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Marriage, Divorce and the Economy of “I Don’t”


Fewer Americans are getting married and greater numbers are postponing divorce. While declining marriage rates may be unrelated to the recession, economics are causing many couples to delay costly divorces. Both trends mean fewer children are likely to grow up in homes with both biological parents.

Still Married

by Seth Eisenberg

Fewer Americans are getting married and greater numbers are postponing divorce. Although many have attributed both reports to tough economic conditions, a careful analysis of marriage trends reveals declines may not be recession-related while dropping divorce numbers are likely being driven by financial concerns.

Looking beyond the recession, both trends mean fewer American children will be growing up with their biological parents.

When the U.S. Census Bureau released data last month showing a decline in marriages, many were quick to attribute the trend to the recession. Economist Justin Wolfers responded with an Op-Ed in the New York Times.

“You’ve probably heard the latest marriage narrative: With the recession upon us, young lovers can’t afford to marry. As appealing as this story is, it has one problem: It’s not true … In fact, the marriage rate appears amazingly insensitive to the business cycle,” he wrote.

Census Director Robert Groves, a trained social scientist, also said reports that the declining number of marriages in the U.S. was directly related to the economic downturn may not be valid. More information is needed to make the assertion, he said, pointing out that the share of Americans who are currently married has been dropping for decades.

While an uncertain job market, declining home values, and tight credit may not be what’s discouraging couples from getting married, finances are causing others to postpone divorce. Historically, many middle and upper-income couples paid for costly divorces and the expense of moving into two homes by splitting their assets. Having seen their home equity disappear, distressed couples are more often finding themselves with only debt to divide.

Although many of these couples have already divided their lives from each other, with homes frequently split into demilitarized zones void of intimate contact, others are using the pause to explore opportunities for reconciliation.

A recent study of 103 participants in marriage education classes who began a nine-hour skills-training program at the lowest level of relationship satisfaction showed 77 percent achieved significant, lasting improvement.

Most often, couples discover that when they have an effective structure to work through their anger and sadness directly with each other, they rediscover feelings of love that may have been hidden, but were still there. Thousands of times over, I’ve seen skills training that teaches emotional literacy and tools for expressing intense emotions lead to reconciliation and deeper experiences of love and intimacy. While that takes courage and good will that is a challenge for many distressed couples, for those who participate, they find the classes fun, safe, and a chance to grow together.

For each of them, and ultimately their children, that’s good news. For many others, however, as the economy recovers, divorce becomes more realistic. Until then, many are finding divorce to be a luxury they can’t afford.

Seth Eisenberg is President of the nonprofit PAIRS Foundation, an industry leader in relationship and marriage education.