The Washington Post

Study shows recession has weighed heavily on American marriages


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.


Success! Check your inbox for details. You might also like:

Please enter a valid email address

See all newsletters

Show Comments

Sign up for email updates from the "Confronting the Caliphate" series.

You have signed up for the "Confronting the Caliphate" series.

Thank you for signing up
You'll receive e-mail when new stories are published in this series.
Most Read


Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Your Three. Videos curated for you.
Play Videos
Deaf banjo player teaches thousands
Unconventional warfare with a side of ale
It's in the details: Five ways to enhance your kitchen makeover
Play Videos
Drawing as an act of defiance
A fighter pilot helmet with 360 degrees of sky
Border collies: A 'mouse trap' for geese on the National Mall
Play Videos
Bao: The signature dish of San Francisco
This man's job is binge-watching for Netflix
What you need to know about Planned Parenthood
Play Videos
How to save and spend money at college
Pandas, from birth to milk to mom
Europe's migrant crisis, explained

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.