ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel. And we begin this hour with a paradox. A new survey by NPR and the Kaiser Family Foundation finds that these tough economic times are fraying many marriages - no surprise there. But other researchers have found that the higher the unemployment rate, the lower the divorce rate. NPR science correspondent Shankar Vendantam reports on the relationship between our economy and our marriages.
SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Lindsay Reynolds lives in Waterloo, Wisconsin. Even before the recent economic downturn, Reynolds and her husband struggled to make ends meet.
LINDSAY REYNOLDS: We never had enough income to pay bills, to pay rent. We were constantly late on rent.
VEDANTAM: They quarreled, especially over money.
REYNOLDS: He always wanted to go do things. He always wanted to go buy things. And I said no, we can't. We have to be, you know, fiscally responsible.
VEDANTAM: Reynolds said that after her husband returned from serving in the Iraq War, he found it hard to find work. They kept moving. Each time, she had to uproot herself and start all over again. Increasingly, as the economy turned sour, it became impossible for her to find a decent job. She said the quarrels intensified.
REYNOLDS: The last year of our marriage, it was basically two different people living in the same household.
VEDANTAM: Reynolds was in bad shape. She was losing weight, down from her usual 135 pounds.
REYNOLDS: I got down to 90 pounds. It wasn't something I chose to do. It's not like I purposely starved myself. This was - I could not afford to buy food.
VEDANTAM: She felt she had to get out of the marriage. There was only one problem - filing the paperwork for even a basic divorce cost a few hundred dollars.
REYNOLDS: I couldn't afford to get divorced. It was not an option because I didn't have the money.
VEDANTAM: Reynolds finally saved up enough to file for divorce in 2009. The divorce came through this year. She says she's more stable now, but her experience perfectly illustrates new research that finds the bad economy has had two effects on many marriages. The NPR-Kaiser survey found the nation's high unemployment rate has caused rifts within many families. More than a fifth of all Americans who have been out of work for a year or more report that relationships with intimate partners have changed for the worse. More than a third say their economic situation has negatively affected their partners.
Simultaneously, a new paper in the B.E. Journal of Economic Analysis shows that as unemployment rises, the divorce rate goes down. For every 1 percent increase in the unemployment rate, the divorce rate goes down by 1 percent.
So again, losing a job makes many couples unhappy - and when people find themselves out of work, it becomes harder to get divorced. Experts say there is strong historical precedent for these effects. Stephanie Coontz studies the history of marriage at Evergreen State College in Washington state.
STEPHANIE COONTZ: Economic distress leads couples who may have sort of unhappy marriages, and may have been considering divorce, to pull back from divorce - to think, this would not be a good time to start a major change in our life.
VEDANTAM: The combination of these two forces - more unhappy marriages, and more unhappy couples trapped in marriages - is cause for serious worry.
PHILIP COHEN: My name is Philip Cohen. I'm a sociologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
VEDANTAM: Cohen says that multiple studies have found that the marital distress that comes from money problems, and feeling trapped, is strongly associated with an increased risk of domestic violence. One study, for example, looked at women who showed up in hospital emergency rooms for injuries that were both intentional and non-intentional.
COHEN: When you compare the women who were injured intentionally, and women who were treated for other conditions in the emergency departments, they found that those who were injured intentionally were more likely to have experienced recent unemployment in their families.
VEDANTAM: There is no conclusive evidence that the current economic downturn has produced an increase in domestic violence, but the numbers are staggering. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last week that as many as 1 in 4 women nationwide say they've been physically hurt by their husbands or boyfriends. At the same time, however, Cohen says the overall rates of domestic violence have generally been on the decline. But what's clear, he says, is that unemployment increases the risk of domestic violence.
COHEN: I'm quite confident, from the research on couples and what drives violence within couples, that among those people who are experiencing economic shock or dislocation or unemployment, there is an increased risk of violence. And I would not expect that to be any different during this recession.
VEDANTAM: One woman we spoke with says that describes her own situation. NPR is not using her name because of concerns about her safety.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I am a mother of two children. I currently live in Salt Lake City, Utah.
VEDANTAM: She says she's struggling to make ends meet.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I've been looking steadily for employment and even for menial-type jobs, basic holiday retail. I haven't been able to get hired on yet.
VEDANTAM: The woman is living with her husband, except they're separated. In fact, she moved away from Utah some years ago. When she found she couldn't work and supervise the children on her own, she and her ex came to an agreement. She'd move back to Salt Lake City, and he would help with the kids.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The original plan was, he would continue living with his family, where he had been living for the last three years, and he would come over and be a proactive part of our family, but only on a very part-time basis. And it's turned out to be very opposite. He - he doesn't go home.
VEDANTAM: Just to be clear, there's no question in the woman's mind that the marriage is over. This is not a trial separation.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: There's just not any way for me to go back. Too much damage has been done.
VEDANTAM: The woman says she wants to be on her own, but she can't afford a divorce. A lawyer told her it will cost a few hundred dollars to move a divorce through the courts, assuming everything goes off without a hitch. She can't afford it.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: If I were able to stand on my own economic feet at this time, I would divorce him.
VEDANTAM: The woman told me she's worried her ex may be unstable. He seems depressed.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: He's trying to break his thumb - is his thing right now; is - he keeps trying to injure himself.
VEDANTAM: And she worries about her safety and her kids'.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: There have been absolutely no threats, emotional or physical. But if he's trying to hurt himself and he's being vocal about it, you know, I'm not sure what else he'd be capable of doing if he slipped further into his depression.
VEDANTAM: Historian Stephanie Coontz says she's seen the same patterns over and over again in the last century. During the Great Depression, the divorce rate went down; domestic violence went up. In the 1970s, when states began to permit no-fault divorces, this had an immediate effect on domestic violence.
COONTZ: In the first five years after the adoption of no-fault divorce, divorce rates did, indeed, rise. But domestic violence rates fell by about 20 to 30 percent, and wives' suicide rates fell by 8 to 13 percent. So we know that divorce actually provides a safety valve.
VEDANTAM: Women were not the only beneficiaries.
COONTZ: It also has reduced the rate at which husbands are murdered by their wives, so it's been a lifesaver for some men as well.
VEDANTAM: Coontz predicts that when the current downturn ends, we will see exactly what happened after the Great Depression.
COONTZ: Couples that have postponed this, or even one individual in a couple who has postponed seeking a divorce because of the financial recession, is going to feel much more enabled to get that divorce afterwards.
VEDANTAM: As the Great Depression lifted and more people found jobs, history shows the divorce rate went back up. Shankar Vedantam, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.