Ana Fostik explores the family impacts of uncertainty and economic downturn on couple relationships in Canada.
Ana Fostik, PhD
October 9, 2020
When workplaces and schools closed in March 2020 to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, family life across Canada was profoundly affected. These unique circumstances increased pressure on couples, many of whom found themselves together 24/7 – sometimes with children – while quickly adapting their homes into shared workspaces and/or learning environments. In addition to ongoing uncertainties and anxieties related to the coronavirus itself, these sudden and major adjustments in work and family life led some to wonder whether the impacts of COVID-19 might lead to increased rates of separation and divorce.
Millions of families stayed at home for weeks due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For many parents of school-aged children, this meant homeschooling their children while also working from home, with everyone sharing resources (e.g. desk space, Internet bandwidth). For others, it meant facing unemployment and/or reduced income while spending far more time than usual with their partner or spouse. Among heterosexual couples, inequality in gender roles within the household could also be magnified in a context where they are spending more time together: conflicts over the distribution of paid and unpaid work could thereby arise, particularly for those homeschooling children while continuing paid work from home.
COVID-19 contexts can have diverse impacts on couples
Research has shown that periods of stress can increase tension in couple relationships, with economic hardship having been identified as a source of conflict among couples (married and cohabiting).1 Since COVID-19 has had an impact on the labour market and family finances across the country, this may lead to an increase in the dissolution of couples.
When asked about the possible effects of the pandemic on the stability of couple relationships, Céline Le Bourdais, Distinguished James McGill Professor of Sociology, says there is potential for both positive and negative impacts on couples.2 For those who had little time to spend together prior to the enactment of public health measures and mobility restrictions, she suggests there could be a positive effect on their relationship if the pandemic led to both partners starting to work from home – provided both have access to adequate resources and the space to do so. For others, however, confinement at home in this uncertain context may have created new tensions and/or amplified previous conflicts.
This may be particularly true for couples and families with limited space at home and for those with low incomes. Le Bourdais also points out that the pandemic may have made life as a couple more difficult for those “living apart together,” that is, couples whose members live in separate dwellings (which includes 9% of people aged 25 to 64 in couples in 2017).3 This could have been particularly challenging if their homes were in different regions between which movements were restricted under public health measures.
According to Benoît Laplante, professor of family demography at the Institut national de la recherche scientifique in Montreal, “Tension will certainly increase among couples, but it’s difficult to say whether this will swiftly lead to break-ups in a situation in which it is challenging to move, get a new apartment or put one’s house up for sale.”4 In other words, while increased stress and conflict at home may increase the likelihood that couples consider separation or divorce, societal and economic conditions may have made the dissolution of their union logistically difficult.
Unemployment and union instability: a complex relationship
One of the significant impacts of the lockdowns is that unemployment rates have hit levels never seen by current generations, reaching 14% of adults in the labour market in May 2020.5 Previous research has highlighted a seemingly contradictory effect of unemployment on union stability: on average, the chances of a couple separating increase when one partner becomes unemployed. (Among heterosexual couples, this occurs particularly when the male partner becomes unemployed.) However, in the context of overall high levels of unemployment in society, separation and divorce rates have been found to stagnate or even decline.
Research in 30 European countries and the United States between 2004 and 2014 clearly showed that when men in heterosexual couples become unemployed, their chances of divorce increased.6, 7 Research conducted in the United States between 1980 and 2005 showed that state-level unemployment rates were negatively associated with separation and divorce (controlling for several characteristics of each state and for period effects).8 In other words, as state unemployment in the states increased, the level of separations and divorces decreased.
For a slightly different time period (1976 to 2009), but also for the United States, Hellerstein and Sandler Morrill quantified the negative effect of unemployment on the divorce rate at the state level, finding that a 1 percentage point increase in unemployment is associated with a 1% decrease in the divorce rate.9
Similar results were found for 29 European countries from 1991 to 2012: an increase in unemployment was associated with a decrease of the divorce rate in these countries (controlling for several variables at the individual and national level), although the magnitude of the effect was not large – representing about 1.2% of the average divorce rate during that period.10 However, another study exploring trends in Canada between 1976 and 2011 among people aged 25 to 64 did not find such an association between unemployment rates and divorce and separation.
Many separations and divorces delayed in difficult economic times
What may seem at first like a paradox – decreasing divorce rates in tough economic times, when couples would be seeing increased stress – could be in part due to the cost of divorce or related aspects of ending a couple relationship.
One study that analyzed the effect of income levels on the probability of divorce in the United States between 1979 and 2009 found that as incomes increased, the incidence of divorce in each state also increased.11 More recent findings for the United States show that divorce rates in the country declined during the Great Recession of 2008: over the period from 2009 to 2011, researchers estimated that about 4% of divorces that would have otherwise occurred did not occur – but afterwards, the divorce rate returned to its previous level.12 This could mean that divorces were simply postponed in times of financial hardship, not foregone.13 Researchers thus presume that the cost of divorce (e.g. legal fees, need for new housing or loss of income within the household) is too high in adverse economic circumstances for many people to pursue separation or divorce.14
During the Great Depression of 1929, there was also a decline in divorce rates (between 1930 and 1933) and a subsequent surge (from 1934 well until the mid 1940s),15 which sociologist and family demographer Andrew Cherlin has interpreted as a postponement due to financial reasons.16 Indeed, divorce rates in any given year are influenced by the timing of divorce; therefore, any observed decline in divorce rates could simply indicate a postponement of separations in times of financial hardship,17 as individuals face uncertainty regarding their future economic and financial prospects. A study on the links between the business cycles and the divorce rate in the United States from 1978 to 2009 concluded that the negative effects of recessions on divorce in that country were indeed temporary rather than permanent.18
Empirical evidence thus points to a connection between the economy and divorce behaviour: when the economy stagnates or is in a downturn period, so do divorce and separation rates. This is particularly true in countries where divorce rates were already high before the economic downturn.19 This might mean that people’s perception of the state of the economy affects their decisions to divorce or separate, even if they are not directly affected by the economic shock.20
New research to shed light on complex impacts on family life
When asked about how things may play out for couples across Canada, Laplante says, “It’s very difficult to know.” While there may be increased conflict, this doesn’t necessarily mean more people will separate or divorce – at least in the short term – as couples in Canada have experienced the same kind of economic strain as in the United States during the 2008 recession. He notes that in the United States, fewer couples separated during that period because many could not afford to separate, partly because of a shared mortgage.
To address this knowledge gap, Laplante is working on a project through which he hopes to estimate whether changes in household composition, including the departure of a spouse or partner, were higher after March 2020 than in preceding years in Canada. He compares his endeavour to that of estimating excess mortality during the COVID-19 period to assess the magnitude of the pandemic. Similarly, he will be assessing whether “excess or fewer break-ups” are observed in Canada during the pandemic period compared with previous years.
Relationships, like families, are diverse and complex, and couples have been adapting and reacting to unique and continuously evolving circumstances throughout 2020 – sometimes while raising children. While it remains too early to get a clear picture of the overall impact of COVID-19 on separation and divorce rates in Canada, new research will continue to guide those who study, serve and support families.
Ana Fostik, PhD, Vanier Institute on secondment from Statistics Canada
- J. Halliday Hardie and A. Lucas, “Economic Factors and Relationship Quality Among Young Couples: Comparing Cohabitation and Marriage,” Journal of Marriage and Family 72, no. 5 (2010): 1141–1154.
- Le Bourdais (June 17, 2020). Personal communication [email].
- Statistics Canada, “Family Matters: Couples Who Live Apart,” Infographics, Statistics Canada catalogue no. 11-627-M. Link: https://bit.ly/2Ru9Hb7.
- B. Laplante (May 26, 2020). Personal interview. Edited for clarity.
- Statistics Canada, “Labour Force Survey, May 2020,” The Daily (June5, 2020). Link: https://bit.ly/31kDFo7.
- P. Gonalons Pons and M. Gangl, Why Does Unemployment Lead to Divorce? Male-Breadwinner Norms and Divorce Risk in 30 Countries (CORRODE Working Paper) (Frankfurt: Goethe University, 2018). Link: https://bit.ly/2F2QE5f (PDF).
- H. Ariizumi, Y. Hu and T. Schirle, “Stand Together or Alone? Family Structure and the Business Cycle in Canada,” Review of Economics of the Household 13, no. 1 (2015): 135–161.
- P. Amato and B. Beattie, “Does the Unemployment Rate Affect the Divorce Rate? An Analysis of State Data 1960–2005,” Social Science Research 40(3) (2011): 705–715.
- J. K. Hellerstein and M. Sandler Morrill, “Booms, Busts, and Divorce,” The B.E. Journal of Economic Analysis & Policy 11, no. 1 (2011).
- R. González-Val and M. Marcén, “Divorce and the Business Cycle: A Cross-Country Analysis,” Review of Economics of the Household 15, no. 3 (2017): 879–904.
- A. Chowdhury, “’Til Recession Do Us Part’: Booms, Busts and Divorce in the United States,” Applied Economics Letters 20(3) (2013): 255–261.
- P. N. Cohen, “Recession and Divorce in the United States, 2008–2011,” Population Research and Policy Review 33, no. 5 (2014).
- B. Ambrosino, “Recent U.S. Divorce Rate Trend Has ‘Faint Echo’ of Depression-Era Pattern,” John Hopkins University (2014). Link: https://bit.ly/2Pgln0h.
- P. Amato and B. Beattie, “Does the Unemployment Rate Affect the Divorce Rate? An Analysis of State Data 1960–2005.”
- R. Schoen and V. Canudas-Romo, “Timing Effects on Divorce: 20th Century Experience in the United States,” Journal of Marriage and Family 68, no. 3 (2006): 749–758.
- Ambrosino, “Recent U.S. Divorce Rate Trend Has ‘Faint Echo’ of Depression-Era Pattern.”
- Schoen and Canudas-Romo, “Timing Effects on Divorce: 20th Century Experience in the United States.”
- J. Schaller, “For Richer, If Not for Poorer? Marriage and Divorce Over the Business Cycle,” Journal of Population Economics 26, no. 3 (2013): 1007–1033.
- González-Val and Marcén, “Divorce and the Business Cycle: A Cross-Country Analysis.”
- Fischer and A. C. Liefbroer, “For Richer, for Poorer: The Impact of Macroeconomic Conditions on Union Dissolution Rates in the Netherlands 1972–1996,” European Sociological Review 22, no. 5 (2006): 519–532. Link: https://bit.ly/36Dai2U.