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Is the Unemployment Rate Tied to the Divorce Rate?

If you’re like most people, you probably read the question posed in the title of this article and thought, “Of course!” And you would be right—there is indeed a statistical association between the unemployment rate and the divorce rate. But what is the nature of that association? Is unemployment related to an increase or a decrease in the number of divorces? Unfortunately, that question is somewhat more difficult to answer. So far this year, scientists have released two studies on this topic and have come to two seeming different conclusions. 

The first study considers government data from all 50 U.S. states between the years 1960 and 2005.1 The researchers predicted that higher unemployment numbers would translate to more divorces among heterosexual married couples. Most of us probably would have predicted this too based on common sense—you would probably expect your partner to be able to hold down a job, right? And indeed, this was the case, but only before 1980. Surprisingly, since then, as joblessness has increased, divorce rates have actually decreased.

How do we explain this counterintuitive finding? We don’t know for sure, but the researchers speculate that unemployed people may delay or postpone divorce due to the high costs associated with it. Not only is divorce expensive in terms of legal fees, but afterward, partners need to pay for two houses instead of one. And if they are still living off of one salary at that point, those costs may be prohibitively expensive. For this reason, it is not that uncommon to hear about estranged couples who can’t stand each other but are still living under the same roof. 

The second study considered data from a national probability sample of over 3,600 heterosexual married couples in the U.S. collected between 1987 and 2002. However, instead of looking at the overall association between unemployment and marital outcomes, they considered how gender and relationship satisfaction factored into the equation.2 They also looked at marital breakup more generally, focusing on when couples decided to end their relationships (not necessarily if or when they got divorced). Their findings revealed that when men were unemployed, the likelihood that either spouse would leave the marriage increased. What about the woman’s employment status? For husbands, whether their wife was employed or not was seemingly unimportant—it was unrelated to their decision to leave the relationship. It did seem to matter for wives, though, but it depended upon how satisfied they were with the marriage. When women were highly satisfied, they were inclined to stay with their partner regardless of whether they had employment. However, when the wife’s satisfaction was low, she was more likely to exit the relationship, but only when she had a job.

So are the results of these studies compatible? Keep in mind that although each was looking at the same basic question (i.e., Does (un)employment status affect marital outcomes?), they used very different methods, measures, and samples to address it. Perhaps the biggest difference was that the first study was very narrowly focused on divorce, while the second study defined breakup very broadly. When you put them together, the conclusion seems to be that unemployment (particularly among husbands) has negative implications for marital quality, but divorce does not necessarily occur unless the couple can afford it.

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1Amato, P. R., & Beattie, B. (2011). Does the unemployment rate affect the divorce rate? An analysis of state data 1960-2005. Social Science Research, 40, 705-715.

2Sayer, L. C., England, P., Allison, P. D., & Kangas, N. (2011). She left, he left: How employment and satisfaction affect women’s and men’s decisions to leave marriages. American Journal of Sociology, 116, 1982-2018.

Dr. Justin Lehmiller - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Lehmiller's research program focuses on how secrecy and stigmatization impact relationship quality and physical and psychological health. He also conducts research on commitment, sexuality, and safer-sex practices.

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Reader Comments (1)

Very good post and it has very interesting details.

March 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAshley Lesley
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