Marriage economy: 'I couldn't afford to get divorced'

A new study finds the nation's high unemployment rate is straining many marriages.
A new study finds the nation's high unemployment rate is straining many marriages. Jeffrey Hamilton/Getty Images

The nation's high unemployment rate is straining many marriages, a new survey finds. At the same time, many unhappy couples say they feel trapped, unable to afford a breakup. Experts say that's a dangerous combination that can increase the risk of domestic violence.

Lindsay Reynolds lives in Waterloo, Wis. Even before the recent economic downturn, Reynolds and her husband struggled to make ends meet. They quarreled, especially over money.

"We never had enough income to pay bills, to pay rent. We were constantly late on rent," Reynolds says. "He always wanted to go do things. He wanted to go buy things. And I said, 'No, we can't. We have to be fiscally responsible.' "

Reynolds says that after her husband returned from serving in the Iraq War, he found it hard to find work. They kept moving. Each time, she had to uproot herself and start all over again. Increasingly, as the economy turned sour, it became impossible for her to find a decent job. She says the quarrels intensified.

"The last year of our marriage, it was basically two different people living in the same household," Reynolds says. She was in bad shape: losing weight, down from her usual 135 pounds.

"I got down to 90 pounds," she says. "It wasn't something I chose to do. It's not like I purposely starved myself. This was, 'I could not afford to buy food.' " She felt she had to get out of the marriage. There was only one problem: Filing the paperwork for even a basic divorce cost a few hundred dollars.

"I couldn't afford to get divorced. It wasn't an option because I didn't have the money," she says.

Economic Effects On Marriage

Reynolds finally saved up enough to file for divorce in 2009. The divorce came through this year. She says she's more stable now, but her experience perfectly illustrates new research that finds the bad economy has had two effects on many marriages.

The NPR-Kaiser Family Foundation survey found the nation's high unemployment rate has caused rifts within many families: More than a fifth of all Americans who have been out of work for a year or more report that relationships with intimate partners have changed for the worse. More than a third say their economic situation has negatively affected their partners' health and well-being.

Simultaneously, a new paper in the B.E. Journal of Economic Analysis and Policy shows that as unemployment rises, the divorce rate goes down: For every 1 percent increase in the unemployment rate, the divorce rate goes down by 1 percent.

So losing a job makes many couples unhappy, and when people find themselves out of work, it becomes harder to get divorced. Experts say there is strong historical precedent for these effects.

"Economic distress leads couples who may have unhappy marriages and may have been considering divorce to pull back from divorce, to think, 'This would not be a good time to start a major change in our life,' " says Stephanie Coontz, who studies the history of marriage at Evergreen State College in Washington state.

Unemployment Increases Risk Of Domestic Violence

The combination of these two forces — more unhappy marriages and more unhappy couples trapped in marriages — is cause for serious worry.

Philip Cohen, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says that multiple studies have found that the marital distress that comes from money problems and feeling trapped is strongly associated with an increased risk of domestic violence.

One study, for example, looked at women who showed up in hospital emergency rooms for injuries that were both intentional and non-intentional.

"When you compare the women who were injured intentionally and women who were treated for other conditions in the emergency departments, they found that those who were injured intentionally were more likely to have experienced recent unemployment in their families," Cohen says.

There is no conclusive evidence that the current economic downturn has produced an increase in domestic violence, but the numbers are staggering: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last week that as many as 1 in 4 women nationwide say they've been physically hurt by their husbands or boyfriends.

At the same time, however, Cohen says the overall rates of domestic violence have generally been on the decline. But what's clear, he says, is that unemployment increases the risk of domestic violence.

"I'm quite confident from the research on couples — and what drives violence within couples — that among the people who are experiencing economic shock or dislocation or unemployment, there is an increased risk of violence," he says. "And I would not expect that to be any different during this recession."

'I Would Divorce Him'

One woman we spoke with says that describes her own situation. NPR is not using her name, because of concerns about her safety.

"I've been looking steadily for employment and even for menial-type jobs — basic holiday retail; I haven't been able to get hired on that," says the mother of two who currently lives in Salt Lake City, Utah. She says she's struggling to make ends meet.

The woman is living with her husband — except they're separated. In fact, she moved away from Utah some years ago. When she found that she couldn't work and supervise the children on her own, she and her ex came to an agreement: She'd move back to Salt Lake City, and he would help with the kids.

"The original plan was that he would continue living with his family, where he had been living for the last three years, and he would come over and be a proactive part of our family, but only on a very part-time basis," the woman says. "And it's turned out to be the very opposite — he, he doesn't go home."

Just to be clear: There's no question in the woman's mind that the marriage is over. This is not a trial separation.

"There's not just any way for me to go back. Too much damage has been done," she says.

The woman says she wants to be on her own, but she can't afford a divorce. A lawyer has told her it will cost a few hundred dollars to move a divorce through the courts, assuming everything goes off without a hitch.

"If I were able to stand on my own economic feet at this time, I would divorce him," she says. The woman told NPR she's worried her ex may be unstable; he seems depressed. "He's trying to break his thumb. [It] is his thing right now — he keeps trying to injure himself."

She also worries about her safety and that of her kids.

"There have been absolutely no threats, emotional or physical," she says. "But if he's trying to hurt himself and he's being vocal about it, you know, I'm not sure what else he'd be capable of doing if he slipped further into his depression."

'Divorce Provides A Safety Valve'

Historian Coontz says she's seen the same patterns over and over again in the last century. During the Great Depression, the divorce rate went down and domestic violence went up. In the 1970s, when states began to permit no-fault divorces, it had an immediate effect on domestic violence.

"In the first five years after the adoption of no-fault divorce, divorce rates did indeed rise, but domestic violence rates fell by about 20 to 30 percent, and wives' suicide rate fell by 8 to 13 percent," Coontz says. "So we know that divorce actually provides a safety valve."

And women were not the only beneficiaries: "It's also reduced the rate at which husbands are murdered by their wives," Coontz says, "so it's been a lifesaver for some men as well."

Coontz predicts that when the current downturn ends, we will see exactly what happened after the Great Depression: "Couples that have postponed this or even one individual in a couple who has postponed seeking a divorce because of the financial recession is going to feel much more enabled to get that divorce afterwards," she says.

As the Great Depression lifted and more people found jobs, history shows the divorce rate went back up.

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