Are economic downturns a blessing in disguise for marriages? This one is, reports W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and a member of the James Madison Society at Princeton University. National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez talked to him about the recent report co-sponsored by the National Marriage Project and the Institute for American Values on financial matters and the state of American unions.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Could the economy help marriage?
W. BRADFORD WILCOX: The Great Recession may be fostering a renewed appreciation for marriage and family life. Although thousands of couples have been hit hard by foreclosures, unemployment, and shrunken 401(k)s, other couples seem to be pulling together in the face of the economic challenges now facing the country.
One indication of this is that divorce is down (modestly) in the first full year of the Great Recession. Scholars disagree about why this is the case. Some think couples are simply postponing a divorce until the economy rebounds. Others think that the recent divorce decline is part and parcel of a larger divorce decline that began in 1980. But I think part of the story here is that a large minority of couples are developing a renewed appreciation for the social and economic support that marriage and families can provide.
Another silver lining associated with the current recession is that thrift seems to be making a comeback. Americans have shed almost $100 billion in credit-card debt in the last year; they are cutting back on consumer spending; and they are producing more goods (food, clothing, etc.) at home. This is important because married couples who acquire financial assets and steer clear of credit-card debt tend to enjoy happier and more stable marriages. And families that produce goods together also enjoy more solidarity. In other words, the family that bakes, gardens, and sews together, stays together.
In sum, for many Americans, today’s tough times may have inspired a new dedication to financial good sense and family togetherness.
LOPEZ: Are we really in the midst of a mancession? Why don’t we hear more about it?
WILCOX: Yes, we are in the midst of a “mancession.” About 75 percent of the increase in unemployment since the Great Recession started has fallen on the shoulders of men. Moreover, The State of Our Unions indicates that working-class men have been hit hardest by increases in unemployment since the recession began in late 2007 — and the phenomenon has garnered some attention in a number of media outlets, in fact.
LOPEZ: How do you know rising male unemployment will hurt marriage?
WILCOX: There is no way to know for sure that the mancession will hurt marriage. Sociologist Christine Whelan thinks it could be good for marriage, insofar as it could encourage couples to adapt a more egalitarian approach to marriage and family life.
But my own research indicates that men who are married to wives who outwork them are 61 percent less likely to report that they are “very happy” in their marriages; they are also more likely to entertain thoughts of divorce. I think most men experience unemployment, especially long-term unemployment, as a blow to their sense of self-worth and to their sense that they are a good provider for their family.
As importantly, wives are more likely to lose respect for their husbands if they suffer long-term unemployment. All this can lead to a downward cycle of conflict, recriminations, and financial difficulty that leads to divorce court. So, in the current recession, my sense is that the couples who have seen a husband lose his job are the most vulnerable to marital failure.
LOPEZ: Is this a bit of a gift to feminists, putting women on top?
WILCOX: Some scholars, like Whelan, think that it may be. But research suggests that men and women are happier in their marriages, and less likely to divorce, when the husband has a decent job.
So, at least for ordinary women, there is still a premium on having a husband who is gainfully employed.