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For Your Marriage

Marriage Today covers current trends and research pertaining to marriage and family life in today's world.

Recession Brings “Silver Lining” to Marriages

The economic recession “has had a double-edged impact on American marriages,” according to W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project, headquartered at the University of Virginia. A Marriage Project survey conducted from December 2010 to January 2011 found that along with the pain it generated over the past few years, for many couples the recession was accompanied by “two silver linings.”

While “the financial stresses associated with the Great Recession have hurt” some marriages, for others the recession “fostered a new commitment,” one that seems “to have improved the quality and stability of their marriages,” said Wilcox.

A report titled “The Great Recession and Marriage,” released Feb. 7 by the Marriage Project, examined the survey findings. It described this nationally representative survey of 1,197 married Americans between the ages of 18 and 45 as the first to focus on the recession’s impact on the quality and stability of marriage in the U.S.

The survey found that many couples felt the recession led to a deepening of their commitment to their marriages. Furthermore, among couples “who were considering a divorce prior to the recession, a large minority” reported that “the recession caused them to postpone or put aside divorce.”

Five percent of respondents to the survey “were considering divorce or separation prior to the recession,” but 38 percent of those said the recession led them to put such plans aside. And while the survey could not “estimate the number of marriages that dissolved as a result of the recession,” it appeared that at least some marriages “have been saved for now.”

That finding is consistent with other Marriage Project data indicating “that divorce rates have fallen since the Great Recession began,” the report noted.

Thus, there is both good and bad news to report about the recession and the institution of marriage, the Marriage Project said. It found that for 29 percent of couples, the economic downturn “brought financial stress to their marriage,” but the same proportion of couples — 29 percent — said the recession led them to a deepened marital commitment.

When I asked Wilcox why the recession might prompt a woman and man to deepen their commitment to their marriage, he responded that “difficulties and challenges — and even traumas — can be an opportunity to grow as a person or, in this case, as a couple.” His view, he said, is “that these couples have taken the recession as an opportunity to reflect on the ways that they depend on their spouse for financial, emotional and practical support — and their families more generally.”

According to the survey report, couples who “redoubled their marital commitment as a result of the recession are much more likely to be in a happy marriage.” Explaining this finding, Wilcox told me that “couples who report deepening their commitment are now more happy in their marriages and less likely to be thinking about divorce than couples who do not report deepening their commitment to marriage.”

Three ways the financial stress of the recession showed up in the lives of married couples are pointed out in the report. Worry is a key manifestation of such stress. Slightly more than one-third of those responding to the survey said they worried “often or almost all the time about being able to pay the bills.”

Keeping a roof over their heads developed as another sign of stress for couples during the recession. Either difficulty making home mortgage payments or home foreclosures were cited by 12 percent of survey respondents.

A third sign of financial stress resulted from job losses or reduced income, mentioned by 29 percent of survey respondents.

“Only 49 percent of married Americans have escaped all three” of those signs of financial stress during the recession, the report said. It noted that couples who report being “relatively unaffected by the financial downturn … are the most likely to report having a very happy marriage,” while “those with two or three financial stressors are far less likely to report a happy marriage.”

Wilcox said the data show that “about one in five married Americans has been hit with multiple financial stressors.” These are the people “experiencing the greatest challenges in their marriages,” he said.

The recession’s weight has not fallen evenly on married Americans, Wilcox made clear. Consistent with other recent research, the Marriage Project learned that “the college-educated are about half as likely to be at high risk of divorce” as “those with no college degree.”

At the same time, church involvement is a positive force for couples, the report proposed. It said, “Sharing religious commitment appears to have had salutary effects for navigating the recession.”

Though the recession “has had the most deleterious marital effects on those most vulnerable to it – those without a college degree,” the report cited “religious participation” as a “potential buffer against these effects.”

It appears, the report said, that couples who participate together in religious services have enjoyed “higher marital quality, less financial stress and more deepened commitment to marriage in the face of the recession.”