Study shows recession has weighed heavily on American marriages

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 7, 2011; 9:09 AM

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 Marriage Project, found that 29 percent of couples reported that the economic downturn had put financial stress on their marriages.

At the same time, about a third of the couples surveyed said the recession had prompted them to work harder on saving their marriage - a finding that the report's author described as one of two "silver linings" to the longest economic downturn since the Great Depression. It's unclear whether those couples might have had more stable marriages to begin with.

Those who said they had redoubled their marital commitment as a result of the recession - 52 percent - were likely to report being in "a very happy marriage," compared with 25 percent who disagreed that the recession had caused them to deepen their commitment.

The other "silver lining," the report's author argued, was that 38 percent of couples 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 divorce because they are unable to afford the cost of lawyers and maintaining two households.

"This new survey tells us that the Great Recession has had a double-edged impact on American marriages," said the report's author, Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project and a U-Va. sociology professor. "For some, the financial stresses associated with the Great Recession have hurt their marriages. But for others, this recession has fostered a new commitment to marriage that appears to have improved the quality and stability of their marriages."

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

Couples 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. Another 29 percent indicated they had experienced unemployment or reduced pay or hours as a result of the economic downturn.

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

Only a slightly greater proportion of couples 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 setback, 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.

The Marriage Project at the University of Virginia is an interdisciplinary initiative to provide research and analysis on the health of marriage in America, to analyze the social and cultural forces shaping contemporary marriage and to identify strategies to increase marital quality and stability.

Funding for the survey was provided by the Science of Generosity Initiative at the University of Notre Dame, a project underwritten by the John Templeton Foundation, which describes its mission as being a "catalyst for discoveries relating to the Big Questions of human purpose and ultimate reality."

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