My mostly married, mostly professional social circle seems especially well placed to weather the coronavirus storm. Their good fortune is buttressed by data: Married couples entered the pandemic healthier and wealthier than their unmarried peers, which may help explain why counties with more married households have seen fewer infections. Domestic violence is less common among spouses than unmarried partners, and married adults have reported fewer feelings of loneliness than those who are single, divorced, separated, or cohabiting. Married couples also tend to live in single-family homes, which makes any kind of quarantine more bearable.
Read: The pandemic’s long-lasting effects on weddings
While the pandemic has made things harder for just about everyone, being married seems to have made the new normal more manageable. Yet a declining share of Americans enjoy the perks of wedlock. In 2018, the number of adults getting hitched reached its lowest point in more than a century, and the coronavirus threatens to depress these numbers further. As the poor face disease, unemployment, and eviction, and as the risk of infection keeps many single people from pursuing new relationships, marriage in the United States will probably become an even more unlikely and unequal institution.
Some marriage advocates hope that COVID-19, in the long run, will inspire more people to trade vows as a kind of insurance against uncertainty. “I think every family affected by this will recognize the merits of having two parents instead of one,” W. Bradford Wilcox, a sociology professor at the University of Virginia and the director of the National Marriage Project, told me. He predicts that the crisis will lead couples to reassess their priorities and work harder to create stable homes for their children. “The whole adult-centered, me-first model of family life died on March 13th. What will emerge is a kind of family-first model of marriage, where kids and kin are paramount.”
Talk of fortifying unions and sturdy kinship bonds might sound pragmatic at a time when the government and the economy have failed so many Americans. But pointing to the stability of married couples to highlight the benefits of marriage makes a fundamental mistake of causation. In America today, people aren’t more privileged because they’re married; they’re married because they’re more privileged.
Most Americans of all demographics aspire to be married one day, but even before the pandemic, the prospect for many felt all too remote. Up until the 1970s, American families looked similar across socioeconomic levels. But with the rise of globalization, the decline of unions, and the shift from a manufacturing to a service-based economy, there’s been a sharp fall in good jobs for Americans without a college degree. The work available has grown more precarious, with less money and fewer benefits such as health care and paid leave. These changes have helped create a class divide in marriage.