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Hard Times Keep Families Together – But Only for a While « The Washington Independent

One potentially upbeat aspect of a recession is that it keeps families together, writes marriage expert Andrew Cherlin today in The New York Times. Couples are reluctant to split up when finances are tight, so households that might otherwise break up remain intact. That was one lesson of the Great Depression, Cherlin says.

We tend to think of the Depression as a time when families pulled together to survive huge job losses. The divorce rate, which had been rising slowly since the Civil War, suddenly dropped in 1930, the year after the Depression began. By 1932, when nearly one-quarter of the work force was unemployed, it had declined by around 25 percent from 1929. But this does not mean that people were suddenly happier with their marriages. Rather, with incomes plummeting and insecure jobs, unhappy couples often couldn’t afford to divorce. They feared that neither spouse would be able to manage alone.

Today, given the job losses of the past year, fewer unhappy couples will risk starting separate households. Furthermore, the housing market meltdown will make it more difficult for them to finance their separations by selling their homes.

Before this gets cast as a positive development, however, Cherlin, a sociology professor at Johns Hopkins University, points out that the family unity is only temporary. When hard times end, so do troubled marriages, in many cases. For example, the divorce rate began to rise in 1934, when employment began to increase.

Millions of American families may now be in the initial stage of their responses to the current crisis, working together and supporting one another through the early months of unemployment. During the Depression this stage seemed to last a year at most. Today, it might last longer. Wives now share with their husbands the burden of earning money, and the government provides more assistance.

But history suggests that this response will be temporary. By 1940 the divorce rate was higher than before the Depression, as if a pent-up demand was finally being satisfied. The Depression destroyed the inner life of many married couples, but it was years before they could afford to file for divorce.

Cherlin suggest the same trend could play out this time around, as families feel financial stress, or lose their homes, or their jobs. Just because couples are sticking together now doesn’t mean the togetherness will continue after the economy picks up. When it comes to families surviving an economic downturn, as history shows, green shoots aren’t always a sign of better times ahead.

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