The value of the marriage bond in times of crisis

Peter Jon MitchellHeadlines warn that Canadian family courts will be overwhelmed with couples seeking post-COVID-19 divorces. But Canadian marriages won’t just survive the COVID-19 crisis. They’ll thrive.

Here’s why:

Most couples will lean into their relationships, not pull back.

The lockdown has caused significant stress on families around finances, educating children and caring for family members while planning for an uncertain future.

As we face those challenges, it’s quite natural that we’ll turn to those closest to us in order to adapt to new routines around household tasks, care-giving responsibilities and paid work from home.

Sure, it’s stressful – especially if there’s job or income loss. But our experience amid the stress and challenge highlights the important bonds we have within our families.

Perhaps that’s one reason why we’ve seen divorce drop during times of extreme economic stress.

In fact, the Canadian Marriage Map, which Cardus compiled, shows estimates in the U.S. and Canada that suggest divorce rates remained stable or even declined following the 2008 recession. The same is true of the Great Depression in the 1930s, though social norms around divorce were more restrictive then.

Sure, the cost of divorce and the lingering financial implications are deterrents in a bad economy, but the shutdown will provide a buffer period for some couples to reconcile.

For some couples, the additional strain of finances and physical isolation will worsen pre-existing relational tensions at a time when resources are  more scarce.

For others, isolation increases the risk of violence – a problem we can’t ignore.

Thankfully, according to Psychology Today, most couples surveyed say they expect their relationships to either improve (51 per cent) or remain unchanged (46 per cent). That’s not surprising, really. The permanency of the marriage commitment serves as the foundation for negotiating the adjustments many families are making.

In fact, that’s a good reminder that marriage runs much deeper than as a means to personal fulfilment. It’s an economic and domestic tag team for the benefit of adults and their children. It requires voluntarily adhering to boundaries for the sake of the whole. The result is increased stability that’s a valuable commodity in the time of crisis.

So while there may be a backlog of divorce proceedings because of the lockdown, we likely won’t see an overall surge in divorce.

There’s another reason to expect marriage to thrive post-lockdown.

People are still marrying despite the limitations of the day. While the proportion of Canadians marrying has been declining for decades, various polls show that Canadians remain fairly positive about marriage, even as there are fewer social expectations on couples to get married.

As the Canadian Marriage Map records, nearly 60 per cent of Canadians believe marriage is a more genuine form of commitment than common-law relationships. We know this intuitively, given that some couples forgo marriage because they’re not ready for the commitment. (That also means marriage has a lower risk of break-up compared to cohabiting couples.)

The sense of stability is one reason married couples are more likely than their cohabiting peers to pool financial resources and leverage these resources towards investment and savings.

Granted, today’s poor economy will be a deterrent for some couples.

Yet many couples have gone ahead with weddings – or even married before their planned date – during the pandemic rather than wait out the shutdown. Couples are creatively engaging with family and friends over video conferencing for a fraction of the cost of hosting a large event.

This doesn’t mean live-stream weddings are here to stay. But the pandemic may alter cultural expectations around the big day, striking a blow against the wedding industrial complex.

If anything, a shift away from expensive weddings would reduce economic barriers for some couples and leave others in better financial shape after the guests have gone home.

Should we see a cultural shift in how couples conceptualize entering a marriage, this could be a significant win for marriage relationships.

While the pandemic will have an adverse impact on some marriages, and those who were already struggling prior to the lockdown, other couples will lean in.

The crisis spotlights the function of marriage beyond thin notions of personal fulfilment. Marriage is a stabilizing bond within a network of extended family and social relationships.

Marriage isn’t a cakewalk for everyone.

But the crisis will highlight the value of this bond in ways that might pleasantly surprise us.

Peter Jon Mitchell is the acting Family Program director at the think-tank Cardus. He has spent over a decade researching Canadian families and his work includes the Canadian Marriage Map, the report Living la Vida Lonely, and other projects.

© Troy Media


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