Study shows recession has weighed heavily on American marriages

Annys Shin
Reporter February 8, 2011

Americans without a college degree bore the brunt of the recent recession, and so did their marriages, according to a new report by researchers at the University of Virginia.

The "Survey of Marital Generosity," conducted on behalf of U-Va.'s National Marriage Project, found that 29 percent of couples reported that the 2007-09 downturn had put financial stress on their marriages. A greater share of participants without a college degree faced at least one type of economic hardship, compared with those with college degrees, and a higher proportion of the same group said they were at high risk of divorce, compared with their better-educated counterparts.

Annys Shin has been a staff writer at the Washington Post since 2004. View Archive

At the same time, about a third of the married individuals surveyed said the recession had led them to "deepen their commitment" to their marriage - a finding that the report's author and U-Va. sociologist Bradford Wilcox described as one of two "silver linings" to the longest economic downturn since the Great Depression.

"On the one hand, some Americans deepened their commitment to marriage, [while] other Americans are stressed out in ways that undercut marriages," said Wilcox, who is also the project's director.

The recession's other "silver lining" in terms of marriage, Wilcox said, was that 38 percent of married individuals who were considering divorce before the recession had postponed splitting. Those findings are consistent with other data that indicate divorce rates have fallen since the recession began. The drop in divorce rates has been attributed to couples delaying splitting up because they are unable to afford costs associated with it, such as hiring lawyers and maintaining two households.

Stephanie Coontz, director of research and public education for the Council on Contemporary Families, a nonpartisan research organization based at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said putting off a divorce for financial reasons has been associated with negative consequences in the past.

"The last time this happened - in the Great Depression - we saw an increase in domestic violence, heavy drinking, and desertion without divorce," she said in an e-mail. "High conflict, and even low conflict, but daily contempt or resentment between parents, can be harder on kids than divorce."

Wilcox said the data don't point to a single explanation for why the recession led some to strengthen commitments to their marriages, while undermining others. Religious observance played a role. He said the survey showed that married people who attended religious service regularly were less likely to be at risk for divorce than those who did not.

He said it is also possible that the downturn may have prompted some people to view marriage differently, less as a quest for a soul mate and more in terms of economic stability and parental duty.

The survey was based on a poll of 1,197 married Americans ages 18 to 45 conducted in December and January by online research firm Knowledge Networks.

Married people without a college degree were more likely to say they had experienced one or more economic hardships. More than one-third of those surveyed said they worried often or almost all the time about being able to pay the bills. About 12 percent reported either struggling to pay their mortgages or experiencing a home foreclosure. Twenty-nine percent indicated they had experienced unemployment or reduced pay or hours as a result of the economic downturn.

The more financial strain married people faced, the more likely they were to say they were at high risk of divorce, the report said.

Only a slightly greater proportion of married people with a college education - 41 percent - reported being in a "very happy marriage," compared with 37 percent of those with less education. But among those who experienced at least two types of financial setbacks, 20 percent said they were at high risk of divorce, compared with just 7 percent of those who said they were relatively unscathed by the recession.

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