Divorces Rise As Economy Recovers

This article by Emily Alpert Reyes in the Los Angeles Times may be of interest to readers of this blog.

Divorces rise as economy recovers, study finds

Fewer couples split during the recession, but researchers say some may have been waiting until they could afford a costly legal step.

Married couples promise to stick together for better or worse. But as the economy started to rebound, so did the divorce rate.

Divorces plunged when the recession struck and slowly started to rise as the recovery began, according to a study to be published in Population Research and Policy Review.

From 2009 to 2011, about 150,000 fewer divorces occurred than would otherwise have been expected, University of Maryland sociologist Philip N. Cohen estimated. Across the country, the divorce rate among married women dropped from 2.09% to 1.95% from 2008 to 2009, then crept back up to 1.98% in both 2010 and 2011.

The National Marriage Project earlier dubbed the drop in divorce “a silver lining” to the Great Recession, arguing that tough times were pulling many husbands and wives closer together. But some couples may have simply put off divorce until they could afford to part, researchers say. The economic uptick may have finally given them the freedom to split.

“This is exactly what happened in the 1930s,” said Johns Hopkins University sociologist Andrew Cherlin. “The divorce rate dropped during the Great Depression not because people were happier with their marriages, but because they couldn’t afford to get divorced.”

Cohen cautioned that the exact reasons behind the economic ebb and flow of divorce were still murky. His study found that unemployment, state by state, had no apparent effect on divorce rates; other research examining earlier periods has found the opposite. Cohen did find that joblessness seemed to cut down divorce for college graduates — but statewide foreclosures pushed up divorce rates for the same group. More research is needed to understand why, he wrote.

“There still is a mystery,” Pew Research Center senior writer D’Vera Cohn wrote in an email to The Times. “It is enormously tempting to say that bad economic times made that happen, but this new paper concludes that the jury is still out.”

Whatever its roots, the phenomenon might seem puzzling in light of other research: Marriages end more often among Americans with less education and less income, other studies have shown. If money troubles put strain on marriages, why would couples break up more often when the economy is on the upswing?

Cherlin said downturns seemed to affect divorce timing, not whether couples divorced at all. While economic woes might sway a couple to put off divorce during a recession, spouses might not bother waiting if they don’t see their financial problems as temporary, he said.

In Los Angeles, far fewer people have sought divorces with Levitt & Quinn Family Law Center after the downturn, executive director Tai Glenn said. Even a “friendly” divorce with no complications costs $800 to $1,000 for clients with low incomes, she said. Any sparring in court pushes the price higher.

When unhappy husbands or wives stop into their offices to run through their options, “many, many people walk away simply based on the cost of the case,” Glenn said. “The people we see here are those that live on the margins, from paycheck to paycheck. For them, the recovery hasn’t really hit.”

Divorce lawyers say that in some cases, even divorced or soon-to-be-divorced couples have kept sharing a home to save money.

“They get to the point where they just can’t handle it anymore and file for divorce,” said Kendall L. Evans, a family law attorney based in Long Beach. “But that doesn’t mean they can afford to set up a separate household.”

UPDATE: The author of the study discussed in the article above, Philip N. Cohen, responded to the article with this post on his blog:

In yesterday’s LA Times story on my divorce paper, reporter Emily Alpert Reyes and her editors focused on the rebound, headlining it, “Divorces rise as economy recovers, study finds.” I had been focused on whether the drop from 2008 to 2009 could really be attributed to the recession. Their decision made good journalistic as well as analytical sense. (The story was re-written by the websites Daily Mail, PBS Newshour, and Huffington Post.)

So what does the increase say about the “silver linings” interpretation of the divorce trend? That was the idea, pitched by Brad Wilcox, that the drop he observed in 2008 from 2007 (using vital statistics data) reflected the fact that “many couples appear to be developing a new appreciation for the economic and social support that marriage can provide in tough times.” There was, and is, no evidence for this that I am aware of.

I think that the rebound in divorce undermines the silver linings theory. However, I can’t swear the theory is wrong. It hasn’t been tested.

But when I was Googling for stories on this yesterday I found this 2009 CBS news report, which accidentally illustrates the problem with silver linings. The story was called “Recession Bright Spot? Divorce Rate Drops.” It featured the Levines, in which the husband lost his job, and the marriage suddenly was in trouble (like a block building suddenly collapsing). Then, the couple pulls together, and it looks like they’re going to make it: “If they can get through this, they can get through just about anything.”

The story was a Wilcox plant, featuring him saying, “What we’re seeing is some people are postponing divorce because home values have dropped. For others, the recession has led to a new sense of togetherness.” (In my paper, incidentally, divorce was more common in states with higher foreclosure rates.)

And the reporter noted, as evidence, “There were almost 20,000 fewer divorces in 2008 than 2007.” As I noted at the time, divorce fell at least that much in most years, so that’s meaningless manipulation of reporters’ demographic ignorance by Wilcox. Anyway, that’s not the point. The point is, this couple was doing fine before the recession! So the recession caused him to lose his job, and then their marriage was in trouble, and then they pulled through. So how, exactly, was the recession reducing divorce?

And yet my analysis shows the recession probably did reduce divorce in the aggregate (just not in their case). My suspicion remains that the recession increased stress and conflict within marriages, like CBS’s couple. It probably raised the Levines’ odds of divorce, even if not quite up to 1.0. There is just a lot of evidence at the individual level that job loss increases the odds of divorce (here are three studies). Lots of people — and relationships — had to have been made miserable by the recession.

If that is true, then was the drop in divorce rates good or bad? Was it a silver lining? You have to think about the continuum of marriages — from happy to sad — and who is affected. People who are bouncing around between kinda happy and kinda sad aren’t likely considering the cost of a lawyer yet. Not like those that have hit bottom. But if the cost of divorce — legal fees, real estate, relocation, or whatever — actually delays or forestalls some divorces, it’s probably the ones that are closest to actually occurring for which the outcome changes. That is, the almost-most miserable marriages.

If the recession made more people miserable, and yet fewer got divorced, divorce was more selective. Think of grant funding: when times are tight, more people apply but fewer are funded, so the ones that do are the best of the best (ideally). And the number of good ones not funded goes up. With marriages in a recession, more are miserable, yet the bar for divorcing is raised (or lowered) by the costs relative to income. So there are more miserable marriages not ending in divorce. Obviously, God thinks this is good, because he has no patience for our petty divorce excuses (which explains Wilcox’s interpretation).

One obvious possibility is that family violence increases when more miserable marriages produce fewer divorces. There was a spike in intimate partner violence in 2008 and 2009, the years men’s unemployment rates jumped. (We will address this and related issues at an American Sociological Association special session this year.)

It is very common, yet wholly unjustified, to always assume falling divorce rates are good. As I argued before: We simply do not know what is the best level of divorce to maximize the benefits of good marriage while mitigating the harms caused by bad marriage.

Source: Divorces rise as economy recovers, study finds (Los Angeles Times, January 27, 2014).

Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Divorce, Matrimonial and Family Law Attorney.

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K.O. Herston is a family-law attorney in Knoxville, Tennessee whose practice is devoted exclusively to family law, including divorce, child custody, child support, alimony, prenuptial agreements, and other aspects of family law.

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