This is part of my series on Matt Walsh’s book, The Unholy Trinity, Blocking the Left’s Assault on Life, Marriage, and Gender. Chapter 5 is titled “The Abandonmet of Marriage”. In this chapter, Matt Walsh is sad that divorce exists, and also laments the existence of birth control.
Before I get into this piece, I feel compelled to point out that Walsh is no longer part of The Blaze Network. Glenn Beck’s network has been tanking, and has recently laid off 30% of its staff. As a result, Matt Walsh has moved to The Daily Wire, if you’re interested in subjecting yourself to his content on a more regular basis.
In this chapter, Walsh opines on divorce. As a Catholic, this is a serious subject for him, as the Church is very concerned with maintaining traditional family structures.
Before I get into Walsh’s opinions, I’d like to suggest that perhaps divorce isn’t the worst thing in the world. Of course, Walsh is bound to Catholic doctrine, so of course he has to oppose it. But perhaps there’s nothing really that bad about leaving relationships that are fruitless, and there’s possibly greater personal harm in trying to force a relationship to stay together just for the sake of keeping it together. Obviously, this also has implications about domestic abuse that are pretty unhealthy too. Obviously as an atheist I don’t hold marriage to be some sacred bond, so if a divorce is healthy I have no reason to oppose it.
Matt Walsh claims that churches need to stick to their principles and take a consistent position on divorce to prevent members from divorcing, since according to him Catholics are significantly less likely to break up (presumably compared to other denominations). As per usual, Walsh doesn’t give a citation or source (since his readers will likely absorb whatever he writes anyway), but I’ll assume he’s referring to a Barna study from 2008, which many Catholic websites have cited to promote their faith. In the study of people who have been married, 33% of all adults surveyed had been divorced. Catholics had a 28% divorce rate, which is a mild improvement from the overall population as well as from protestants (34%). It’s not an improvement from Evangelical Christians (26%). Just as a note, atheists and agnostics had a divorce rate of 30%. These are all fairly similar to each other, so I don’t find it terribly compelling. Perhaps Walsh had a different source, but sadly he didn’t disclose it.
Interestingly, one of the best ways to avoid divorce is to get married later. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has noted that for marriages that began at ages 15 to 22, 58.4% end in divorce. This drops when the ages increase to 23-28 (43.1%), to 29-34 (36.2%), to 35-40 (23.4%), and 41-46 (10.5%). These are much more significant changes in divorce rate than between religious denominations, but curiously Walsh isn’t advocating waiting to get married if he cares about divorce so much. In fact, in the past he has advocated that people get married young. In these linked pieces he also encourages people to get married and ignore any concerns about personal finances, which is worrying because financial problems are also one of the leading factors in causing divorce. By all accounts, it appears that he isn’t actually concerned about the problem, just pushing Catholic propaganda to keep people fruitful and multiplying.
Millennials these days sidestep a lot of these problems, and the average married household is changing. The median age at first marriage has shot up since the 60s (from 20/22 for men/women to 27/29). More women have become part of the labor force, and now there more dual-income households compared to just male breadwinners. Millennials are still struggling in a post-’08 crash economy, and trying to deal with low wages and high student debt. I would assume that my generation is being fairly responsible (something conservatives often claim to value), and not committing to each other while having unstable financial conditions. Millennials have fewer sexual partners than previous generations too. To our generation, there isn’t as much pressure to settle down and have kids. More millennials are also living together before getting married, allowing to test out if we are compatible living in the same space before we commit to it. All these factors may be combining and causing us to have a lower divorce rate overall.
Unfortunately, the Catholic worldview wants to have its cake and eat it too by giving us conflicting advice. They want everyone to be fruitful and multiply. But they also want this to happen within the context of marriage, and only marriages that are for men and women (which they insist is the only type of marriage). They want us to do it as soon as possible, so we can pump out as may babies as possible. They expect us to do it under strained financial conditions as well. All these are trying to squeeze a ton of square people with a variety of wants and needs into a round, religious hole.
I’d argue that millennials are having healthier relationships overall. By not rushing into marriage, we aren’t wedding together simply for the sake of societal expectations. We aren’t conforming to norms, or at least we are creating our own. We are more interested in healthy, fruitful relationships that value the needs of both partners, and we are more accepting of other relationships around us. We’ve had majority support for same-sex marriage since 2006, and less than half are interested in a monogamous relationship. According to the Institute for Family Studies, we also cheat less. We may be the first generation starting to accept that relationships aren’t one-size-fits-all, and that what’s really important is that all parties involved are happy and healthily involved with each other.
And, to be honest, part of having healthy relationships is recognizing when they are unhealthy. If a relationship isn’t fruitful, then there’s not much reason for people to stay together, and divorce should be just fine. Catholics may be concerned about children involved, which is a valid concern for married people with children. However, there is some evidence indicating that while children in a divorced household suffer some short-term negative effects, these effects don’t last long and children in these households are almost always able to grow up well-adjusted. Does a split up family that is able to divorce in a healthy way seem preferable to forcing hostile partners to remain together and raise children in a toxic environment? I think most people should prefer the former to the latter.
Walsh isn’t just blaming divorce for ruining heterosexual marriages, he’s also upset with the birth control pill. As a Catholic reactionary, he is practically required to dislike the birth control pill and how it has influenced culture (women’s autonomy be damned).
He brings up a couple of studies that indicate that women’s hormonal preferences will shift while they are on the birth control pill. These studies indicate that men who are less conventionally attractive may tend to be seen as more attractive while they are on a birth control pill. Also, women generally prefer men with a scent that indicates a different major histocompatibility complex (an evolutionary effect that promotes genetic diversity), but this effect is not as strong for women on the pill. These both imply that the birth control is a horrible, unnatural device that twists our psyches without us knowing, and because of that it is evil.
Walsh opines on these findings thusly:
It’s no surprise that birth control has such a profound and confounding impact on a woman’s psyche. The primary function of the pill is to essentially trick her body into believing that she’s pregnant all the time. It doesn’t take a scientist to surmise that perhaps a woman’s body is not meant to be, or to believe itself to be, perpetually pregnant for thirty years. And, as a married man with three children, I can attest that pregnancy can be, at times – and I say this cautiously – a rather emotionally tumultuous times for a lady. And that’s just over the course of a nine-month pregnancy. I tremble with fear at the thought of what effect a 360-month pregnancy could have on my wonderful wife.
Again, Walsh engages with the naturalistic fallacy, which he engaged with gratuitously when discussing abortion and bodily autonomy. Any deviations from how the human body normally functions absent of chemical intervention is obviously a travesty, and we would be best off just going off the “natural” bodily behavior.
The fact of the matter is that medicines and pills that we use change our behavior. This goes for pharmaceuticals that help us with depression, anxiety, ADHD, hormone replacement therapy, and all sorts of other things including birth control. What’s important is that we are given informed consent. When I was on ADD medications in junior high, the medications caused me to become drowsy and I had a different problem in school other than not being able to pay attention. The issue wasn’t then to drop the medicine because it had side effects, it was whether or not the side effects were acceptable in light of changing my behavior as intended. Birth control packets contain an insert listing all the important side effects that they can cause, and any good physician will be able to bring up relevant concerns.
Even if the birth control insert or the physician don’t list these behavioral changes as a primary concern that needs to be disclosed, I don’t find these behavioral changes terribly worrisome. After all, if a couple has a healthy interpersonal relationship with each other, then changes in attraction to facial features should not be a dealbreaker in the behavior. And when it comes to desirable body odors, even in the study that Walsh refers to, other non-chemical factors have an even greater effect on whether a woman finds a body odor scent attractive or not, like if a woman is single or in a relationship. As per usual, this is taking very minor effects and creating a mountain out of a molehill.
Walsh tries to tie the birth control pill to divorce by noting that increase in birth control usage and increase in divorce coincided together, after the sexual revolution in the ‘60s. He admits that one can’t be shown to cause another, and admits that the divorce rate has actually somewhat recently while birth control remains ubiquitous. Ultimately, he doesn’t really make much of a point, but I assume this is just to plant the correlation in the minds of his reading audience, and use this as a segue into the following paragraph:
Despite our culture’s shortcut around the divorce problem, there are still ways to shield your marriage from divorce while still actually getting married in the first place. One tip may be to dump the pill. Among couples who use natural family planning instead of artificial birth control, the divorce rate is, astoundingly, less than 3 percent.
“Natural family planning” is the Catholic go-to birth control method, which combines the rhythm method (having sex planning around the menstrual cycle) and keeping track of other physiological signs of fertility, using both of these factors to avoid sex when the uterus is most fertile. This is somehow preferred by churches and people interested in “natural” solutions because it is chemical-free.
This method holds some obvious problems. First of all, it much harder for people whose periods are irregular (which, to be clear, is also a natural phenomenon). Also, anyone with a uterus who is reading might also be thinking about the libido, and how it tends to peak during the most fertile period of the menstrual cycle. This may not exactly lead to an ideal sexual relationship between partners.
Let’s look into some of the numbers, though. As usual, Walsh doesn’t cite his sources, so I had to do some digging to find where he’s getting the numbers. Catholic and pro-NFP sources pointed to one survey done by Family of the Americas Foundation. This was a non-random sample of 505 people across the Nation, and the findings found that the divorce rate is exceptionally low, around 0.2%. Their sampling methods and the fact that it was carried out by a foundation invested in promoting natural family planning leaves it suspect at best, but also any claims that one caused the other is unjustified. There could be a variety of confounding factors, and we have no reason to claim that one causes the other.
The study also contained the following paragraph, which I hope you find as humorous as I do, as these types of paragraphs are not commonplace in most surveys that try and hold nonpartisan credibility.
It is predictable that those who respect and follow God’s law attain a closer relationship with God as they are totally dependent on His Will. Drawing closer to our Creator, in turn, inspires us all the more to observe His laws as they benefit us psychologically, physically, and spiritually.
I did find another study in the Linacre Quarterly (a Catholic medical journal), that indicates that couples that utilize NFP are less likely to divorce, though the exact rate is undetermined, and more research needs to be looked into this. I’m quite happy to accept for the sake of argument that couples engaging in NFP are unlikely to divorce. Until better numbers come in, I’m skeptical of Walsh’s claims on the specific divorce rate, and any claims that simply engaging in NFP can somehow “save” a marriage.
How good are natural family planning methods, though? The CDC indicates that NFP is one of the worst ways to prevent unintended pregnancies, indicating that 24% of women who engage in the method will experience an unintended pregnancy. This is worse than simply pulling out which has a rate of 22%, and worse than condoms at 18%. Compare this to the pill that Walsh has been railing against, which has a failure rate of 9%. I wouldn’t be surprised that Walsh and other Catholics promote NFP, because they actually don’t want couples to avoid having babies. Catholicism promotes having children as a good unto itself, and so it behooves them to promote a “birth control” method that doesn’t even work that well. Couples that don’t want to have a child will think they’re controlling their pregnancy, but they are using a method prone to failure. They lose out, but Catholic doctrine gets to shrug their shoulders and chalk it up to their god’s plan.
Of course, all of this ignores that there are plenty of reasons that people take birth control besides merely pregnancy. It can help to alleviate pain associated with devastating cramps, can be used to treat endometriosis, and to replace estrogen, among other things. It can even save lives. Of course, just like when Walsh brought up assisted suicide, he isn’t interested in being charitable and going into actual reasons why people take birth control. He is interested in riling up his base and spreading Catholic propaganda. He doesn’t care about women with dangerous conditions, or suffering as a result of difficult menstrual conditions. He doesn’t actually care about unhealthy relationships. If anything, he’s promoting unhealthy, unhappy lifestyles, and he’s pretty ok with suffering in general.
I leave this piece with one of the most unintentionally humorous paragraphs in the book.
But the most relevant thing about the birth control pill is that it, of course, stops procreation.
You nailed it Matt. I’m sorry that not everyone wants to spend their lives pumping out babies.