Marriage and the Great Recession

by Alex Roberts

Marriage in America has taken more than its share of hits over the last four decades.

Alex Roberts is an affiliate scholar at the Institute for American Values.

At first glance, the Great Recession that began in December of 2007 would seem poised to land yet another blow to the institution of marriage in the United States. As unemployment climbs to a two decade high of more than 10 percent, millions of families are struggling to make ends meet and pay down heaps of debt piled up during the credit bubble. Making matters worse, many families have seen a substantial share of their wealth—from 401(k) holdings to home equity—wiped out by declines in the stock and real estate markets. If it is true that money problems are a leading cause of divorce, then America’s marriages may well be in yet more trouble.

Yet some have sounded a contrarian and more optimistic note. Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson notes that, “During the Great Depression—with about a quarter of Americans out of work—crime and divorce declined…. [T]imes of economic stress, it appears, can also be times of cultural renewal.” Perhaps the hard times associated with today’s Great Recession might have a chastening effect, helping to refocus Americans on neglected values like marital permanence and mutual aid.

But which view is correct? Will the downturn strengthen or weaken marriage?

By taking a close look at the impact of the business cycle on marriage and divorce, this essay offers two main answers to these questions. First, as we shall see, there has been a clear connection between economic and marital trends over time at the national level—and it does not quite fit with either the pessimistic or optimistic account described above. Second, the changing meaning and role of marriage in modern society has weakened this economy-family relationship in recent decades.[1]

Marriage over the Business Cycle

Because scholars have long been interested in the business cycle’s influence on family formation, we have a considerable body of research on the subject. The existing studies cover a wide array of regions—from Wisconsin to Wales—and reach back over a century. Almost without exception this body of research points to one conclusion: Both marriage and divorce rates tend to fall when the economy heads south and then rise when good times return.[2] In fact, this pattern has been so widely observed in the past that the respected demographer Dorothy Thomas once declared it to be one of the most firmly based empirical findings in any of the social sciences.

The most common explanation for the tendency of recessions to inhibit family formation and dissolution is fairly simple: Marriage and divorce are, in a word, expensive.

Consider a couple contemplating divorce. The couple’s main concern will often be whether their differences are irreconcilable. But they must also weigh their ability to shoulder the many costs of severing ties. There are substantial attorney and court fees that must be paid. One spouse might have to pay alimony. Moreover, upon separation, the same amount of income must cover two homes, two cars, two microwaves, and so on. Money and financial stability are thus important prerequisites for divorce.

If a couple has lost income due to spousal unemployment, or fears the loss of a job, then the economic means to move forward with a divorce might very well be lacking in a recession.

The same goes for marriage. Most couples believe that a certain level of income and economic stability should be achieved before it is appropriate to tie the knot. And as weddings have become more opulent affairs, they now impose even greater pecuniary burdens on engaged couples. Economic contractions make it harder for couples to meet these financial challenges. So, many will put marriage on hold.

But when a couple decides to postpone a marriage or divorce due to a recession, it does not usually mean their desire ultimately to wed or split is reduced. In fact, we know that couples that experience unemployment are more likely to experience marital strife and split up down the road. So, for some couples, recessions actually stoke demand for divorce, even as they make it more difficult to achieve.

When the business cycle turns, this pent-up demand for marriage and divorce is released and the rates of both typically swing up. That, in large part, is why marriage and divorce generally follow a “pro-cyclical” course, fluctuating in sympathy with the economy.

Do these patterns extend to recent trends in family formation? An analysis of the data indicates that they do.

Figure 1. Marriage and Unemployment Rates, 1989-2008

The marriage rate represents marriages per 1,000 total population and the unemployment rate refers to the percentage of adults who are unemployed; data are taken from the National Vital Statistics Reports. The unemployment rate data are from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Current Population Survey. Both series provide 24-month moving averages.

Figure 1, which presents 24-month moving averages for marriage and unemployment superimposed over approximate trendlines, indicates that business and marriage cycles have generally moved in unison over the past twenty years. When the U.S. unemployment rate receded between 1989 and 1991, marriages rates ticked upward. When unemployment shot back up in the early 1990’s, marriage rates fell. The prosperity of the late 1990’s corresponded to relatively high rates of marriage, and so on.

Figure 1 illustrates another crucial point, which merits special emphasis: When we say that marriage and business cycles move in sympathy, we are talking about relative fluctuations—deviations around a norm—and not absolute shifts. Between 1993 and 2001, for example, steadily declining unemployment did not cause marriage rates to climb throughout the period. Rather, it caused the marriage rate to increase relative to a broader downward trend in the marriage rate.

In a sense, then, the business cycle operates on the marriage rate like wind on a projectile: It might push it around a bit, but does not determine its general direction.

Figure 2 focuses on just the last decade, and allows us to better see the impact of the current severe recession.

Figure 2. Marriage and Unemployment Rates, 1998-2008

The marriage rate represents marriages per 1,000 total population and the unemployment rate refers to the percentage of adults who are unemployed; the 12-month moving average is provided here. Data are taken from the National Vital Statistics Reports. The unemployment rate data are monthly and are taken from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Current Population Survey.

As the graph demonstrates, the surge in unemployment since early 2008 has produced a clear lull in the marriage rate. The marriage rate fell to 7.1 per 1,000 people in 2008, down from 7.3 in 2007 and 7.6 in 2005, when the housing bubble was at its height. Among single women age 15 and older, the marriage rate dropped to 37.4 per 1,000 in 2008 from 39.2 per 1,000 in 2007. Although we do not yet have data for 2009, it seems quite likely, given the severity of the ongoing recession, that the incoming data will indicate that marriage rates have declined further—or have at least remained depressed.

This 2009 edition of The State of Our Unions indicates that divorce, too, has fallen along with the Dow. According to our estimates, the divorce rate fell to 16.9 per 1,000 married women in 2008, down from 17.5 in 2007. Press reports suggest that the divorce rate has continued to fall in 2009. According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, for example, filings for divorce in New York County during the first four months of 2009 were down 14 percent from the same period in pre-recessionary 2007. In Los Angeles County, filings were down 9 percent.[3] Drops in divorce have been reported in other locales as well. Meanwhile, an April 2009 poll of 1,600 divorce lawyers by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers found that 40 percent saw filings drop by about 40 percent.

It appears that much of this decline in divorce is indeed being driven by postponement. When the Institute for Divorce Financial Analysts (IDFA) polled 270 of its members this April, 68 percent reported that clients could not afford to get divorced because of recession-related financial problems. Sixty-three percent said the ranks of those delaying divorce had increased since the previous year.

The collapse of house prices has made it particularly difficult for many couples to sever ties. According to the IDFA: “Seventy-three percent of respondents said that the current housing market has forced their clients to consider creative solutions to property-division problems if the matrimonial home fails to sell or would sell for far less than the mortgage. For example, 40 percent of respondents indicate that they have divorcing or divorced clients who have chosen to continue to live in separate areas of the marital home until the house sells or the market improves.”

One Huntsville, Alabama, couple profiled by the Wall Street Journal exemplifies this trend. After 16 years of marriage, Rhonda Brewster and her husband want to call it quits, but cannot afford to split until Ms. Brewster finds work and the house sells for an acceptable price. So the Brewsters have decided to maintain a split household until the economy improves. He lives in the basement, while she gets the upper floors. The “kids are OK with it,” Ms. Brewster says. “They just know that mommy lives upstairs and daddy lives in the basement.”

The Brewsters, like some other couples, have actually reported having more amicable relations under the in-house separation arrangement. And, in fact, a number of studies have found that recessions and other stressful events can work to pull some couples together, strengthening their marital bonds. This phenomenon has prompted some to wonder if couples now in a state of marital limbo might be likely to reconnect. Perhaps. But the Brewsters say that reconciliation is not in the cards. And if history and the intuitions of divorce professionals are any guide, the bulk of those delaying divorce will follow through when circumstances permit—and the divorce rate will drift back up.

At the end of the day, then, it seems unlikely that this recession will have a lasting or transformative impact on family life and structure in America, at least at the aggregate level. The cost of marriage and divorce will be prohibitive for many couples, and they will have to remain in a holding pattern while the economy is weak. But after the nadir of this downturn is reached, we can expect that rates of marriage and divorce will at some point climb back upward.

The Declining Influence of the Business Cycle

Although the data indicate that the business cycle continues to affect family formation and dissolution, there is evidence that the strength of this relationship has been changing over time.

Specifically, the academic research strongly suggests that the impact of economic trends on marriage has been steadily weakening for over a century.[4] Marriage and divorce rates appear to have grown less sensitive to fluctuations in unemployment. In addition, several studies have found that disputes over money are a declining—though still prominent—cause of divorce.[5]

Given the once paramount influence of economic forces on marriage in prior centuries, these changes constitute quite a significant development.

To better understand why family formation has become less and less subject to the vicissitudes of the business cycle, I would argue that we need to look at how long-term economic change has altered the role that marriage and family play in men’s and women’s lives.

The Changing Place of Marriage in Society

In the pre- and early-industrial eras, the household was responsible for much of the socioeconomic production in society. Families had not only to earn income in cash or kind, but to engage in such time-consuming tasks as preparing food from scratch, making and washing clothing by hand, and rearing and educating children. In this context, as the economist Gary Becker has demonstrated, it was advantageous and often necessary for men to specialize in market production and for women to specialize in home production. By doing so, husband and wife could produce comparatively more income and services, which were “traded” in the marital home.[6]

The key economic function and purpose of marriage was therefore to create a joint-production unit that raised efficiency and afforded family members a higher standard of living. Further, marriage generated economies of scale—relative to living single—that also substantially boosted people’s standard of living. It must be remembered here that, in prior centuries, per capita income was quite low and even the basic necessities were hard to obtain; improvements in household efficiency had a major impact on people’s lives.

It is therefore not difficult to see why marital and economic trends were once correlated so strongly. If a couple was to marry, it was absolutely vital that the husband-to-be be gainfully employed. Recessions temporarily reduced the ranks of employed men. To divorce was to expose oneself to substantial risk and potential loss of much-needed income or household services. This made economic stability a near prerequisite for severing the marital bond. Thus the business cycle’s influence on the timing of marriage and divorce was bound to be substantial.

But modernization has eroded the economic basis for marriage. As Becker argues, technological progress, income growth, and the rise of the service economy have dramatically altered the returns on different kinds of work. While it was once economically advantageous for women to focus on the running of the household, that has become less and less the case over time. Just about everyone can operate a washing machine or microwave, for example, and so there is less need for people to specialize in food preparation or washing clothes. It is now often more economically optimal for women to join the paid labor force and for households to purchase such goods and services in the marketplace.

These developments have reduced the gains for being married: If neither men nor women possess a significant comparative advantage in paid or home labor, then there is no compelling purpose for intra-household “trading” in these activities. The incentive to wed is reduced. In addition, because women have greater personal economic resources than in the past, they can more easily divorce or choose not to marry. In support of these arguments, a large body of academic research has demonstrated that the increased relative earning power and labor force participation of women are strongly related to lower levels of marriage and higher levels of divorce.[7]

Marriage, in short, has become less economically necessary (though it remains economically advantageous in most cases).

Because of this development, and certain changes in values, the prevalence of marriage has declined significantly in recent history. Fewer women will end up marrying now than in the past and, as Figure 3 shows, the divorce rate has increased tremendously. Whereas there were 30 marriages for every divorce during the Reconstruction period, there are now 2.

Figure 3. Marriage and Divorce Rates, 1867-2007

All rates are per 1,000 total population and taken from the National Vital Statistics Reports.

As the traditional bases for marriage have eroded, marriage itself has come to take on a new meaning.

Less and less a socioeconomic unit occupying a special place in society, marriage, as many have noted, has increasingly come to signify a bond of companionship whose purpose is to satisfy emotional needs—instead of economic ones.

As reported in the 2001 edition of The State of Our Unions, a survey of 1,003 young adults found that an overwhelming majority (94 percent) of singles agreed that “when you marry you want your spouse to be your soul mate, first and foremost.” Over 80 percent of young women agreed it is more important to have a husband who can communicate about his deepest feelings than to have a husband who makes a good living. In fact, most respondents (82 percent) affirmed that it is actually unwise for a woman to rely on marriage for financial security.

Under this new “companionate” model of marriage, men and women first establish themselves as independent adults, with their own careers and resources, then wed in order to secure companionship and love, pursue shared interests, and enjoy couple-centered activities—from travel to dining to sports. With the necessities of life secured, marriage becomes about climbing the upper levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Because the new marital relationship requires significant income, leisure time, and a good personal fit, the standards for entry into companionate marriage are high, and different from those of the past. For example, it was once the case that being currently employed was the overriding determinant of marriage for men. But, over time, level of education and a willingness to do housework have also become important for men’s marriageability.[8]

Meanwhile, because women are now expected to have established themselves socioeconomically prior to marriage, women’s earnings have become a major predictor of marriage. Those with greater economic resources are now significantly more likely to marry.[9]

This is a paradox of modern marriage: Although overall increases in female earning capacity have weakened marriage at the societal level, the rise of the companionate model of marriage has meant that female earnings promote marriage at the individual level.

In this context of heightened marital expectations, cohabitation has emerged as an increasingly popular alternative for couples that are skittish about marriage or have not met its perceived preconditions. As The State of Our Unions has reported, the number of cohabiting couples has increased roughly sixteen-fold since 1960.

Given the new marital landscape in America, it becomes clear why the business cycle’s grip on the institution of marriage is weakening.

For starters, people with more resources will be better able to afford marriage and divorce in both good times and bad. Because adults who tie the knot are now more likely to have high permanent incomes and levels of education, marital decisions are on the whole less vulnerable to short-term ups and downs in the economy. The dual-earner nature of many married-couple households also protects them from the vicissitudes of the market. Additionally, because marriage itself is increasingly predicated on strong emotional bonds rather than on income-services exchange, the experience of male unemployment has become less destabilizing. For instance, economist James L. Starkey has found that a husband’s loss of job is far less likely to lead to divorce in non-patriarchal (i.e., companionate) unions.[10] And, as noted above, financial disputes have apparently been receding as a cause of divorce while emotional factors have been taking on greater weight.

Meanwhile, scholarly research and data from The State of Our Unions indicate that the more tentative and economically “marginal” relationships are increasingly to be found among the ranks of the cohabiting. Many of those couples that would once have delayed marriage or divorce due to an economic downturn are now cohabiting. Because these couples are not entering the ranks of the married, the impact of recessions on their relationships will not affect marriage and divorce rates.

Finally, it is important to remember that recessions often take a harder toll on blue collar Americans. Because more and more poor and working-class couples are delaying or foregoing marriage in the first place, spikes in unemployment will necessarily have a smaller observed impact on marriage rates than they once did.

In sum, then, it appears that the declining influence of the business cycle can largely be attributed to the shifting place of marriage in contemporary life. Barring either an economic catastrophe or the return of marriage as a universal norm, it seems doubtful that this trend will reverse anytime soon.

Parting Thoughts:
Marriage as a Source of Socioeconomic Well-Being

Up to this point, this essay has focused on one question: How have economic forces shaped marriage over time? But it is also important to consider the ways in which marriage shapes economic life. In particular, despite the fact that marriage is less of an economic necessity than it once was, it remains the case that marriage itself typically creates substantial economic benefits for families.

Consider: According to the Department of Health and Human Services, a family of three—two parents and a child—needs an income of $18,311 to be considered above the poverty line. But, if the parents maintain separate households, the total income needed to keep the three out of poverty jumps to $25,401. In other words, living apart, the parents must earn $7,090 or 39 percent more to avoid poverty. Marriage, it seems, still works to generate tremendous economies of scale—especially for those with low income.

Marriage also appears to confer unique advantages in building wealth. For example, when the economists Joseph Lupton and James P. Smith tracked the income and wealth of 7,608 household heads between 1984 and 1989, they found that those who married saw income increases of 50 to 100 percent, and net wealth increases of about 400 to 600 percent.[11] Continuously married households had about double the income and four times the net worth of the continuously divorced and never-married, on average. These numbers indicate a significant marriage premium when it comes to saving.

What’s behind this marital advantage? Well, it is certainly explained in part by the selection of high-earning, high-saving individuals into marriage. But there is more to the story: The aforementioned economies of scale increase the amount of income that couples are able to save. Men who marry typically earn more because marriage itself leads to increases in income; that is, men who marry work harder, work smarter, and earn more than their unmarried peers. And researchers have found that marriage is connected to norms and expectations of accountability and fiscal responsibility that encourage the wise use of resources.[12] Cohabiting couples, in contrast, are less likely to pool resources, feel obligated to spend wisely and save, or invest in the future of the household.

Given that marriage continues to produce such significant economic advantages, we might ask: Has the rise of the companionate model pushed marriage out of reach for the very people who stand to benefit from it the most, economically speaking? Of course, we would not want to advocate loveless unions for financial gain. But a greater societal appreciation of marriage’s financial benefits could be helpful, especially among poor and working-class couples who are drifting farther and farther away from the institution of marriage. For if what most people want is to be financially well-off and in a good relationship, marriage is certainly a time-tested way to achieve these goals.

Let’s hope that this view gains some currency now, and once the Great Recession lifts, more couples—especially lower-income couples who are in the greatest danger of missing out on marriage’s economic benefits—can take full advantage of the emotional and material benefits associated with marriage.


  1. To ensure greater readability, the number of sources cited in this essay has been kept to a minimum. A version with all citations included can be accessed at stateofourunions.org/2009/marriage_and_the_recession-cites.php.
  2. William F. Ogburn and Dorothy S. Thomas, “The Influence of the Business Cycle on Certain Social Conditions,” Journal of the American Statistical Association 18 (September 1922), 324-340; Humphrey Southall and David Gilbert, “A Good Time to Wed?: Marriage and Economic Distress in England and Wales, 1839-1914,” The Economic History Review, New Series 49 (February 1996), 35-57; Nacy H. Mocan, “Business Cycles and Fertility Dynamics in the United States: A Vector Autoregressive Model,” Journal of Population Economics 3 (August 1990), 125-146.
  3. Jennifer Levitz, “What God Has Joined Together, Recession Makes Hard to Put Asunder,” The Wall Street Journal, July 13, 2009, A1.
  4. Ogburn and Thomas, 1922; Southall and Gilbert, 1996; Hooker, 1901; Basavarajappa, 1971; South, 1985; Frank L. Mott and Sylvia F. Moore, “The Causes of Marital Disruption among Young American Women: An Interdisciplinary Perspective,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 41 (May 1979), 355-365; Gideon Vigderhous and Gideon Fishman, “Social Indicators of Marital Instability, U.S.A., 1920-1969,” Social Indicators Research 5 (1978), 325-344.
  5. For a recapitulation of several studies on this topic, see: Lukas R. Dean, Jason S. Carroll and Chongming Yang, “Materialism, Perceived Financial Problems, and Marital Satisfaction,” Family and Consumer Sciences Research Journal 35 (2007), 262-3. It should be noted, as Dean et al. discuss, that some scholars have argued that couples might have been more likely to cite financial troubles as a cause for divorce in the past due to social and legal pressures.
  6. [6] Gary S. Becker, A Treatise on the Family (Harvard University Press, 1993).
  7. Thomas J. Espenshade, “Marriage Trends in America: Estimates, Implications, and Underlying Causes,” Population and Development Review 11 (June 1985), 193-245.
  8. Almudena Sevilla Sanz, “Division of Household Labor and Cross-Country Differences in Household Formation Rates,” Journal of Population Economics, published online 15 May 2009, http://www.springerlink.com/content/a42u2586qwjrl731/.
  9. Megan M. Sweeney, “Two Decades of Family Change: The Shifting Economic Foundations of Marriage,” American Sociological Review 67 (February 2002), 132-147.
  10. James L. Starkey, “Race Differences in the Effect of Unemployment on Marital Instability: A Socioeconomic Analysis,” Journal of Socio-Economics 25 (1996), 683-720.
  11. Joseph Lupton and James P. Smith, “Marriage, Assets, and Savings,” RAND Corporation, Labor and Population Working Paper Series 99-12 (1999).
  12. Pamela J. Smock, Wendy D. Manning, and Meredith Porter, “’Everything’s There Except Money’: How Money Shapes Decisions to Marry among Cohabitors,” Journal of Marriage and Family 67 (2005), 680-696.