

But family breakdown is not only an economic problem. It’s here where Cherlin seems to overinterpret the study in question, by drawing a misleading dichotomy between values-causation and economic causation. As the headline of his piece asks: “Do Unmarried Poor People Have Bad Values or Bad Jobs?” A eye-catcher the editor chose, no doubt, but indicative of the contrast the article asks us to believe. Yet, just as “bad values” is an inadequate account of the problem, so too “bad jobs” is an insufficient one. Even in the article, Cherlin notes that marital counseling programs, while they vary widely in quality, but no doubt many of the stable marriages of the upper-middle class have benefited from targeted counseling.

I would suggest that the real problem here is confusing values with virtues. Sometimes the two terms get used interchangeably – understandable, since a quality like “trust” or “fairness” or even “reciprocity’ looks like both a value and a virtue. But, according to classical virtue theory, they are not the same. A virtue is a habit, a settled disposition, a kind of “second nature” that inclines a person to respond in particular ways and not others. Given that understanding, a virtue is unlike a value, since one can wake up one morning or go to a counseling class and think, hey, I should value trust. But that THOUGHT tends not to be very effective if one’s dispositions push constantly in the other direction. This is why, for example, classroom education about ethics can be very ineffective – or, put more precisely, such education is effective insofar as it builds on and deepens the understanding of those who already have some disposition toward virtue. It may also bring about a kind of “conversion” – but when it does, it won’t get very far unless the “convert” then immediately enters various practices, just as if one learns in health class that regular exercise is important won’t get far toward health unless they also begin to exercise.

How should this insight affect our reading of this marriage study? Well, one might suggest that it would be intriguing to see whether couples counseling is more effective for persons who already enter such a program with an array of dispositions (and practices) related to what traditionally has been termed “temperance.” Of course, this has something to do with chastity, but it goes far beyond. In today’s society, we could associate temperance with a host of practices – is the person able to maintain a healthy diet? Show up to work and other commitments on time? Delay gratification? Save money? Resist impulses to anger, and especially violence? Stop texting when driving? Understood as a virtue, temperance involves a general disposition to resist immediate gratification in order to fulfill long-term commitments of greater significance.

We are not a very temperate society. But that statement should be qualified by a recognition that this problem is far from uniform throughout the culture. Many people do have this basic disposition – and it is characteristic of those who (outside the unfortunate Kardashianized celebrity culture) succeed in school, maintain employment, and (more than likely) are able to sustain a stable family life. Indeed, it is striking to me and to many other of my teaching colleagues that students who “flop” in our classes seem not to have intellectual challenges so much as they have challenges in practicing temperance – following instructions, asking for help, redoubling their efforts if they see warning signs, etc.

It seems to me that one of the explanations for the class-based marriage divide in our culture (along with structural economic problems) is that much of low-grade popular culture, and the consumer ethos that promotes it, encourages and even glamorizes obviously intemperate behavior. Again, degrading sexual hook-ups are a part of this, but I’m not sure they are the most important part – indeed, one of the paradoxes of marriage statistics is that some religious and conservative “red states” have the worst divorce rates, and I think this is partly accounted for by trying to isolate temperance in marriage, but then accepting intemperance in much else, from gasoline to consumer gizmos to alcohol to disdain for education to cultural violence. No doubt there are plenty of consumer gizmos (and alcohol) for the rich – as with any sociological observations, these are generalizations that cannot be applied to every person or household. But in general, it would be hard to deny that self-restraint is not a notable characteristic of popular culture aimed at certain demographics.

This is not an easy conclusion, nor is it a silver bullet. Highly-disciplined people (e.g., David Petraeus) can do intemperate things, and some people (e.g. some athletes) are able to maintain very high levels of restraint and discipline in one area of life, while lacking it in others. Furthermore, I have no doubt that for most people, these virtues are learned through home, a certain kind of schooling, and a certain kind of work – and especially in the work category, our economy has problems generating good jobs with reasonable skill and social respect and responsibility for many. The point is, rather, that virtues are crucial to marriage and family, and that virtues are not “values” and can only really be developed through generating a culture of virtue, in which certain dispositions are required and reinforced throughout the whole of life. After all, this does lead us back to economics – to the problem of a consumer society that celebrates no limits on spending and getting and innovating (to whatever end you want). Family virtues are needed, but they won’t come for all until we get some solid economic and cultural temperance, too.