Can the Recession Save Marriage?


There may be a silver lining in all this financial pain.

Judging by recent press reports, the family fallout associated with the Great Recession has been severe. Take the Bachmuth family, profiled last month in the New York Times. After Paul Bachmuth lost his job at a Texas electric consulting firm in December of last year, his life and marriage took a turn for the worse. Often dejected, he would spend hours surfing the Internet or watching television.

Paul and his wife, Amanda, fought over money. She also resented the part-time job she had to pick up at a day-care center to keep the family solvent, especially since she continued to shoulder the bulk of the family's cooking, cleaning and laundry. "She kind of had something in the back of her mind that it was partly my fault I was laid off," Mr. Bachmuth told the Times. The couple is now seeing a counselor.

The Bachmuths' experience is by no means unique, according to "Money & Marriage," a report released this week by the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and the Institute for American Values. As the report notes, the financial pressures associated with the Great Recession can lead to a downward spiral of marital recriminations, tension and conflict as spouses struggle to pay bills, adjust to the loss of a job or find themselves forced out of their home. This downward spiral is especially likely to unfold when a husband loses his job -- a particularly salient reality in the current recession, where more than 75% of the job losses have fallen on the shoulders of men.

In some cases, this spiral leads directly to divorce court. In recent years, couples who report disagreeing about money matters once a week are about twice as likely to divorce compared with couples who disagree about money less than once a month, according to the report.

But there may be a silver lining in all this financial pain. For most married Americans, the Great Recession seems to be solidifying, not eroding, the marital bond. The divorce rate is actually falling. It declined to 16.9 divorces per 1,000 married women in 2008 from 17.5 divorces in 2007 (a 3% drop), after rising from 16.4 divorces per 1,000 married women in 2005 (a 7% increase).

To be sure, some couples have simply postponed a divorce until the economy rebounds, when they expect to have a better shot at starting new lives. A recent Wall Street Journal story, for example, profiled an Alabama couple, the Brewsters, who have put off their divorce until they can sell their home for a reasonable price.

But anecdotal evidence suggests that other couples have responded to the recession by rededicating themselves to their marriages. "I had one couple who started to file for divorce but put the proceedings on hold because the husband lost his job," Florida family attorney J.J. Dahl told the Orlando Sentinel. Eventually, the couple decided to remain married. "They said, 'We made it through this tough time, and we learned how to compromise, so we've decided to stick it out.' "

Two factors seem to be particularly important in fostering this ethic of marital dedication and family togetherness. First, the recession has encouraged Americans to rediscover the virtue of thrift. After running up a record $988 billion in credit-card debt in 2008, Americans have cut $90 billion from their bills. They are also eating at home more often. The National Restaurant Association reports that inflation-adjusted restaurant sales fell in 2008 for the first time in about 40 years.

Perhaps more important, the Great Recession is leading some spouses to develop a renewed appreciation for the social and economic solidarity engendered by marriage and family life.

All this is good for marriage because debt corrodes the marital bond, whereas assets solidify it. According to research by Jeffrey Dew at Utah State University, newly married couples who ran up their credit cards spent less time together, fought more and had significantly lower levels of marital happiness compared with couples who did not accrue such debt. By contrast, couples with financial assets (savings, investments, and the net value of a home) are markedly less likely to experience problems, largely because wives are happier and more likely to stick with their marriages when they share such assets with their husbands. Mr. Dew found, for instance, that couples without assets were 70% more likely to divorce than couples with $10,000 in financial assets.

Perhaps more important, the Great Recession is leading some spouses to develop a renewed appreciation for the social and economic solidarity engendered by marriage and family life. While it is true that the recession has been a source of harmful stress for many couples and families, a recent Pew Research survey found that about four in 10 Americans report that the recession has brought their "family closer together." Thus, today's "tough times" seem to be reminding a large minority of couples that marriage is not only about an intense, continuing emotional connection.

This marks a departure from the past four decades, when many Americans came to see marriage largely as a chance to pursue a "soulmate" relationship, where couples focus on emotional intimacy, sexual satisfaction and personal fulfillment, rather than as a chance to share childbearing and childrearing and economic cooperation with an extended family. A 2001 report from the National Marriage Project found that more than 80% of young women thought that it was more important to marry a man who can communicate his deepest feelings than earn a good living.

But the recession has made the soulmate model look impoverished. Today spouses are rediscovering the value of a husband with a good health-care plan, a wife with a good job or in-laws who are willing to provide free child care or a temporary rent-free place to live. In other words, Americans are rediscovering the power that family ties have to carry them -- financially, socially and emotionally -- through tough times.


W. Bradford Wilcox. "Can the Recession Save Marriage?" The Wall Street Journal (December 11, 2009).

Reprinted with permission of the author and The Wall Street Journal © 2009 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.


W. Bradford Wilcox is Associate Professor of sociology at that University of Virginia, director of the National Marriage Project, and a member of the James Madison Society at Princeton University. Mr. Wilcox's research focuses on the influence of religious belief and practice on marriage, cohabitation, parenting, and fatherhood. His first book, Soft Patriarchs, New Men: How Christianity Shapes Fathers and Husbands examines the ways in which the religious beliefs and practices of American Protestant men influence their approach to parenting, household labor, and marriage.

Using data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, Mr. Wilcox is now researching the effect that religion has on relationships among low-income parents in urban America. Professor Wilcox has received the following two awards from the American Sociological Association Religion Section for his research: the Best Graduate Paper Award and the Best Article Award (with Brian Steensland et al.). His research has also been featured in The Washington Post, USA Today, The Boston Globe, The Los Angeles Times, CBS News, and numerous NPR stations. Professor Wilcox teaches courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels in statistics, family, and religion. Bradford Wilcox is a member of the Catholic Education Resource Center's advisory board.

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