The Great Recession appears to have influenced more married couples who were considering divorce to delay those plans, in many cases even leading them to discover that staying together strengthened their marriages, according to experts commenting on the latest study from the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia.
“There is a silver lining in this recession, and that it is that some married Americans have gained a new appreciation and understanding of the importance of their most primary human ties,” said study author Brad Wilcox, associate professor of sociology at Virginia.
However, Wilcox noted, the recession seems to be also having a doubled-edged impact on marriages. Couples who are not religious or engaged in faith communities are more at risk of separating. Many of those couples who delayed divorce for financial reasons are likely to revisit those plans after the recession.
National Public Radio recently reported that divorce lawyers were seeing more couples approaching them to end their marriages.
“As the economy improves, we will probably see an uptick in divorces,” Wilcox told Our Sunday Visitor. “The same thing happened after the Great Depression.”
Wilcox’s study — titled “The Great Recession and Marriage” — surveyed a national representative sample of 1,197 married Americans ages 18 to 45. Previous studies found that financial stress weakens marriage, but Wilcox said he found that 29 percent of Americans believe that the recession deepened their commitment to marriage. In addition, 38 percent of couples who said they had been considering divorce before the recession put those plans aside.
However, while 43 percent of couples with no money difficulties reported their marriage to be happy, the study found that only 27 percent of couples who had two or three financial “stressors” reported being “very happy” — indicating their short-term decision to stay together probably has more to do with the financial obstacles that divorce presents.
“I suspect that some of those couples, as we turn the corner economically, will probably pursue divorce, and you’ll get an uptick in those numbers,” said Dr. Aaron Kheriaty, an assistant professor of psychiatry and the founding director of the Psychiatry and Spirituality Forum at the University of California at Irvine.
“But I think some of them won’t,” Kheriaty told OSV. “Some of them will have rode out the rough patch, and maybe in the course of dealing with difficulties together they were able to strengthen the relationship. In two years from now, they may find themselves singing a different tune.”
Rediscovering family ties
Since 2007, the national divorce rate has fallen by 7 percent, said Wilcox, adding that his study’s findings indicate new appreciation for family relationships.
“The recession has led more Americans to realize their dependence on family, including in-laws,” Wilcox said. “I believe this has led to a sobering up of the broader culture, to the point where some people are rediscovering their deepest ties.”
That is a positive side effect of economic hard times, said Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons, director of the Institute for Marital Healing in West Conshohocken, Pa.
“I’ve been wondering if with the recession, people are living more with their feet on the ground,” Fitzgibbons said. “They might be less likely to give in to selfishness. People in this country have had this sense of entitlement, where they felt they could live any way they wanted. Maybe this recession is good for the materialist obsession in this culture. Tough economic times can definitely shake your selfishness.”
Fitzgibbons added that religious faith has “an enormous benefit” in coping with economic distress.
“Recessions bring with them fear and anxiety,” he said. “It may bring a person to their knees. If you come to trust God, you learn that it’s God’s love that sustains a marriage. If your faith grows, you’re not going to violate the great sacraments. You’re not going to throw away a gift that God has given you.”
Marycarol Page and her husband, Jack, form the international coordinating team for Retrouvaille, a program to heal troubled marriages. She told OSV the recession reveals the reality that more marriages can be saved.
“Anything that causes people to stay together, we’re happy about,” she said. “A lot of people think that if difficulties hit, that’s the end of the road. We have a romanticized idea of what marriage is. A couple’s marriage can be healed. They can get through it. What leads to marital breakdown is communication, or the lack of it. We don’t communicate well. Out of that grows the problems, money being a top problem.”
In addition to a lack of communication, selfishness is poison to a marriage, and it remains to be seen whether the down economy has had a lasting effect on that as well, said Fitzgibbons.
“A challenging economy might shake a person’s narcissism, and therefore they can come to re-evaluate their marriages,” said Fitzgibbons.
“I think it’s easier to be narcissistic when you have expendable wealth,” Kheriaty said. “I think the recession will have a sobering effect in that people may be working harder and more focused on the task at hand. They have less money to burn on activities that would be considered more frivolous or that cultivate narcissistic attitudes like commercialism.”
Kheriaty added that decades of social science research reveals that couples who came close to divorcing, or separated and then reunited, often have strong marriages five to 10 years later.
“There is a lot of good evidence that says if you can stay together through difficult times, it doesn’t mean you’re going to stay in a high-conflict marriage,” he said.
“Ten years from now, if you look back at the entire trend, will the total number of divorces have been constant? Or will there actually have been an appreciable lowering of the divorce rate because of the economic recession? I suspect the latter is going to be the case.”
Meanwhile, research shows that the Great Recession continues to squeeze the working class. Americans in that demographic who do not have college degrees are becoming less engaged in the worlds of faith and work, and that increases the risk of divorce and family breakdown, Wilcox said.
Feelings of isolation
“I don’t want to minimize the pain this recession has brought to many a couple,” he said. “When times are tough, some people just spiral downward. People who are more isolated, not embedded in a church community, have not done as well as their religious peers.”
“For religious couples, I think this will have a lasting, formative impact,” Wilcox said. “Their approach to family life will be more serious, and they will have a deeper understanding than what they had prior to the recession.”
Kheriarty said he hoped the recession will revitalize the “Ben Franklin virtues” of thrift and industriousness while helping people realize what is truly important in life.
“I would be pleased that if one of the byproducts of the recession ... [is] a tendency away from a narcissistic culture,” Kheriarty said. “I think that would be a good thing.”
Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.
Marriage and Money Stress (sidebar)
Percentage of married Americans experiencing financial stressors:
34% - Worry often or almost all the time about not being able to meet expenses
12% - Had home foreclosed or had trouble making mortgage payments
29% - Were unemployed, had pay cut or had hours reduced during recession
Source: The Great Recession and Marriage