The Corner

Sticking with ‘I Do’: Marriage Under Stress

The National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia has a new study out on marriage in our current economic times. Although financial stress unsurprisingly can lead to marital stress, there are “silver linings” for marriage, according to the study. W. Bradford Wilcox is director there and the author of When Marriage Disappears: The Retreat from Marriage in Middle America.

Kathryn Jean Lopez: Is it really wedded bliss for some Americans today because of our economic woes?

W. Bradford Wilcox: No, I wouldn’t say that. In fact, more than a quarter of married Americans have experienced two or more major economic stressors, such as a job loss or a foreclosure, because of the Great Recession. These Americans are hurting, and many of them have seen their marital quality spiral downwards because of money woes.

But the new National Marriage Project study also indicates that 29 percent of married Americans have found their commitment to marriage deepen in the wake of the Great Recession. For these couples, these tough times appear to have made them stronger as a couple. We also find, among those couples who had been considering divorce prior to the recession, that 38 percent of them report that they have put aside divorce plans because of the recession.

Lopez: Are you sure they don’t stick together because it’s more expensive to get divorced?

Wilcox: I think that some couples have postponed divorce because they don’t want to spend thousands of dollars right now on a divorce or because their primary asset — their house — isn’t worth what they think it might be in a year or two. But our study also suggests a large minority of couples have actually turned over a new leaf in their relationship and will not divorce once the economic recovery fully kicks in.

Lopez: What’s the tried-and-true advice to couples who are struggling?

Wilcox: Generally, we find that individuals or couples who are stressed do better when they reach out to friends and family, rather than trying to handle their financial difficulties on their own. For instance, this study indicates that couples who attend church together are more likely to handle the contemporary financial challenges in a constructive fashion.

I also would encourage couples who are struggling to take the long view. Research suggests that most couples who report being unhappy return to marital happiness within five years. So, generally speaking, couples need to take a deep breath when they are stressed out by recent financial difficulties, get some support, and avoid the temptation to head to divorce court.

One good resource is National Marriage Week USA, which offers a range of resources to couples who are in trouble.

Lopez: Social-science-wise, what would you say to the couple that’s holding off getting married? Would you have different advice to those living together than to those who aren’t? 

Wilcox: I would say two things. First, it is important to seek out and sustain a stable job before you marry. This is particularly true for men. Men’s employment is one of the best predictors of a strong and stable marriage.

Second, I would say wait to have a child until you’re married. Unfortunately, we’re seeing more and more couples having kids outside of marriage these days, especially couples who are cohabiting. These children are much more likely to see their parents break up than kids born to married parents, and much more likely to suffer a range of maladies later in life — from depression to substance abuse. So, couples need to be more deliberate about marriage and parenthood, and recognize that the best thing they can do for their future family is to marry before they have children.

Lopez: Is marriage in America healthy? What’s the greatest challenge to marriage in America at the moment? 

Wilcox: Marriage is under stress. Marriage rates are falling, cohabitation is up, nonmarital childbearing is up, and more children are being exposed to a revolving carousel of relationships. This is the message of the recent National Marriage Project report, When Marriage Disappears.

The two biggest challenges facing marriage are economic and cultural. Economically, working-class and poor men are having difficulty finding stable, decent-paying work. This makes it difficult for them to get and stay married.

Culturally, our society is growing increasingly tolerant of cohabitation and nonmarital childbearing. Among other things, this means that more children are being born into or exposed to cohabiting relationships. In fact, the latest statistics indicate that more than 40 percent of children will spend some time in a cohabiting household before they turn 18. Unfortunately, social science also tells us that cohabitation and children don’t mix. For instance, children in cohabiting households are markedly more likely to be physically abused than children in intact, married unions.

So, if we care about our children, the United States has to shore up the economic and cultural foundations of marriage.

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