American Marriage in the Time of the Recession

Women who lived in areas that suffered the brunt of the downturn, new research suggests, were more likely to be abused by their partners.

Gary Hershorn / Reuters

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.

After controlling for the women’s race, education, and number of children, Schneider and his colleagues found that in places where the unemployment rate rose by 50 percent during the previous 12 months, the prevalence of abuse jumped from 10 percent of respondents reporting it to 12 percent reporting it—an increase of 20 percent. In places where unemployment doubled during that time, the prevalence rose to 14 percent—an increase of 40 percent. Schneider says that rapid spikes in unemployment “generate a general climate of fear and uncertainty” in society as a whole, not just among those who lose their jobs. This anxiety, which is most common during large economic downturns like the Great Recession, appears to have “a strong impact on relationship dynamics and … this impact may operate in particularly gendered ways by threatening men’s sense of control in the economic domain,” Schneider writes.

Separately, Schneider has published results indicating that for white women and women with some college education, sharp spikes in unemployment increased the chances of being abused more than such spikes did for nonwhite women and women without any college education, though these results were not included in the published article in Demography. This is likely because the white and/or well educated tend to be less experienced in coping with financial uncertainty. “As compared with their more advantaged counterparts, individuals who had experienced unemployment in the past were better able to adapt and their relationships were less disrupted by the hardships created by the Great Depression,” Schneider writes.  (However, women of color on average experience abuse from their partners more often to begin with.)

The recession is associated with another familial shift: American couples had fewer children. About half a million fewer babies were born in the United States during the recession than would have been during a more stable time, possibly because of so many would-be parents’ financial uncertainties.

Schneider’s Demography study did have its limits. For one thing, it measured economic uncertainty through changes in unemployment rates, though there are other factors that also contribute to households’ financial anxiety. The study also focused only on mothers, so the results do not capture the experiences of women without children. It also didn’t examine homosexual relationships or any abusive behavior inflicted by women on their male partners, as men in the survey were not asked the same set of questions about partner violence.

Nevertheless, the study shows a strong link between experiencing the worst of the recession and experiencing abuse and controlling behavior—an alarming development that carries over into other realms, harming women’s health and job prospects. “[The recession] was a big shock to American households and it really took a toll” on relationships, Schneider says, and, he added, for the children of those relationships: The thousands of women in this study all have kids, many of whom likely witnessed much of the conflict firsthand.