W. Bradford Wilcox, a sociologist at the University of Virginia, is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior fellow of the Institute for Family Studies. Lyman Stone is a research fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, chief information officer of the population research firm Demographic Intelligence and an adjunct fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
“My marriage had preexisting conditions, and covid killed it,” said Dan, a 44-year-old father of three living in Texas. Before covid-19, Dan and his wife felt free to minimize their differences and their time together. But once they were stuck living together 24/7, things took a turn for the worse. Dan felt he was carrying a much bigger load for the family during the lockdown compared with his wife. The frustrations born of covid time together led him to conclude that “we weren’t a partnership, we weren’t working together.”
And so, Dan filed for divorce.
Judging by recent media coverage, Dan would seem to be the poster child for a wave of pandemic-related divorces that have swept America since March. “Why the coronavirus pandemic is leading so many couples to divorce,” read one New York Post headline this spring. The New York Times recently took a similar line: “Considering a Coronavirus Divorce? You’re in Good Company.”
But in real life, the net effects of the pandemic are not nearly as negative as many media reports would suggest.
Consider Katie, a 37-year-old wife and mother living in Virginia. The lockdown was initially stressful for her and her husband as they scrambled to forge a new schedule to cover their two jobs and child care for their toddler. But once they rearranged their schedule, things got better — in part because her husband took on a greater share of child care than he had prior to the pandemic and in part because they began taking walks and talking more in covid time. “It may sound strange, but the stay-at-home order and pandemic truly strengthened our marriage,” Katie observed.
Distress about the state of our unions certainly seems warranted. The tensions arising from being with your partner all day, every day; the disagreements about how to handle sanitation, socializing and schooling; and the stresses occasioned by lost lives, lost jobs and political tempests seem to never end. A major new survey of American families, the American Family Survey (AFS), found that 34 percent of married men and women ages 18 to 55 report the pandemic has increased stress in their marriage.
Yet Katie is not alone. Most married people in America report their unions have gotten stronger, not weaker, in the wake of covid-19. The AFS found that 58 percent of married men and women 18 to 55 said the pandemic has made them appreciate their spouse more, while 51 percent said their commitment to marriage had deepened. Only 8 percent said that the pandemic had weakened their commitment to one another. Other research has found “increases in fathers’ time spent on housework and child care,” a pattern that comports with Katie’s experience. Given all this, it is probably no surprise that the AFS also found the share of married people reporting their marriage is in trouble fell from 40 percent in 2019 to 29 percent in 2020.
In spite of breathless media reports of a surge, divorce appears to be down in 2020. The initial data we have from the five states that report divorce statistics in real time indicates a decline in divorce filings for 2020, with year-to-date filings down 19 percent in Florida, 13 percent in Rhode Island, 12 percent in Oregon and 9 percent in Missouri. While divorces are up 9 percent in Arizona, that increase began in late 2019, before the pandemic. Though states are returning to pre-pandemic levels of divorce, most haven’t gotten there yet.
Divorces also fell during the Great Recession, then went up a bit as the economy recovered and couples got divorces they had been putting off, before turning downward yet again. The net result? Divorce fell more than 20 percent following the Great Recession; today we are nearly at 1970 levels of divorce. Despite the strains the pandemic is causing, we anticipate that a similar decline in divorce could occur in its wake. In a survey we conducted in September of 1,300 American women ages 18 to 44, we found that 45 percent of married women said the pandemic had made them less likely to break up with their partner, vs. just 5 percent who said it had made a breakup more likely.
Tough and traumatic times can change our priorities, our perspective and our devotion to friends and family for the better. When we face trials with a strong social network, the right perspective or a deep faith, as Jonathan Haidt notes in “The Happiness Hypothesis,” adversity is more likely to “lead to growth, strength, joy, and self-improvement,” rather than the opposite.
One silver lining in an otherwise dark year is that most couples seem to be emerging from the crucible of covid-19 not with weaker unions but stronger ones — and dreams for a stronger family future in the undoubtedly difficult days ahead.
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