Survey Finds Great Recession Has Both Stressed and Strengthened American Marriages

February 07, 2011

February 7, 2011 — The first national survey to focus on how the "Great Recession" has affected marriage in the United States, sponsored by the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, finds both good and bad news.

While 29 percent of couples reported that the downturn has brought financial stress to their marriages, another 29 percent agreed that the recession led them to deepen their commitment to their marriages.

Among married Americans who said they were considering divorce or separation prior to the recession (about 5 percent of all respondents in the survey), 38 percent said that the recession caused them to work harder at saving their marriage.

The National Marriage Project's "Survey of Marital Generosity," a nationally representative survey of 1,197 heterosexual married Americans aged 18 to 45, was conducted by Knowledge Networks in December and January.

The resulting report, "The Great Recession and Marriage" is being released today in connection with National Marriage Week, which runs from Feb. 7 to 14.

"According to this new data, although the recession has caused a great deal of stress among American couples, there are also two silver linings when it comes to marriage in America," said the report’s author, Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project and a sociology professor in U.Va.'s College of Arts & Sciences.

"The recession clearly brought economic hardship to many American marriages," Wilcox explained. More than one-third (34 percent) of survey respondents report worrying often or almost all the time about being able to pay the bills. About 12 percent report either difficulty making mortgage payments or a home foreclosure. Another 29 percent indicate they have experienced unemployment or reduced pay or hours as a result of the economic downturn.

In fact, just over half of those surveyed have been affected by one or more of these three financial stressors. Only 49 percent of those surveyed have escaped all three of them, 31 percent have faced one of them, and one in five report having experienced two or three.

When asked directly if the recession had brought financial stress to their marriage, 29 percent agreed that it did, while 47 percent disagreed (the remaining 24 percent neither agreed nor disagreed).

Unsurprisingly, such financial stresses have had a negative impact on Americans' marital happiness. Married Americans who have been relatively unaffected by the financial downturn – those who report low levels of financial worry, no trouble paying their mortgage and no employment setbacks – are the most likely to report having a very happy marriage (43 percent). Those who have experienced one stressor do not lag far behind these other Americans in marital happiness – 39 percent report a very happy marriage. But among those with two or three financial stressors, only 27 percent report a happy marriage.

"The data indicate that about one in five married Americans have been hit with multiple financial stressors," Wilcox said. "These Americans are experiencing the greatest challenges in their marriages."

Among those who report that the recession has led them to deepen their marital commitment, just 5 percent are at a high risk for divorce, compared to 24 percent of those who disagree with that statement. Similarly, those who have redoubled their marital commitment are much more likely to be in a very happy marriage (52 percent) than those who disagree that the recession has caused them to deepen their commitment (25 percent).

"This new survey tells us that the Great Recession has had a double-edged impact on American marriages," Wilcox said. "For some, the financial stresses associated with the Great Recession have hurt their marriages. But for others, this recession has fostered a new commitment to marriage that appears to have improved the quality and stability of their marriages."

The weight of the economic downturn has not fallen evenly on all married Americans, Wilcox said. The recession has damaged marriages most among those most vulnerable to it – those without a college degree.

One potential buffer against these effects is religious participation, he said. Couples who attended church together reported higher marital quality, less financial stress and, a deeper commitment to marriage in the face of the recession.

The full report is available here . Funding for the Survey of Marital Generosity was provided by the Science of Generosity Initiative at the University of Notre Dame, a project funded by the John Templeton Foundation.

— By Brevy Cannon

Media Contact

H. Brevy Cannon

Media Relations Associate Office of University Communications