The media is telling two different stories on marriages and how they’re coping with the stress of the COVID pandemic. Here’s what’s really going on.
While some news stories say divorce from covid-related stress is skyrocketing, others say the lockdowns have divorce in retreat. In fact, one major U.S. paper posted two stories within weeks of each other telling precisely opposite tales. One story claimed “US Divorce Rates Skyrocket Amid COVID-19 Pandemic” while the other reported, “ Divorce Filings Drop as COVID-19 Lockdown Mends Marriages.” So which is it?
As is typical with popular news stories on family trends, even in the best of times, they tend to report on only one particular dimension or bit of news and that becomes the whole story. Consider the stories just listed that report skyrocketing divorce rates. The source was one company that sells online legal forms whose website reported “we’ve seen a 34% increase in sales of our divorce agreement” over last year. An interesting data point, but hardly reliable research upon which to base such a conclusion.
To get a better picture of what is happening with marriage in the age of covid, one must look at a larger body of data on the question? That is precisely what the scholars at the Institute for Family Studies did. Their findings are not what most would expect. Their findings, co-authored by W. Bradford Wilcox, a professor of the sociology of the family at the University of Virginia, Lyman Stone, an adjunct research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and Wendy Wang, director of research at the Institute for Family Studies, are not what most would expect. Although American couples are feeling increased stress from the dramatic life-changes COVID-19 has brought to life, they are also reporting the pandemic has helped their marriage in significant ways.
Increase in Divorce?
One would assume that divorce rates increase in times of great crisis like these. But these scholars did not find this. Surprisingly, they discovered that “the share of married people who said their marriage is in trouble fell in 2020.” Thus, they do not see a rising divorce rate, “While there is no question that some couples are struggling, the evidence generally points in the opposite direction.”
Specifically, married couples age 18-55 who said their marriage was in trouble declined markedly from 40% in 2019 down to 29% in 2020.
Wilcox and his team explain, “This suggests that divorce will fall in 2020, a pattern we also saw play out in the Great Recession of about a decade ago” when the divorce rate fell by 7% in 2009. And even though divorce went up a tad in the United States after the economic crash, it then fell again starting in 2013, which they explain, “means that marriage in America generally headed in a more stable direction in the wake of the last recession.” They believe the same could happen in the wake of COVID.
Stress Has Increased, But Not as High as Most Assume.
The data they uncovered explains that while stress has indeed been greater on all couples compared to just a year ago, it has been particularly difficult on poor and working-class couples due to job loss and financial slowdowns. A sizeable minority (45%) of these couples say “the Coronavirus has increased stress in my marriage.” This is perhaps lower than many would assume, while only 35 percent of couples who are not necessarily facing financial difficulties due to COVID said the pandemic has brought new stressors to their marriage. This is actually pretty remarkable given the nature of the pandemic.
Greater Spousal Appreciation
Some of the brightest news here is that husbands and wives are expressing increased appreciation for each other in these distinctly troubling times. A notable majority of Americans, 58% of both men and women, said that the pandemic has brought an increased appreciation for their spouse. Add to this that just over half report that the pandemic experience has increased their commitment to their marriage. And remarkably, this increase in appreciation was richer for those couples that experienced greater financial struggles over the last six to eight months. As Wilcox and his co-authors explain, “Some 65% of married adults whose financial situation got worse said the pandemic has made them appreciate their spouse more, and 60% said it has also deepened their commitment to their marriage.”
In light of these findings, Professor Wilcox told the Daily Citizen, “As the pandemic fallout unfolds, we are seeing that many husbands and wives are turning, not away from one another, but towards one another.” He adds, “they are seeking more practical and emotional support from one another.” This adds support to the wisdom we read in Ecclesiastes on the supportive partnership marriage can provide.
New Marriage Way Down
It is not surprising that the lockdown has resulted in what the IFS scholars called “a huge decline” in new marriages over the key COVID months. This chart shows the trendlines for the four states in the Union that have continued reporting new marriage data over he COVID months. Specifically, the declines are down 18% in Hawaii, 17% in Florida, 9% in Arizona, and 8% in Oregon.
Whether this decline in new marriages indicates a disinterest in marriage itself, or merely speaks to the logistic difficulties of getting married in such a trying time is unclear. But these scholars conclude that the data reveals, overall, the significance of human strength in marriage. That often, when tough times come, the marital union serves to bring people together in ways that other relationships, built on less enduring ties, cannot. They explain,
“But our main conclusion from this data is actually about resilience: an epochal pandemic has struck America, causing massive disruptions and changes in family and work life, and the effects are, on the whole, difficult to discern. On balance, the news about marriage in the time of COVID is better than expected.”
Specifically, Wilcox says, “From what I see, I think the people who are currently married will generally emerge from all of this trial and tribulation stronger in their marriages.”
That is good news indeed.
–Daily Citizen, Focus on the Family | Reprinted with permission