Kristin Celello: Divorce and the Recession’s “Silver Lining?”

We welcome a guest post from Kristin Celello, author of Making Marriage Work: A History of Marriage and Divorce in the Twentieth-Century United States. Celello also appears in the documentary Divorce Circa 1960s on the DVD and Blu-Ray for Mad Men Season 4, which is being released today. In this post she discusses a recent report on how the current economic recession is affecting marriage and divorce in the United States, and how related trends during and after the Great Depression can inform our understanding of what’s happening now.–ellen

Last week during a discussion with my U.S. history survey class about the Great Depression, I found it more difficult than usual to keep the class on point. The students were genuinely interested in the 1930s, but they could not stop making comparisons between the worst economic crisis in the nation’s history and their personal situations in light of the ongoing recession.  While I cautioned that it was unwise to draw direct parallels between the two situations—the difference in unemployment rate alone makes this case—I may not have done so with adequate conviction.  The problem was that I had recently been thinking about these similarities myself, in light of new statistics about family life published by the University of Virginia’s National Marriage Project (NMP) in their February report “The Great Recession and Marriage.”

Worrying about the stability of marriage and the family has been an American pastime since the colonial era.  The anxieties tend to become more acute, however, in times of perceived crisis or change.  What was surprising about the NMP’s study, therefore, was not its existence, but rather its identification of several “silver linings” in regards to marriage and the current economic climate.  Specifically, the report lauded the fact that a “significant minority” of those couples who had been contemplating divorce prior to the recession had either postponed or decided against terminating their unions. Many husbands and wives also now claimed that the recession “had deepened their commitment to marriage.”

As I read more about these findings, I immediately thought back to the Depression.  I could not help remembering the famous newspaper quip that “many a family that has lost its car has found its soul.”  Indeed, there was a significant school of thought that hard economic times had had an unexpectedly positive effect on marriages.  After all, the divorce rate fell during the 1930s, possibly signaling that couples were willing to do more than usual to make their marriages work.  To be fair, “The Great Recession and Marriage” also stresses that the recession has placed new and troubling strains on American unions.  But, by placing the silver linings at the top of the report, the authors exuded the same kind of “glass half full” confidence about marriage as likeminded commentators had almost eighty years ago.

Most experts during the Depression, however, had a less positive spin on family life.  They pointed out that the birth and marriage rates were down and the desertion rate was up.  They fretted that unemployed men would feel emasculated and become despondent over their inability to support their families.  They worried, too, that women would become so independent that they no longer needed to get married.  Marriage and the family, they prognosticated, were in serious trouble.

I, too, disagree with the positive spin of the NMP’s “silver linings,” but not because I believe in the imminent collapse of the family.  If anything, marriage has proved to be extraordinarily resilient over the course of American history.  Instead, I question whether or not a postponement or cancellation of a divorce is necessarily something to celebrate. The NMP’s statistics do make clear that some couples have redoubled their marital commitment in the midst of financial stress.  But I suspect that others are delaying the end of their unions because, simply, divorce is expensive.  If a couple is so unhappy that they want to end their relationship, is it good for their mental and physical health—as well as the well being of their children and extended family members—if they stay together because they cannot afford to be apart?  Of course, the debate about the effects of marital breakups on children has been ongoing since even before the Great Depression.  I find it hard to imagine that living with financially and emotionally stressed parents is a generally positive experience for their offspring.

If the 1930s is any guide, it is quite possible that this particular “silver lining” will be relatively short-lived.  The divorce rate, in fact, reached new highs in the mid-1940s.  While many of the divorces were the product of brief “war marriages,” a good number of others came from couples who had postponed divorce because of the bad economy.  I would not be surprised if the recovery from our current economic downturn witnesses a similar trend, along with a new outcry about the family’s impending decline.  I think that I will, however, see an uptick in divorce as a silver lining.

Kristin Celello is assistant professor of history at Queens College, CUNY, and author of Making Marriage Work: A History of Marriage and Divorce in the Twentieth-Century United States (2009).  She appears in a documentary, Divorce Circa 1960s, on the new Mad Men Season Four DVD and Blu-Ray.