Is Marriage Recession-Proof?

A Delicate Dance

By Stacey Jones

Married heterosexual couples may not have fared so well during the Great Recession, but their marriages have. Statistics show that the divorce rate in the United States declined for the first time since 2005, and anecdotal evidence suggests that people are sticking with their spouses through these leanest of times. "There's nothing like the loss of a job, an imminent foreclosure or a shrinking 401(k) to gain new appreciation for a wife's job, a husband's commitment to pay down debt, or the in-law's willingness to help out with childcare or a rent-free place to live," says "The State of Our Unions 2009," a report from the University of Virginia's National Marriage Project. “The recession reminds us that marriage is more than an emotional relationship; marriage is also an economic partnership and social safety net."

That is not to say, however, that the recession hasn't strained relationships. Most signs, though, point to marriages that are severely bent but not broken. Whether because they simply cannot afford to divorce and live on one income or, as the report suggests, because they now see marriage in a more realistic light, many married couples are staying put and making due. As with most statistical generalizations, these are highly dependent on the relative wealth, age, educational backgrounds, and race of the couples involved.

Four layoffs in thirty years of marriage taught Marjorie Harper (whose name has been changed to protect her privacy) and her husband, James, to be more frugal. James—who is of retirement age and has been unemployed for several years—was joined by Marjorie when she was laid off from her job at Emory late last year. "I was totally blindsided by our most recent layoff," she says. "Fortunately, we did not have balances on credit cards, so that did not hang over our heads. We cut back on expenses to match our next-to-nothing income. Because of several layoffs we have used 70 percent of our retirement funds over the past three years. We have put our home on the market and, when it sells, we will decide our next move."

The Harpers are atypical in this recession in that men—and husbands—have overwhelmingly lost the majority of jobs. Men suffered more than three-quarters of job losses since the recession began in 2007. And while the numbers are improving, sectors that traditionally employ men—construction, transportation, and warehousing—continued to shed jobs in the early part of 2011.

This puts stress on wives, who become the sole breadwinner or who must return to the workforce or must  increase their hours. "When there are two working adults in a family, and one loses a job, it causes more stress for the one who remains working," says Freda Jones, manager of clinical services at Emory's Faculty Staff Assistance Program, or FSAP. "The one who  continues working feels the impact of taking on additional responsibilities—at least mentally—feeling they are required to be additionally prepared to pay bills, to make sure that the family operates as it had prior to the downturn in the economy."  The FSAP provides supportive counseling and related services to Emory employees and their immediate family members who have been affected by job loss.

That was a role that men were most familiar with when it was the norm that they be the sole providers for their families. But even now, when the recession forced wives to work more hours, turned more of them into sole wage-earners, and upped their total contribution to household incomes to 45 percent—the highest of the decade—gender stereotypes threaten to fray their recession-strained marital unions.

Men tend to put a lot of stock in status and earning power while women's emphasis often can lie in domestic power surrounding child rearing and household tasks. If couples aren't careful, these dynamics can tear at a marital fabric already frayed by economic uncertainty over job loss and continued unemployment. But when couples go with the flow, muddying traditional gender roles can have a positive effect for couples, says Lynn Prince Cooke, a British sociologist who found that US couples who share breadwinning and domestic duties fare better over time.

Stephanie Coontz, professor of marriage studies at Evergreen State College, agrees. "If couples can nurture this flexibility, minimize lingering ideas that a man's masculinity depends on his paycheck and take the opportunity to rethink the escalating consumerism and workaholism of the past 30 years, couples may be able to build new family priorities that can strengthen their marriages in the long run," says Coontz in the New York Times.

Harper says she and her husband have retrenched—together. "We are individually and cooperatively trying our best to make this work, and trying to get out of this situation."

Stacey Jones serves on the Center for Women at Emory (CWE) Editorial Board and is the immediate past chair of the CWE Advisory Council.

What about Same-Sex Couples?

Many married and unmarried same-sex couples are weathering the economic downturn pretty much like their opposite-sex counterparts. However, losing a job and its attendant health care benefits can be a double whammy for gay couples. This is because heterosexual married couples who lose health care benefits through work can be jointly covered under COBRA, the 1986 legislative act that continues employer-based group health insurance coverage that otherwise would be terminated in the event of job loss. Even former spouses are covered.

Gay men and women who are eligible for domestic partnership benefits through their partner's employer are not covered under COBRA, even if they are married, because the federal government does not recognize same-sex marriage.

This also means that the job-seeking partner may need to limit her- or himself to employers offering domestic partnership benefits, especially if the other half of the couple has a preexisting condition or has a job with no health care benefits. It's a rough trade-off in a volatile employment market where job offers are few.

Though they may be an equitable solution in the workplace, domestic partnership benefits cannot take the place of true legal recognition of same-sex marriage, said Beth Littrell, an attorney for Lambda Legal, a gay civil rights organization. "When equality is achieved through this piecemeal basis, it's not true equality," she told the Orlando Sentinel. "You see the holes, you see the gaps, you see the unequal treatment of couples."