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):
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.