Wilcox: “The middle and upper classes are divorcing less and less”

29 Oct 2014

Family sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox gave the following interview to La Vanguardia's Lluis Amiguet. It appeared in the newspaper's "contra" on October 11, 2014 in Spanish. Wilcox has participated in 6 Experts Meetings and 8 STI publications.

STI Experts

I’m 44 years old and I’ve been married for 19.  Don’t expect miracles from your spouse; provide reality. My home is my family research lab.  I was born in Connecticut.  We have to find ways to rekindle the family.  I collaborate with the Social Trends Institute in Barcelona.


One must ask Bradford Wilcox – family sociologist – about his. “I was raised by a single mother,” he reveals, “and I’ve missed my father since boyhood.” The New York Times and CNN regularly cite him as a specialist on the family.  The second revelation is that he has four adopted and five biological children.  And you have to pry it out of him because he knows the number puts him outside the sociological norm and he fears it will put his scientific neutrality into question.  In any case, I assure him, it also affords him knowledge of his specialty and unquestionable journalistic uniqueness.  And, after all, you have to be truly interested in the family to hit those numbers.  Congratulations Brad!


I study how countries are affected by the fact that women and men become parents late in life and have few children.

We come to parenthood late because its cost is quite high. 

That’s why, after having wanted it for so long, parents enter into a transformative generative experience.

Becoming a parent is a fresh opportunity.

And a magnificent new lease on life just when the disillusionments of maturity set in.  That’s why there are so many helicopter parents.

What do you mean by ‘helicopter?’

In the US we call them helicopter parents because they hover over their children’s lives all the time, supervising them and intervening when they think something isn’t good for the children. 

What’s wrong with being such a good parent?

That you don’t keep the critical distance from them that’s necessary for setting limits.  And children need limits.

There’s no doubt about that.

Overprotective parents don’t allow their children to suffer the consequences of their mistakes.  This does them a disservice. Because learning from their missteps is what will form independent adults who can maturely come to terms with them.

It’s so hard to get it just right!

Because it’s so much more demanding now.  Living comfortably used to be considered good fortune but is now seen as a right. Being a good mother used to be enough to be considered a great woman.  And to be a good father, it used to be enough to provide for the family and not be abusive.

Today those minimums don’t measure up.

Now dad is expected to be masculine while at the same time sensitive, a go-getting role model, yet ever willing to sacrifice work to see his son’s soccer game…

Too many expectations.

Mom of course must be devoted, in addition to being a stellar and dedicated professional, attractive, intellectual and cultured.  Not to mention her emotional intelligence and superior common sense.

Well, I give up.

It’s easier for the middle and upper classes to be intense parents, as they are called in Spain, because you need a good income to afford helicopter parenting.  Unfortunately, the family today is suffering the impact of growing social inequality.

So the higher the income the better the parents?

The data show that the higher their education and income, the greater is the parents’ awareness of the need to provide children with financial and emotional stability. A strong family forms stable and prosperous adults, and that family capital invested in your childhood leads to self-confidence when you grow up. It’s cumulative.

But both rich and poor divorce.

The latest trend is that the higher the socioeconomic class, the greater the family continuity.  It’s the case in the US and also at the other – the social democratic – extreme of advanced societies: Sweden.

The rich tend to divorce less?

In Sweden and the US, families in the middle and upper socioeconomic classes tend to be ever more enduring.

Why do we get divorced?

In advanced societies, two thirds of divorces are not a consequence of critical conflicts between the spouses but rather of disappointed expectations; which is only logical if you go into marriage with unattainable expectations of the other.

And after divorce?

It would be a good idea to consider in advance how to maintain - even after the separation - that stability that’s so important to children.

What do you propose?

I’m a reformer, a sociological centrist.  I believe that we should rethink the family and live it in the most open and diverse way in order to maintain its fundamental end of providing consistency to the education of our children.


There are many individual answers and one collective answer:  the best investment in a country’s future is to guarantee the family in a broad sense a wide array of fiscal benefits and support, so that being a parent or a child is gratifying.  That is assuring the future. 

Poor single-parent families need the most help.

I’m defending that: that we support the less favored classes so that they too enjoy the guarantee of affection and economic support that – despite everything – is still best provided by the family.

Sometimes it’s the last and only recourse.

Let me ask you a question. Has unemployment strengthened or weakened the family in Spain?

Without grandparents, parents, siblings and even in-laws and cousins, this would be hell, whereas it’s only purgatory…family-style.

I’ve studied this and I find it fascinating.  When the State and the Market weaken – like here- the family gets stronger. And when everything is going smoothly, individualist tendencies gain ground. 

Family comes from famulus, someone who attends to the needs of another: it was meant to be a production unit. 

And family businesses remain the best option for productivity when other institutions don’t provide much security. In the US we call it familyism and it is strongest in states with weak institutions and within ethnic communities like the Italian, Irish and Hispanic ones….

This is an English translation of an interview by Lluís Amiguet published in La Vanguardia.
Photo by David Airob - La Vanguardia