Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Marriage and the Great Recession: Love Is Not All You Need

I have been reading an interesting report on The State of Our Unions 2009, which is available free online at .

The report, from the Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, highlights the importance of money matters--income, employment, debt, assets, and the division of household labor--for the quality and stability of married life in the U.S. This contrasts with the focus in recent decades on marriage primarily as a soulmate relationship, as indicated by the finding that over 80 percent of young women believed that "it was more important to have a husband who can communicate his deepest feelings than bring home the bacon." (Good luck with that!)

"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." Stresses of job losses, foreclosures, debt collectors' calls, shrinking retirement assets, and so forth fmay result in heavy drinking, depression, and withdrawal from family life, and so fuel marital tension and conflict.

But there are countervailing tendencies, the report shows. Thrift has acquired a new (or rather, revived) significance in married life, the paying down of credit card debt (a major source of tension for young married couples), more solidarity-building family activities--more families are growing their own food, making and mending their own clothes, and eating in more. (Restaurant sales fell in 2008 for the first time in 40 years.) "In other words," says Willcox, the family that bakes, gardens, and sews together, stays together."

Marital stability is up, at least for now, since the start of the recession. The divorce rate fell from 17.5 to 16.9 per 1,000 married women from 2007 to 2008, a substantial drop though not yet a trend. The costs of divorce for all involved, financial as well as emotional, become more evident in a prolonged economic downturn. But the alarming class divide in divorce, non-marital childbearing, and all the social problems that go with them, is likely to increase as a result of the specific nature of the recession. Joblessness has hit lower income couples and working class and poor men in particular much harder than college educated women or men, so that the contributions of lower-income men to their families become more marginal. It has been suggested (by Christine Whelan in the report) that the resulting shift in the gender balance of work and family time may lead to a greater egalitarianism in working class marriages. The problem with that view is that the research suggests that both "men and women are happier in their marriages, and less likely to divorce, when the husband has a decent job."

In any case, since, as Willcox and others have shown, college-educated couples, with more resources and an increasingly dim view of divorce since its heyday in the 1970s, "have the financial resources and the normative commitment to ride out marital difficulties and challenges."

In my experience, when social work (and doubtless other) students are asked to come up with quick associations with the term "marriage," they most often mention love and emotional intimacy and seldom sex and children. It seems that a kind of Hallmark card sentiment(ality) about marriage (when it is not dismissed summarily as an inherently oppressive institution) has displaced an understanding of marriage as creating the best available alternative for binding a father to his biological children, linking sex and responsibility, creating and sustaining fatherhood as a social institution. But the recession has brought to the fore of our attention--in real life and one hopes the classroom too--"the social and economic realities of married life." As Willcox puts it in an interview about the report,

"If you look across time and space what you see is that marriage and kinship have been vital in helping adults and especially children gain ongoing access to food, shelter, and other needed resources. With our recent focus on a soulmate model of marriage, we have tended to downplay the social and economic realities of married life.

"But today when you are depending on your wife for medical coverage, or your in-laws for a place to stay, or your husband for help with the bills, you are more likely to appreciate that marriage and family is about more than an intense sense of emotional or romantic connection. Marriage is also about making sure that someone else is looking out for your social and financial well-being" (retrieved January 5 from ).

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