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The COVID-19 Divorce Paradox

As the COVID-19 pandemic began a little over a year ago, and married couples were forced to spend far more time at home together, many experts predicted a surge in divorces. The data, in fact, shows the exact opposite: the national divorce rate is down.

To discuss this surprising trend, we welcome Dr. Brad Wilcox, Director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, to our latest episode of the Family Policy Matters radio show and podcast.

Dr. Wilcox concedes that part of the story in this unexpected divorce drop could be that couples don’t want to go into court or an attorney’s office during a pandemic. “But we have seen in previous major collective traumas—like the Great Recession of about a decade ago—a similar decline in divorce,” says Dr. Wilcox. “I think in the face of some major collective trauma, a lot of people become more likely to turn towards family and friends rather than turn away from them, including turning away from one’s spouse.”

The surprisingly drop in divorces nationwide is not the only unexpected statistic to come out of the pandemic, continues Dr. Wilcox. “A majority of couples are not reporting more stress in their marriage. There may be stress obviously in the broader world, but what’s striking is that when you talk about people’s perceptions of their marriage, it’s only about a third of them saying their marriage was more stressed by COVID.”

While many of us would have expected the exact opposite, “51 percent of couples say their commitment deepened in COVID time, and about 58 percent said that their appreciation for their partner deepened.”

Tune in to Family Policy Matters this week to hear Dr. Brad Wilcox discuss more surprising marriage statistics to come out of the pandemic


Family Policy Matters
Transcript: The COVID-19 Divorce Paradox

TRACI GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. Over the last year, there have been several unplanned social experiments, not the least of which are insights into America’s marriage culture. Despite many experts anticipating a sharp rise in divorces as couples suddenly are faced with dramatically more time together, the data seems to be showing the exact opposite. Here to help us unpack some of the marriage lessons of this pandemic experiment is Dr. Bradford Wilcox. Dr. Wilcox is Director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, senior fellow of the Institute for Family Studies, and visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Dr. Brad Wilcox, welcome to Family Policy Matters.

DR. WILCOX: It’s great to be here with you today.

TRACI GRIGGS: Did we see a noticeable change in the divorce rate after pandemic shutdowns started in March of 2020?

DR. WILCOX: Yeah, we did. The funny thing was that there was a spike in divorce last spring in China, and a lot of journalists predicted a spike in the U.S., with cabin fever being kind of the idea here. But in reality, we saw a pretty marked downward spike in divorce in the spring and in the summer last year. We’re closing in on the average divorce pattern now. What that means in effect is that we’ve seen a lot less divorce in the U.S. in the last year and a half than we would normally see.

TRACI GRIGGS: All right, let me play devil’s advocate here. Is it possible that our drop was due to offices being closed down? That kind of thing?

DR. WILCOX: Yeah, no, I think part of the story is, who wants to be going to an attorney’s office or going to court in the middle of a global pandemic? That’s certainly part of the story here, but we have seen in previous major collective traumas—like the Great Recession of about a decade ago—a similar decline in divorce as well. So, the point that I’m kind of getting at here is that I think in the face of some major collective trauma, some major kind of collective emergency, a lot of people become more likely to turn towards family and friends rather than turn away from them, including turning away from one’s spouse.

TRACI GRIGGS: Let’s talk about the kinds of relationship negatives that we may have seen that were emphasized or uncovered during this past year.

DR. WILCOX: Well, there certainly is, you know, a large minority of folks who are reporting increased stress. It’s about a third of couples who are reporting that they’ve had more stress in the last year. But I think what’s interesting is that means that a majority of couples are not reporting more stress in their marriage. Now there may be stress obviously in the broader world—there is obviously—but what’s striking is that when you talk about people’s perceptions of their marriage, it’s only about a third of them are saying that their marriage per se, was more stressed by COVID.

TRACI GRIGGS: Right. Even with a lot of these people having children home, and a lot of maybe financial difficulty, which is pretty surprising.

DR. WILCOX: Right. And the stress was definitely more noteworthy among folks who had seen their financial fortunes declined in the last year. So that’s kind of consistent of what you expect, but I think the weird thing about COVID is that by the time we hit summer last year, there were plenty of people who ended up doing fine financially, or even better financially in some sectors of the economy.

TRACI GRIGGS: So, there were some benefits of this time of slowing down for all of us, or for many couples, especially in families. What were some of those?

DR. WILCOX: Yeah. You know, I spoke to a couple here in Virginia and the wife basically said when things first shut down they had a toddler; they had two jobs; they were scrambling to kind of figure out how to both do their two jobs and care for their young daughter. And you know, that required a lot of juggling and a lot of work, but they got into a new routine where the husband was working at night, the wife was working during the day, and they were sharing the care of the young daughter. They eliminated all of their commuting and they took more time for long walks around their neighborhood. They had more time for kind of being together as a family. And so as things netted out for them over the last year, they report that their marriage is stronger and better and that they’re more family-focused. In fact, the husband quit his job and started his own business so he has more time to be at home with his wife and a daughter. So that’s just one example of the way in which some couples and some families have kind of thrived. Now statistically speaking, what we see in the research is that about 51 percent of couples say that their commitment deepened in COVID time, and about 58 percent said that their appreciation for their partner deepened in COVID time. So that’s obviously a majority in both cases.

TRACI GRIGGS: Wow. That’s actually pretty, pretty amazing.

DR. WILCOX: Yeah. And it definitely runs against some of the media stereotypes about how everyone’s just kind of completely locked down and stressed out. I mean, I’m not denying that that’s a reality, but I think we have to also, again, just sort of see how, when times are tough people often turn more closely towards their spouse and their kin and their friends.

TRACI GRIGGS: Right. Well, it sounds like at least the man in the story that you just told us learned a lesson that ended up changing his life. So, are there lessons that the rest of us can take away from this unusual time so that we can strengthen our marriage, even as we go back into a more normal time?

DR. WILCOX: Yeah. I think one thing that’s important to recognize is that a lot of people spent more time doing things like playing games and taking walks. And what we know is that these are the kinds of things that generate a sense of solidarity and satisfaction and meaning in our lives. And so hopefully one takeaway for us as we kind of move back towards normalcy right now, is that we should be more intentional about carving out time for family games or family hikes, or other kinds of activities that allow us to spend time together. And especially allow us to spend time outside, because we all do better when we get more exercise and more and more outside time.

TRACI GRIGGS: When we talk about divorce and marriage, of course, it’s important to talk about the dropping marriage rate and the increasing age of marriage in American society. What should we take away from those two trends?

DR. WILCOX: Yes. I think the good news here is that existing marriages, and marriages that are being formed as we speak, in a sense this year, are going to be stronger. The bad news is that there are going to be fewer Americans, fewer young adults getting married. One study from the Institute [for Family Studies] suggested about 30 percent/35 percent of young adults today will never marry. This is like kind of record territory, basically.

TRACI GRIGGS: And those goods that come from marriage are well-documented, aren’t they?

DR. WILCOX: Yeah. There are any number of things from being happier, to being less lonely, to being—particularly for men—less suicidal. And then of course, financially, there’s just no question that adult men and women who get and stay married are in much better shape financially, both at any point in time, and especially as they head into retirement. It’s like a 401k or like a home that protects them financially as they move into their golden years, you know, in their late sixties and seventies.

TRACI GRIGGS: And definitely one benefit that I think you see from the last year, you wrote up an article entitled, “COVID-19 is Killing the Soulmate Model of Marriage.” Good. So first of all, what is the soulmate model of marriage and why do you think it’s good that it’s kind of going away?

DR. WILCOX: The soulmate model of marriage is that there’s kind of like, there’s one perfect person for you that’s going to fulfill you, complete you and, you know, bring your life a tremendous amount of happiness. And then also there’s this kind of idea too, that your love shall last basically, as long as you kind of feel it, as long as you have that kind of intense, emotional, romantic connection with your spouse. And I think the soulmate model was especially dominant in the 1970s when we saw such a huge spike in divorce, and still obviously has a big impact on how we think about love and marriage. Although what I’m arguing in the piece in part is that I think after people get married in more recent years, they become more realistic about marriage and kind of come to appreciate it’s about much more than just your emotional connection so much. It’s about kind of raising a family together. It’s about kind of protecting the welfare of your children. It’s about establishing a good financial nest egg. It’s about being there for your kin, you know, for your parents, for your wife’s parents, your husband’s parents. So, the point I’m making is that I think we’re shifting in some ways towards a more family-first model of marriage, where people are recognizing that marriage is about much more than their individual emotional wellbeing. It’s about a broader array of goods, especially about welfare of their kid, but also the welfare of their kin. And I think COVID has made people more likely to realize that marriage serves a variety of good, not just sort of that romantic or emotional fulfillment, as you kind of realize it’s good to have a partner in the house helping you raise the kids, helping you care for your elderly parents, you know, helping bring money into the household. So, the points is, ways that I think COVID has helped us to see that marriage is about much more than how we feel at any one point in our married life.

TRACI GRIGGS: Can you lay blame anywhere for that whole soul mate model of marriage, where did that come from?

DR. WILCOX: Well, there’s obviously a very long romantic history that we can see in the West. Although you see this as a romantic idea expressed in the Bible as well, and it’s not an entirely bad thing, but the point is that you don’t want to think that marriage is just about an intense, romantic or emotional connection. It’s about a lot more than that. And I think particularly recognizing it’s about being dedicated to the good of your spouse and any kids that you have are primary concerns. And so because of that, we have certain ideas about fidelity and certain ideas about lifelong moral commitment that should be guiding us, and have historically guided many of us over the centuries.

TRACI GRIGGS: So, you study marriage and you teach about marriage, but are you also married?

DR. WILCOX: Yes. Just celebrated 25 years of marriage this past summer.

TRACI GRIGGS: Well, congratulations. Tell me, did you, without being too personal, did you come up with some takeaways that are especially meaningful to you and that you’d like to share with our listeners?

DR. WILCOX: I think over the years, one thing that Danielle, my wife and I really try to be faithful about is, going for date night at least one night a week. And in part, just because the research tells us that having that time just for us as a couple is so important, and particularly because we have a lot of kids. So, just having opportunities to get away from the chaos of a large family and just to spend time together is important, and cultivating that sense of communion.

I think another thing that has struck me in studying this topic over the years, is seeing how much research tells us that men and women deal with conflict and difficulty so differently. John Gottman, a psychologist at the University of Washington for instance, tells us that men are more likely to shut down, go into their caves if you will, metaphorically speaking, in the face of conflict or disagreement. And by contrast, wives are more likely to seek to talk through and kind of get emotional support in the midst of difficulties or conflict. And, given that difference, it can make for rather difficult situations when a difficulty emerges, when there’s a conflict or fight, et cetera, in marriages in general, and certainly in our own marriage in particular. But I think seeing that research and recognizing that there is a difference in how women and men often approach these difficult or conflicted situations, has made it easier for Danielle and me just to laugh when I’m like in the face of some kind of conflict, I’m just kind of shutting down and she can kind of see it happening in real time. And likewise, she’ll be expressing concern about something and rather than trying to fix it for her, I will just be empathetic and just try to focus on listening well, and expressing emotional support to her. So, the point I’m making simply is that recognizing that there are often some gender differences in how we deal with difficulty and conflict, and trying to be responsive in ways that meet the needs of our spouse not ourselves, and doing it with a sense of humor has been really helpful for us as a couple.

TRACI GRIGGS: Well, we’re just about out of time for this week. Before we go, where can our listeners go to learn more about your work on this and many other important topics related to marriage, family and society.

DR. WILCOX: is the best place for not just my work, but the work of many colleagues of mine who work in kind of writing about or studying family life, both here and abroad. And then I’m on Twitter at WilcoxNMP, and I tweet a lot of family research out on a regular basis as well.

TRACI GRIGGS: Great. Dr. Bradford Wilcox Director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, thank you so much for being with us today on Family Policy Matters.

DR. WILCOX: Thank you Traci, it’s a pleasure.

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