THURSDAY, Feb. 10 (HealthDay News) -- While money problems sometimes strain a marriage, the opposite may also hold true: More than one-quarter of married Americans polled in a recent survey said the current recession has strengthened their union.
University of Virginia researchers found that the recession "deepened" the commitment to marriage for 29 percent of the people surveyed. Among those considering divorce before the economic slump, 38 percent said they opted to stay together, at least temporarily, because of the downturn.
"In the face of a major trauma, in this case financial, some people are hurt by it in ways that have a long-lasting effect," said Bradford Wilcox, director of the university's National Marriage Project. "Other people are more resilient and grow stronger. I think that's what is happening here with marriage."
Between December 2010 and January 2011, researchers surveyed a representative sample of 1,197 married Americans, aged 18 to 45. Five percent said they were considering divorce before the economy tanked in 2008.
Exactly how many marriages have been saved is unknown, but the U.S. divorce rate fell 7 percent between 2006 and 2009, said Wilcox, who is also a sociology professor at the university.
Financial difficulties are widespread, the researchers found, with about one-third of participants reporting they worried "often or almost all the time" about paying their bills. Problems with home foreclosures and making mortgage payments affected 12 percent of the participants. Unemployment, pay cuts or reduced work hours affected 29 percent, according to the survey. More than half had at least one of these financial stresses, and 20 percent reported two or three.
Overall, 13 percent said the recession did not deepen their commitment to marriage, and 58 percent neither agreed nor disagreed with the statement "the recession has deepened my commitment to my marriage."
"But the silver lining is that it seems to have deepened ties to one another and to the marriage" for many couples, said Wilcox.
Still, those who have weathered the recession will little or no financial stress reported happier marriages than those reporting several financial stressors -- 43 percent versus 27 percent.
To assess divorce risk, the researchers measured responses regarding the likelihood of a breakup, on a scale of one to 10. Those who answered 5 or more were deemed to be at high risk. Among the couples who felt the recession strengthened their marriages, about 5 percent are at a high risk for divorce, compared to one-quarter of those who disagreed with that statement, the researchers said. (Today, about 42 percent of first marriages end in divorce, Wilcox noted.)
The survey also suggests that education and religion contribute to a successful marriage. College grads were less likely to say the recession hurt them financially than those without a college degree, and they also had half the risk of divorce (7 percent) compared with those without a college education (14 percent).
Similarly, one-quarter of couples who regularly attend religious services reported recession-related economic stress compared with 31 percent of those without strong religious ties. Religious couples also were more likely (44 percent) than others (35 percent) to report a very happy marriage.
E. Jeffrey Hill, an associate professor of family life at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, said it's common knowledge that money problems disrupt marriages. But "it is how stress is dealt with," not economic woes themselves, that portend divorce, he said.
"Many couples who have financial problems maintain their marriages 'through sickness, and health' because they are committed to the marriage and give it every opportunity to succeed," said Hill.
"There is some unhappiness in all marriages," said Hill. "If you have a commitment you can weather the storm and be around for the sunshine." Some marriages might not be salvageable, such as those involving abuse or drug use, he noted.
Hill and Wilcox said organized religion has been linked in past research to stronger ties. The support and "the social aspect" involved in attending services is important in helping couples survive, Wilcox suggested.
"It's important for couples who have financial stress to reach out to family members and friends, and other institutions, and get some support rather than try to handle it on their own" said Wilcox.
The U.S. Administration for Children & Families outlines the benefits of a healthy marriage.
SOURCES: Bradford Wilcox, director, National Marriage Project, professor, sociology, University of Virginia, Charlottesville; E. Jeffrey Hill, Ph.D., associate professor, Department of Family Life, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah; February 2011, National Marriage Project's Survey of Marital Generosity
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