The economic crisis may be doing what pastors, family therapists and matrimonial counselors have long struggled to accomplish: keeping troubled marriages together.
Marriage counselors and divorce lawyers nationwide say more distressed couples are putting off divorce because the cost of splitting up is prohibitive in a time of stagnant salaries, plummeting home values and rising unemployment.
While the stress of economic uncertainty often worsens already shaky unions, it also can make couples more financially dependent on each other, said Pamela Smock, a researcher at the Population Studies Center at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
“Anything of this magnitude that’s going to affect millions of people does not bode well for all sorts of families,” she said. “It could keep unhappy couples together.”
That’s what happened to a client of Robi S. Ludwig, a psychotherapist in New York.
“I had a woman say to me: ‘My God, I can’t stand my husband. Every day I just want to leave him, but I can’t afford it,’” said Ludwig, co-author of “Till Death Do Us Part,” an examination of severely dysfunctional marriages. “So they are deciding to stay together.”
Jeff Grumley, a marriage counselor in Loves Park, Ill., north of Rockford, said he had seen a 25 percent jump in business in recent months as couples tried to save their marriages, and their money. Ten sessions cost about $1,000, Grumley said — not exactly pocket change, but far better than the tens of thousands of dollars a divorce costs.
“I think people feel desperate,” Grumley said.
2 households? ‘They can barely pay for one’
Divorces have always been expensive. For a contested proceeding that goes to court, a couple with at least one child can expect a divorce to cost anywhere from $53,000 to $188,000, according to calculations based on census data by the Web site Divorce360, which factored in attorneys’ fees, financial advice, counseling and real-estate costs for buying or renting separate homes.
Often many of those expenses are recovered when a couple sells their home and divides the proceeds. But the disastrous real-estate market is leaving many homeowners owing more on their mortgages than their properties are worth — turning what would normally be their biggest marital asset into a liability.
“They also can’t go out and get a credit card or personal loan to pay attorney fees or to even try and find a piece of real estate because the lending market is tightening down on them,” said Kevin Hughes, a criminal and family lawyer in Cincinnati.
The evidence for a decline in divorces is primarily anecdotal, because national marriage and divorce statistics for 2008 aren’t available. But in some jurisdictions that report semi-annual figures, the trend is being borne out.
In Chicago, the Cook County Circuit Court system reported that divorce and separation filings fell by 600 — or roughly 5 percent — during the first nine months of the year, compared to the same period last year. Comparable drops have been reported in Fresno County, Calif., and Comanche County, Okla.
In South Florida, where the condominium-heavy Miami area has been described as ground zero of the mortgage crisis, Miami-Dade County reported an 18 percent drop in divorce filings from January to May, compared to the same period last year. Perhaps not coincidentally, average real-estate prices in the area fell about 20 percent over the same period.
“What the judicial officers are telling us is that people who do come in are saying they can’t afford the cost of splitting up and going into two households — they can barely pay for the one,” said Scott L. Rubin, a marital and family lawyer in Miami who is chairman of the Family Law Section of the Florida Bar.
“The housing market is down, it’s hard to sell, and when you can sell, you’re selling it at a depressed price, so a lot of people are deciding ... 'It’s not worth it to do it (at) this time. Let’s stay together. Let’s try to work through our problems and hope that the economy will spring back,'" Rubin said.
2008 downturn a reversal of history
Historically, divorce rates tend to rise during tough economic times, counselors and lawyers said, citing a 17 percent spike in divorces during the 1997 recession. But what makes this downturn different is its severity, they speculate.
That view draws support from the fact that a decline in divorces also was observed from 1930 to 1935, during the depths of the Great Depression, according to Census figures.
Divorce rates “weren’t high, but they went down,” said Jay D. Teachman, a professor of sociology at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash., who has studied the period. “People couldn’t afford to divorce.”
Today, with housing prices so low, it’s again cheaper for couples to “work out your differences now,” said Clinton J. David, a lawyer specializing in complex business transactions in Dallas.
“Instead of you and your soon-to-be ex-spouse fighting over how to divide up the profits from the sale (of a home), you could actually, unfortunately, end up fighting over who’s going to pay off the lender because the loan on the home is actually more than the value,” he said.
For divorce lawyers, the economic slump is beginning to have a real impact. In a nationwide survey of divorce lawyers by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, 37 percent reported a drop in divorce cases during the recent tough economic times, nearly twice the 19 percent who said their business had grown. The rest cited little or no change.
“These folks are just scared, and they can’t go through with the divorce process, so yeah, they’re staying together,” said Hughes, the family lawyer in Cincinnati. “They’re staying together to try and make it work, but unfortunately living as an unhappy married couple.”