STATS ARTICLES 2011
Married with correlates
Cindy Merrick, February 14, 2010
Let not to a new study of marriage in the U.S. admit statistical rigor
It’s Valentine’s Day again, and America is in the throes of its annual chocolate-and-roses, relationship-and-romance frenzy. To which the media is only too happy to contribute. This year sees a big boost to the whirlwind of polls, surveys and advice columns targeting lover and lovelorn alike: the pairing of National Marriage Week with the University of Virginia’s National Marriage Project.
Every year, National Marriage Week culminates with Valentine’s Day. It is a joint effort by dozens of marriage organizations in the U.S. with the goal of strengthening individual marriages and reducing the divorce rate. This year, their cause is bolstered by the National Marriage Project’s timely release of a new report, The Great Recession and Marriage, which draws from a study of married couples about their financial and marital stresses during the recent recession.
From December 2010 through January of 2011, the National Marriage Project’s surveyed 1,197 married Americans between the ages of 18 and 45, quantifying financial hardship and its stresses. The report concludes that there are two “silver linings:” Many married people are said to have “deepened their commitment” to marriage as a result of the recession, and some say the recession had caused them to postpone divorce or separation.
Media coverage spun each “silver lining” into good or ill tidings. Fox News chose the former with the headline “In a Bad Economy Couples Love the One They're With -- And That's a Good Thing,” while the Examiner went with “Recession saves marriage, curbs Valentine's Day cheating” (Is Valentine’s Day really the day to cheat on your partner?). Heralding the oncoming storm was The Huffington Post’s seo-optimized headline “Recession Divorce Rates: Marital Unions Unraveling As Economy Bounces Back?” and NPR’s “For Some Couples, Economic Indicators Say Split.” Still, all agreed on the fundamental data and what it meant: divorce rates went down during the recession but are rising as the nation experiences economic recovery; straightened times, it appears, provide fiduciary incentives for fidelity.
But to this marriage of data and interpretation we should admit some impediments. First, missing from the report is a clearly established set of dates over which the “The Great Recession” is defined. The lack of a clear time period brings into question the causal relationship between the recession and the report’s overall rates of financial and marital stressors such as unemployment or reduced pay, and anxiety over bill-paying (is bill-paying ever stress free?). Both stressors were claimed by about one third of respondents.
But more significantly, while the report claims to have a “nationally representative population,” it only interviewed married people. This does more than just remove the snap from a headline like The Examiner’s. It removes all credibility from statements like “29 percent of Americans believe the most recent recession deepened their commitment to marriage,” and “thirty eight percent of couples who were considering divorce or separation have now put off those plans due to the recession.” For these claims to be true, they have to account for ALL couples who were married at the beginning of the recession. Where is the measure of Americans who got divorced as a result of, or even in spite of, the recession?
One may also question whether staying married is a “silver lining” for those who would, if financially better off, have gotten divorced. If marriage at all costs is a social good, then yes; but this trivializes the reasons why marriages fail or succeed.
While the report uncovers some interesting social phenomena – what it points to is the need for deeper study. For instance, of the 38 percent of respondents who considered, but postponed, divorce, how many will remain married? And how will their decisions correlate with other social outcomes, such as the success of their children (if they had children)? Unfortunately, the correlations often cited as benefits for married people – the latest, according to the CDC (February, 2010), include living longer and have higher rates of insurance coverage –are far more complex than just measuring whether two people stay married or not.