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Unemployment And Divorce: The Surprising Connection

First Posted: 05/04/2011 5:06 pm EDT Updated: 11/09/2012 10:01 am EST

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When Penn State sociology professors Paul Amato and Brett Beattie began studying the repercussions of unemployment on marriage in the aftermath of the Great Recession, they expected to find that joblessness destabilizes marriage.

But, after analyzing data from all 50 states between 1960 and 2005, Amato and Beattie were surprised. Prior to 1980, when unemployment numbers spiked, divorce followed suit. But, since the 1980s, when unemployment rates have risen, divorce rates have dropped.

In March 2007, before the bubble burst, 4.6 percent of the labor force was unemployed, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Three years later, the unemployment rate jumped to 10.2 percent. Divorce, on the other hand, decreased by 1.4 percent between 2007 and 2008, according to the report, and then by another 2.8 percent between 2008 and 2009.

While these results could indicate that couples pull together in times of crisis, experts are less sure.

“Since the 1980s, the standard of living for, not single people, but married couples has gone up substantially,” Amato said. Family homes have increased in size, cars per household are on the rise and the steady integration of women in the workforce has added an extra income to the family pot.

“Some research has shown that even though standards of living have increased, their satisfaction hasn’t increased at all,” Amato continued, speculating that divorce decreases when unemployment rates climb because couples are not ready to give up their standard of living by having to pay for one extra household with one less salary. “They wait; they put it off,” he said.

Laurel Starks, a realtor who specializes in property of divorced couples, says that divvying up a family home is difficult enough when dealing with a dual income couple, let alone when one client is unemployed. She recalled an incident where a woman tried to sabotage the sale of her family home by stealing all the light fixtures and telling potential buyers she would squat at the house until evicted.

“It used to be that there was equity in the house or that [couples] had good credit or one spouse could easily buy out the other, but now that the housing crisis has come crashing down … options have become much more limited,” Starks said. “People across the board delay divorce; I see more people living together … trying to stretch it out as long as they can.”

In fact, couples who are separated emotionally but not physically, or “upstairs/downstairs” couples who are estranged but share the same house, is a growing phenomenon.

Elinor Robin, a divorce mediator who works out of Boca Raton, FL, has had numerous clients live together -- in homes where the house's debt is often larger than its value -- while contemplating divorce.

“This is a different kind of unemployment than in the past because unemployment means you might not be working in a year,” Robin said. “We see a lot of people who are still living together, and one reason is that when house is in foreclosure they can stay in it easily for three years. It’s going through a lengthy process and this is free.”

Unemployment poses many other issues for a couple that hopes to divorce, noted Linda Lea Viken, president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML). Many can’t afford to hire a lawyer, for example.

“In 2008, 24 percent of our fellows saw a reduction in the divorce numbers, and it was up to 51 percent who saw a reduction in 2009,” Viken said.

But there’s no need to worry. As the economy seems to be improving, divorce looks to be on a rebound, according to NPR.

As the economy bounces back, Viken reports that the members of the AAML are reporting that they are starting to get more business. “[Divorce is] coming back and circling around,” Viken said.

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