As of 2021, around 25 percent of 40-year-old Americans are not married — the highest percentage ever recorded. While divorce rates have plummeted from their early 1980s high, fewer people are choosing to marry in the first place. Why?

Yes, around two million Americans get married every year (and you probably have the save-the-dates on your refrigerator door to prove it). But a rising number of people aren’t, even people in long-term partnered relationships. They aren’t getting married for any number of reasons, whether that’s distrust of the institution of marriage or the potential loss of access to federal benefits or a belief that marriage just doesn’t fit their needs. But in his new book, “Get Married: Why Americans Must Defy the Elites, Forge Strong Families, and Save Civilization,” the University of Virginia professor Brad Wilcox argues that marriage is more important than ever for individuals and for the country.

I spoke with Mr. Wilcox about getting married, staying married and whether the government should help individuals find partners. This interview has been edited for length and clarity and is part of an Opinion Q. and A. series exploring modern conservatism today, its influence in society and politics and how and why it differs (and doesn’t) from the conservative movement that most Americans thought they knew.

Jane Coaston: Why don’t more people get married now, in your opinion? How did we get to this point where, as you write, we are seeing the “closing of the American heart”?

Brad Wilcox: Part of the story here is the emergence of what I call a Midas mind-set, where too many Americans, too many young adults especially, are either explicitly or implicitly assuming that life is about education, money and especially work. One Pew study found that for Americans in general, 71 percent thought having a job or career they enjoy is the path toward fulfillment and getting married was the path for only 23 percent. We’ve also seen the falling fortunes of men, especially men who don’t have college degrees. They’re much less connected to the work force and they’re less attractive for that reason in part.

About one in four men in their prime, 25 to 54, are not working full time, and those men are less likely to get married in the first place and more likely to get divorced if they do marry. We could talk about how the rise of expressive individualism since the late ’60s and early ’70s has kind of changed what Americans expect from love and marriage and made them less famalistic in their orientation. Finally, there’s growing secularization and the ways in which public policies often end up penalizing marriage today, particularly among the working class. So it’s a perfect storm of cultural policy and economic developments that have made marriage less important for some and less accessible for others. And that’s why we’re seeing fewer and fewer Americans opening their hearts to marriage today.

[Last month the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that about 16 percent of the entire 25-to-54 male population is unemployed, and the labor force participation for men without college degrees is regularly lower than their counterparts with degrees.]

Coaston: Many people would agree with you about the importance of marriage, but they’d argue that’s why they aren’t doing it. They take marriage too seriously, and they don’t want to commit too early, or they don’t think that they are the right people to get married.

Wilcox: I think that’s a great point. I think one of the challenges facing all of us is that our culture, our pop culture in some ways especially, will often give us what I call the soul-mate myth. And it’s this idea that there’s some perfect person out there waiting for you and that once you find them and love them and then marry them, you’ll have this perfect connection that engenders intense emotional connection, sense of romance, passion that in turn leads you to be happy and fulfilled most of the time. I think there’s a kind of naïveté that we have around the soul-mate myth, rather than recognizing that we’re all flawed.

Any kind of serious relationship, including marriage, is going to be at times deeply challenging and hard and require a lot of work. So I think kind of having a more realistic understanding of the way that love and marriage tend to work out for most of us would be helpful in reducing the expectations and making people more realistic about it. Having a list of, in a sense, four or five nonnegotiables for a potential spouse but not a list that extends to 20 items.

Of course, not everyone should get married or obviously can get married today and I don’t want to lose sight of that. In terms of this broader discussion, though, it looks like a large share of young adults today will never marry.

Coaston: How do you respond to people who argue that amid all of this conversation about the importance of marriage, a bad marriage could be damaging for children?

Wilcox: It’s important to acknowledge that there’s a good bit of research that high-conflict marriages are bad for children. We’re talking about things like domestic violence, regular screaming, fights in the kitchen, whatever it might be. Psychologists and family scholars have ways of measuring how much conflict there is between parents and then again, in different sets of research, they find that high-conflict marriages are bad for kids. But what they find is that when divorce happens in lower-conflict situations for married parents, that ends up being bad for kids because it’s associated with having to sell your house and split your household between two different properties.

[Mr. Wilcox pointed to research done by Paul Amato and Alan Booth. In one paper with Laura Spencer Loomis, for instance, the researchers found, based on a longitudinal study conducted in the 1980s and early ’90s, worse outcomes for the children of high-conflict marriages, in which the parents remained married and did not divorce, and for the children of low-conflict marriages that ended in divorce.]

There’s the emotional difficulties and trauma associated with divorce for kids — different routines, different households, different expectations now between the two sets of parents. This also sends kids a signal that they can have less faith in love and marriage because from their perspective, their parents might’ve seemed reasonably OK and then they’ve broken off their marriage.

Maybe one parent is depressed. Maybe one parent feels like they’re growing apart from their spouse. Maybe they’re experiencing some kind of sexual difficulty. I was just talking to a pastor here in Charlottesville yesterday, and he was saying he’s been counseling folks who are not having sex, and there are reasons why that’s the case, but to sort of help people move beyond these situations for the sake of their kids but also to help them repair their own marriages as well.

Coaston: You bring up in the book “Nikki Haleyism” and the ways the Republican Party has failed to support families. Can you tell me more about that? What is Nikki Haleyism?

Wilcox: So it’s this basic idea that we can hearken back to President Ronald Reagan and assumes that the answer to many of our problems, including our family problems, is just less regulation and lower taxes — that a booming economy lifts all boats. And that we shouldn’t be thinking about measures to expand the child tax credit. We shouldn’t be thinking deeply about the ways in which a lot of our young men and teenage boys are struggling in this new economy and in this current culture.

Coaston: Something the book doesn’t get into is how to get married, how to find a partner who wishes to marry. Is that something you think that the government should perhaps play a role in as well?

Wilcox: No. But we can think about civil society and family doing a better job of trying to connect young adults, potential partners. We’re facing a kind of demographic tsunami of sorts when it comes to marriage and childbearing, where a large minority may never marry, never have kids. And so I think parents, professors, teachers, peers, good friends should be a lot more intentional about connecting their friends, their children, their students to potential prospects who would be good for dating and then maybe for marriage down the road.

Coaston: You argue that “not enough male teachers, too little recess, books that don’t speak to the male imagination, and intolerance to the boisterous spirit of boys in our nation’s schools are among the many factors driving” unmotivated boys and men. What are the alternatives, given that girls seem to be succeeding just fine and men have been discouraged from the teaching profession, including by conservatives?

Wilcox: So I would certainly agree with Richard Reeves here that we should do more to get men in the teaching professions, and I would disagree with my fellow conservatives who discouraged men on that front. I think giving our younger boys more recess is one kind of thing that could be helpful. I think doing more to revive single-sex classes and schools would be helpful here as well in terms of recognizing that oftentimes there is a distinctive approach to schooling and social life that school-aged boys have and that we could work with that grain rather than against it. And thinking about the kinds of stories you tell in class or have the kids read in class, the kinds of historical subjects that get front-loaded. We also just need to give higher priority to strengthening vocational tracks in our high schools, which would I think give a lot of young men who are not on that striver path, not just a pathway toward better-paying careers and good jobs, but a clear sense of their own self-worth.

[Richard Reeves, who wrote a widely discussed book about the struggles of men and boys, has argued that more men should become teachers.]

Coaston: Some people have children together, they already share a home, but they aren’t married. What are ways to urge them to get married?

Wilcox: There is a marriage penalty associated oftentimes with a lot of our means-tested programs like Medicaid, for instance, and food stamps. If you go above that income threshold, you often lose the benefit or you’ll lose some part of the benefit. I think one thing we could do is to double the threshold for means-tested programs and policies like Medicaid for married versus single parents to reduce the effect of that penalty. One working-class Virginia couple I spoke to, for instance, had two young daughters. The mom and the two kids were on the Medicaid program here in Virginia, but they hadn’t gotten married, in large part because they didn’t want to lose access to Medicaid. His job did not provide health care insurance.

I was recently doing an event at a local restaurant here and talking about marriage. And afterward a waitress at the restaurant came up to me and conveyed the same scenario. Her partner was actually a chef in the restaurant. They have two kids, she and her two kids are on Medicaid in Virginia, and they’re not married, even though they have come to consider themselves to be married, because of this concern. So we have to think about ways to do no harm with our public policies targeting, especially working-class couples with kids.

Coaston: How do you think contemporary politics and the role of hypocrisy has impacted marriage rates. Or has it?

Wilcox: There are plenty of examples on the Republican side where we’re seeing Republican leaders behave badly when it comes to marriage. That’s clearly part of our problem, I would say. It also explains why some of our Republican leaders or conservative leaders are actually not very good at articulating a marriage-friendly message. I also talk in the book about how many of our elites, primarily on the left, are inverted hypocrites. They’re living better lives in private than they’re kind of standing for in public. And so I think we often have elites who are either publicly deriding or devaluing marriage or who are kind of practically denying its value.

So I talk about people ranging from Hollywood moguls to Washington editors who are living very kind of neotraditional family lives. They’re stably married, they’re prosperous, both they and their spouse and their kids are benefiting from this institution. And yet the kinds of cultural programming that they’re sponsoring, the kinds of media stories that they’re presiding over are often sending an anti-nuptial message to the broader public.

Coaston: My final question would be, to me, a deceptively simple one: Do you think people don’t get married because they don’t want to?

Wilcox: I was talking to a graduate student recently. He had a very clear sense of his plan for schooling and work, and then I said, “What’s your plan about marriage and dating?” And there was silence. He didn’t really have a plan. I think that’s part of the challenge — that people are not being intentional enough about seeking opportunities to meet, date and marry young adults in their world. On the one hand, there’s people who expect too much from marriage on the romantic side, but secondarily, practically, they’re often focusing a lot more on work and education than they are on preparing for a marital and family future.

But I think lower down the class ladder, there’s kind of more of an accessibility issue playing out in American life for young adults. Some of our public policies practically penalize marriage, make it less financially appealing, particularly for working-class and poor America. And I’ve spoken to a number of working-class women who kind of express concern about their partner’s or husband’s lack of full-time employment and his lack of assistance on the home front — just kind of the male malaise, we might call it, is more likely to be expressed in many working class and poor communities.

We also just have fewer norms governing dating, sex, co-resident marriage. I’m not saying go back to 1955. But there isn’t really much in the way of common cultural guidance to sort of help script the transition from being single to being successfully married in our culture.

I think the challenge — when it comes to making the case for getting married — is that we have to address making people’s expectations for marriage more realistic but also sort of underline how important marriage is, both for them and their kids and for the country at large. And then to make marriage more accessible to working-class and poor Americans by reforming public policies, giving people some more common sense advice about the value of marriage and the path to marriage and helping our young men become more marriageable.