January is nicknamed Divorce Month, when couples split after one last holiday season. It turns out, though, that pandemic stress isn’t making this year’s numbers worse. Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, says COVID-19 has actually reduced the divorce rate.
Can you tell me about the state of marriage and divorce before the pandemic?
There was sort of good news and bad news as we headed into COVID in early 2020. The good news is that marriage has been stabilizing. Most marriages are reported to be happy, and the share of intact married families has been ticking upwards in recent years. The bad news is that divorce is still much higher than it was prior to the late 1960s. We’ve also seen the share of Americans getting married and having kids falling to record lows.
What do the most recent data tell us about the state of marriage and divorce now that we’re almost two years into the pandemic?
In the face of trauma or tragedy, the response that people often have is to turn to close family and friends. Surveys done in 2020 confirmed an increase in commitment and gratitude in marriages. We saw that people had a stronger sense that being married was important to them. We also saw divorce come down. This is consistent with the idea that people facing a massive social trauma do not respond by jettisoning or abandoning their spouse or family. COVID kind of supercharged existing family trends: more selectivity in marriage and more stability, but also fewer people entering into marriage.
Married people with kids are having a much different pandemic experience from married people who don’t have kids. How do children play into these trends?
The picture heading into COVID was that parents were happier than childless Americans. We see that same pattern with surveys conducted this summer. Parents are more likely to report happiness and having meaningful lives, and less likely to report that they’re lonely. This is true for both married and unmarried parents. In a world that is in some ways more alienated, kids can draw you into local community in ways that are deeply meaningful.
Do you think the pandemic has been detrimental or beneficial to marriage?
It’s been a little bit harder on marriage. Interest in marriage has been relatively robust for more conservative, affluent, and religious Americans, but less so for middle- and lower-income Americans, as well as for liberal and more secular Americans. There are a variety of cultural and economic currents that have potentially diminished many Americans’ confidence in getting married and having children.