Married couples promise to stick together for better or worse. But as the U.S. economy started to rebound, so did the divorce rate.
Divorces plunged when the recession struck and slowly started to rise as the recovery began, according to a study to be published in Population Research and Policy Review.
From 2009 to 2011, about 150,000 fewer divorces occurred than would otherwise have been expected, University of Maryland sociologist Philip N. Cohen estimated. Across the country, the divorce rate among married women dropped from 2.09 percent to 1.95 percent from 2008 to 2009, then crept back up to 1.98 percent in both 2010 and 2011.
The National Marriage Project earlier dubbed the drop in divorce "a silver lining" to the Great Recession, arguing that tough times were pulling many husbands and wives closer together. But some couples may have simply put off divorce until they could afford to part, researchers say. The economic uptick may have finally given them the freedom to split.
"This is exactly what happened in the 1930s," said Johns Hopkins University sociologist Andrew Cherlin. "The divorce rate dropped during the Great Depression not because people were happier with their marriages, but because they couldn't afford to get divorced."
Cohen cautioned that the exact reasons behind the economic ebb and flow of divorce were still murky. His study found that unemployment, state by state, had no apparent effect on divorce rates; other research examining earlier periods has found the opposite. Cohen did find that joblessness seemed to cut down divorce for college graduates — but statewide foreclosures pushed up divorce rates for the same group. More research is needed to understand why, he wrote.
"There still is a mystery," Pew Research Center senior writer D'Vera Cohn wrote in an email to the Los Angeles Times. "It is enormously tempting to say that bad economic times made that happen, but this new paper concludes that the jury is still out."
Whatever its roots, the phenomenon might seem puzzling in light of other research: Marriages end more often among Americans with less education and less income, other studies have shown. If money troubles put strain on marriages, why would couples break up more often when the economy is on the upswing?
Cherlin said downturns seemed to affect divorce timing, not whether couples divorced at all. While economic woes might sway a couple to put off divorce during a recession, spouses might not bother waiting if they don't see their financial problems as temporary, he said.