Economic slumps don’t just do damage to people’s bank accounts; they also can strain American families. During the Great Depression, husbands grew more difficult, tense, and irritable toward their wives. The Farm Crisis of the 1980s was also linked to increased marital fighting, harsher parenting, and more stress among children.
Now that the American economy has emerged from the Great Recession, there is new research that looks at its impact on the quality of the country’s relationships. Its findings are not encouraging. Daniel Schneider, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley, found that among mothers in heterosexual relationships, those who lived in areas hit harder by drops in employment rates during the Great Recession experienced higher rates of domestic violence and controlling behavior.
He and his colleagues used data from a survey that followed more than 4,000 mothers from 2001 to 2010, which included interviews about their finances and their romantic relationships. The researchers were tracking two things: abusive or controlling behavior and economic conditions, both personal and local. To measure abusive and controlling behavior, they asked if the women’s romantic partners had tried to keep them from seeing friends and family, tried to prevent them from going to school or work, withheld or took money from them, or slapped, kicked, hit, or sexually assaulted them. To track the economic conditions, the researchers gathered data about changes in local unemployment rates in the 20 cities where these mothers lived, as a proxy for the general economic uncertainty in their areas, and additionally asked the women about their household finances. The study, published earlier this year in the journal Demography, showed that mothers experiencing economic hardship—such as struggling to pay for food, rent, and health care—were four times as likely to experience violent behavior from their partners and twice as likely to experience controlling behavior than mothers who did not report such hardship.