Do Tight Times Make Close Marriages?

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Social History. Families. pic: October 1957. A family scene at a working class family's house,with husband and wife, and six children.

Most partnerships, business or personal, are easy when money is easy. The lucre seems to take the sting out of any disagreements, and, frankly, the cost of disharmony is too high. But according to a new report from the National Marriage Project, the Great Recession hasn’t necessarily been thinning out the ranks of the married.

The survey of 1,197 married Americans aged 18–45 found that about a third of people reported that the economic downturn had been hard on their marriages. For an almost equal number of people, however, the financial strain had brought them closer. And according to the report, adorably titled “The Survey of Marital Generosity,” about 38% had put the brakes on the divorce they were considering before the thin times hit. (More on How to Make Marriage Work: Treat It Like a Business)

This may be due to some old-fashioned shoulder-to-the-wheel, pull-together, family-comes-first, stick-to-it-iveness on the part of the married couple. Or it may simply be that divorce and life after divorce are huge financial hits. Several august oracles (including, maybe, this magazine) predicted that the recession would increase divorce. But so far, that hasn’t been true.

Meanwhile in China, which has been undergoing a sustained economic boom, divorces have shot up. Mind you, money isn’t the only influence in a marriage’s demise. The divorce laws in China have been loosening up and women have been gaining more economic freedom than they had been accustomed to, two factors that usually lead to more splits.

As a measure of national well-being, the divorce rate is a double-headed beast. A high rate of divorce can lead to a lot of economic and family instability, especially in countries or communities where women have little access to education or wealth. On the other hand, an extremely low level of divorce can mean that people are stuck in abusive marriages, especially — you guessed it — in countries where women have little access to education or wealth. (More on What Your Brain Looks Like After 20 Years of Marriage)

Similarly, divorces that are delayed for financial reasons can be good or bad news. If people find a way back to happiness by sitting through the hard times together, so much the better for them, their wealth and their children. But if economic strains are making an untenable domestic situation even more perilous, and even harder to escape from, this can have very serious — even tragic — consequences.

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