After years of increase, the divorce rate in the United States fell in 2008, a new report shows, and research suggests it may be the result of the recession.
"[M]any couples appear to be developing a new appreciation for the economic and social support that marriage can provide in tough times," W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, says in the 2009 State of Our Unions report. "Thus, one piece of good news emerging from the last two years is that marital stability is up."
The report, which is produced annually, shows that divorce rates in the country decreased from 17.5 in 2007 to 16.9 per 1,000 married women in 2008. Before the drop in the first year of the U.S. recession, the rate had consecutively risen from 16.4 in 2005.
At the same time, credit card debt has declined by $90 billion this past year, possibly contributing to the smaller divorce rate. The report – which seeks to demonstrate that money matters for marriage – points out that credit card debt is "corrosive" and puts a strain on marriage. It especially plays "havoc" in the lives of newly married couples.
The economic downturn has also revived the "home economy," according to the report, with couples eating in more often, growing their own food, and mending their own clothes.
The uptick in thrift has proven to "pay valuable dividends in the quality and stability of married life in the U.S.," Wilcox says.
"In these ways, by fostering a spirit of economic cooperation, family solidarity, and thrift that redounds to the benefit of marriage, the Great Recession appears to offer a silver lining for marriage," he wrote.
Jeffrey Dew, a faculty fellow at the National Marriage Project, says conflict over money matters is one of the most important problems in contemporary married life and predicts divorce better than other types of disagreement.
"Compared with disagreements over other topics, financial disagreements last longer, are more salient to couples, and generate more negative conflict tactics, such as yelling or hitting, especially among husbands," he wrote in a separate report. "Perhaps because they are socialized to be providers, men seem to take financial conflict particularly hard."
That may be reflected in the long run. Though the country may currently be seeing fewer divorces, Wilcox cautions that the long-term consequences of the slower economy could be "profoundly negative" for marriage. Husbands, he says, do not like it when they are clearly displaced as the primary breadwinner in their families. And thus high rates of unemployment are most likely to harm the quality and stability of married life over the long term, he predicts.
Laura Baker, who leads Prasso Ministries, recognizes that divorce may be imminent for many couples who are just waiting until they can afford it. But she challenges couples to use this "waiting" time to try to work on their marriage and get back to having a healthy relationship.
"My hope is that this decline in divorce would turn to healing in the lives of many couples," said Baker, whose ministry encourages men and women to practice the Word of God in their daily lives. "There is hope for relationships if they are put in the hands of an Almighty God."
The report comes as Christians, ministry leaders and pastors are pushing a new movement to reduce the divorce rate and strengthen marriage, beginning with the church reclaiming the power and might of the institution and offering more ministerial support for lay people. Churches across the country united last week to observe National Marriage Week USA.