Since 2008, most of us have been walking budgetary tightropes -- cutting a piece off of this, snipping some off of that. For a significant percentage, it's been a steady slide into fiscal chaos, foreclosures, and fear. For some, it's just the luxuries that have been eliminated: No more the extended vacation, the new car lease every year or two, or the $400 handbag spree. On all counts, it seems that we are a culture moving from decades of "Want It!" to the more realistic "Need It?" Coupon clipping is in again and most people are more worried about whether they're going to have a roof over their heads than whether they're sporting the latest Uggs. It has properly affected every aspect of our lifestyles and, hopefully, our values and priorities. But, inevitably, a change so vast has also affected our relationships.
There seem to be two trends at the same time:
On one hand, with less expendable income, there are less expendable marriages. Our new economic realities may be forcing yet another belt tightening -- or heart tightening -- process: People can no longer afford to get divorced.
One attorney in White Plains, N.Y., Joy Joseph, Esq., has been a specialist in matrimonial law for many years. In the last six years, she has seen a very clear downward trend in the number of divorces:
"For people of moderate means, the economy has had a big impact. It is very expensive to get divorced. Only a part of it is attorney's fees. The bigger part is that the assets are split or devalued in the process. Usually that's the house, in which they have very little equity. Plus there's the risk of losing the partner's health benefits. They're afraid to live uninsured. So, they cling to an unhappy marriage because they can't afford to leave."
The statistics support her observations: A new paper in the B.E. Journal of Economic Analysis and Policy shows that as unemployment rises, the divorce rate goes down: For every 1 percent increase in the unemployment rate, the divorce rate goes down by 1 percent.
On the other hand, the NPR-Kaiser Family Foundation survey suggests that while divorce is down, discord is up. They reported that high unemployment has contributed to ruptures in many families around the country. They state that more than 20 percent of all Americans who have been without work for more than a year claim that their close relationships have suffered. More than 30 percent say their financial difficulties have had a profound negative impact on their partners' health and well-being.
What does this mean for marriages?
Unfortunately, for the truly horrible marriages, it means a forced choice between one hardship and another. I know one woman who has no money, three children, no extended family, and no friends because her violent husband has sequestered her. He has gained control of everything, including the children, through both stealth and steady emotional manipulation. He has made her afraid of leaving even though staying will eventually mean her death. She has begun investigating shelters for her and her children and a life she will have to recreate from the very fundamentals, knowing he may still hunt her down. She stands at this crossroads and trembles.
For others in less dire circumstances, it gets complicated by other matters -- both material and immaterial. A woman I know says it's about money, but as it turns out, she has about $30,000 in a bank account, a good getaway car, jewelry, and a small, discreet dog she can easily take with her in a carrying case. She knows people in other states. So why does she stay with a man who hates her, berates her, and beats her? I asked her point blank and she said it was because she likes her furniture. She's attached to her stuff.
While I know that can be true, I think it's more.
In my experience, a lot of people -- both men and women -- who suffer in abusive relationships do so because they don't know anything else and have no vista for hope. Often they were so painfully damaged by earlier relationships, they were made to feel as if they deserved no better. I think in her case, it is that she truly feels unworthy and doesn't trust her own ability to step away, make new friends, get work, and survive in the world on her own. The stuff is little more than a ready excuse.
Another couple -- two women who have lived together for fifteen years but have nothing between them but a mortgage -- stay because they can't sell their home. It has been on the market for two years and they have lived utterly separate lives during that entire time.
Some experts say that this may be a situation that bodes well for couples whose marriages are in the borderland between functional and finished. Necessity is the mother of invention and, they suggest, the necessity of living together can force people to find ways to do so companionably, work out issues, and perhaps find it in their hearts to love one another in ways they had not imagined before.
I think of the few moments I was angry and fleetingly considered bailing on my marriage --probably the same time my husband considered a similar solution. What made us stand still and work it through? Admittedly, besides occasional pride and obstinacy, our marriage is very stable. Was it just love, then? Surely love was a good part of it, but I don't believe it was all of it. I believe the commitment and the difficulty of feathering apart two completely interwoven lives overrode the momentary instability. In being faced with staying, we had to work at it. Easy? Far from it. Humbling. Frustrating. Wearisome. Not easy.
But eminently worth it for us. The process brought us to an entirely new level of intimacy, validating everything the optimists hope for and all that clergy argue: that most of us take the easy way out far too easily and leave before the miracle happens.
However, the data does not support the optimism when it comes to marriages that are fundamentally unstable or violent. To the contrary -- the current situation should make advocates of domestic violence prevention quite concerned.
If the Great Depression was any indicator, the divorce rate went down, but incidence of violence in the home went up. According to Stephanie Coontz, a historian and professor of women's studies at Evergreen State College, when states began to permit no-fault divorces, domestic violence dropped by 20 to 30 percent and the rate at which husbands were murdered by their wives was significantly lowered. According to her, divorce provides a very necessary "safety valve."
Joy Joseph stated that her experience supported Coontz's conclusion: "As a result of their inability to afford full divorces, people are going to mediation, which can be good if there's something to be saved. But a lot of women get hurt in the bargain because they don't hire their own attorney. They've often stayed home to take care of the kids and the husband is generally the main provider and wields the most power. Despite the social changes of the last 50 years, there's still a great deal of disparity.
"It's not good," she adds. "Financial stressors are one of the biggest reasons people split up. Then couple that with the bad relationship and you've got a real problem."
Coontz and others predict that as the downturn resolves, divorce rates will quickly go back up again, which make some people hopeful.
That statistical prediction strikes me as sad, even if it is necessary or inevitable.
Is it wrong to hope that collectively we can learn something terribly important from this recession? Is it wrong to pray that we begin to realize we are not the things we own, rather the relationships we have and the love we give? While I am certainly not in favor of someone staying in a marriage that puts him or her (or children, especially) at risk, I think it might do us all a bit of good to slow down, to take a bit more time between the fight and the time we scream, "I'm outta here!"