What this BYU professor told the United Nations about why marriage and family matters

Brian Willoughby spoke to a family-focused U.N. coalition in New York City on the International Day of Families

Brian Willoughby once interviewed a young woman named Liz as part of a longitudinal study.

She was 19 when the study started, working on her undergraduate degree at an American university. She’d grown up with two married parents, ample financial resources and abundant emotional support; and she was engaged to a young man she’d met at her church. Liz appeared well on her way to replicating her parents’ marital and family success, Willoughby said.

But several years later, when he met with her again for the study, Liz’s life looked different than he expected. Her engagement had ended, largely due to her desire to leave the religious faith of her family; she’d had one serious relationship since then, but was single at the time of her second interview; and she was more cynical when she spoke about marriage.

“Marriage had become a dream that may or may not eventually come, but she was not going to dwell or wait for it,” Willoughby said. “She explained to me her current belief that for many young adults, marriage created ‘a lot of problems and issues.’”

Willoughby, a School of Family Life professor at Brigham Young University, shared Liz’s story during the United Nations’ “The Family and the Future of Humanity” event on Wednesday, May 15, in New York City.

Held on the International Day of Families and on the 30th anniversary of the International Year of the Family, the event was organized by the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Belarus to the United Nations and by the Center for Family and Human Rights.

The event also involved the Group of Friends of the Family: a coalition of U.N. member states “that reaffirm that the family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State,” according to the Uniting Nations for a Family Friendly World website.

As of 2023, the group had 26 member states, including Belarus, Egypt and Uganda.

During its May 15 meeting, the Group of Friends of the Family convened to discuss a variety of issues facing families today, including declining marriage rates, attitudes about abortion and the diminishment of motherhood.

They invited a variety of experts to share their knowledge, including Willoughby. Other speakers included Stefano Gennarini, vice president for legal studies at the Center for Family and Human Rights; Kimberly Ells, a BYU graduate and author of “The Invincible Family: Why the Global Campaign to Crush Motherhood and Fatherhood Can’t Win”; and pro-life activist Christina Bennett.

Their presentations supported what leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have long taught about the importance of marriage and family.

Sister Kristen Oaks smiles at her husband, President Dallin H. Oaks, as they speak to young adults during a Worldwide Devotional from the Conference Center Theater in Salt Lake City on Sunday, May 21, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

For instance, in May 2023, President Dallin H. Oaks and his wife, Sister Kristen M. Oaks, spoke to young adults ages 18 to 30 in a worldwide devotional. Marriage is central to the purpose of mortal life and what follows, President Oaks, first counselor in the Church’s First Presidency, said at the devotional.

Those who intentionally postpone marriage represent opportunities lost and blessings postponed, he continued, including delays in important personal growth that occurs through that relationship, decreased opportunities to work together in building the kingdom of God and fewer children born.

“Just remember, a loving Heavenly Father has a plan for His young adults, and part of that plan is marriage and children,” President Oaks said.

Speaking during October 2015 general conference, the late Elder Robert D. Hales of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, also addressed this topic. Many young adults like the idea of marriage but are reluctant to take that step, he said, and a growing number don’t want children.

“Speaking plainly, please don’t date all through your 20s just to ‘have a good time,’ thus delaying marriage in favor of other interests and activities,” Elder Hales said. “Why? Because dating and marriage aren’t final destinations. They are the gateway to where you ultimately want to go.”

And during October 2007 general conference, Relief Society General President Julie B. Beck said, “Whereas in many cultures in the world children are ‘becoming less valued,’ in the culture of the gospel we still believe in having children. ... Faithful daughters of God desire children.”

Benefits of marriage to individuals

During his May 15 U.N. presentation, Willoughby said that for many young adults, marriage is “nice if it happens, but certainly not needed or necessary.”

But the problem with this type of attitude is that marriage and family plays an important role in the likelihood of health, happiness and love, he said.

For his book, “The Millennial Marriage,” he investigated the health and well-being of young married couples around the U.S. Drawing on a large national dataset, he found that married millennials are:

  • 16% more likely to report higher life satisfaction than those who never marry.
  • 13% more likely to report satisfaction with their overall physical health.
  • 11% more likely to be optimistic about their personal future.
A husband and wife hold their wedding rings in their open hands. |

Married millennials also reported greater satisfaction with their careers, social lives, personal finances, family lives and local communities, Willoughby said. And his data showed that these effects were stronger for younger couples than for older couples.

Willoughby said other academics might argue that these types of findings are due to “selection effects” — happier and better-adjusted people are more likely to marry. But even when accounting for selection effects, research still shows that married people are overall happier than unmarried people, he said.

That doesn’t mean marriage is a “magical or mystical” relationship in which well-being is simply granted to couples and families, Willoughby clarified.

Rather, “marriage, when approached with the right mindset and skills, tends to fundamentally change who we are,” he said, because its “sacrificial and virtuous” approach to life is focused on the happiness of others rather than of self.

Despite all the benefits of marriage, marriage rates around the world have markedly decreased, Willoughby said. He presented a variety of data showing that, in the U.S., marriages have dropped almost 41% since 1970; in South Korea, they’ve dropped 47% since 1980; and in Portugal, they’ve dropped 20% over the last 15 years.

Besides marriage rates, there’s dwindling interest in romantic relationships at all, Willoughby said. The Monitoring the Future dataset shows that the percentage of high school students who have never been on a single date by high school graduation has increased by 320% over the last 30 years — meaning that now, almost half of all graduating high school students report that they’ve never dated.

“Too many of our young adults … remain pro-marriage but are rarely proactively [marrying],” Willoughby said. “They would like to be married, but are increasingly making personal choices that prioritize careers, hobbies and personal happiness over marriage and families.”

A mother and father walk with their young child. | La Iglesia de Jesucristo de los Santos de los Últimos Días

Benefits of marriage to children

The benefits of marriage go beyond the personal, Willoughby said, because it’s the ideal situation for raising children.

“Marriage remains a pillar of our modern world,” Willoughby said. “When it comes to stability, it forms the bedrock on which the socialization and healthy development of children most readily relies upon.”

For decades, social scientists have found that children are healthier and develop into more capable adults in the context of families with stable marriages, he continued. More recently, he said researchers in Norway found that children living with married parents were less likely to report significant health problems during the COVID-19 pandemic than children living with single parents.

Additionally, married parents are on average more likely to be engaged and active in their child’s life and more likely to invest financially in education and extracurricular activities, Willoughby said.

“This link between child well-being and marriage is consistent, strong and impossible to ignore,” he said, adding, “While we may not know what future challenges exist for families or will exist for families, we do know that children with married parents will be more likely to weather the coming storms, whatever they may be.”

Raising marriage rates

To counter trends of decreasing marriage rates, Willoughby said governments, organizations and the media must send the message that marriage matters. Especially important is the implementation of pro-family and pro-marriage policies that encourage family formation and childbearing.

“While marriage is not the magic answer to poverty, starvation or crime, it is a key indicator of the health of our society and the welfare of the rising generation,” Willoughby said. “We need more people and governments around the world spreading the message that marriage is not only important but is likely the best path towards success, happiness and health in life.”

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