How The Recession Forever Changed Relationships

money in relationships
Love, Self

With strapped wallets, tightened belts and the national unemployment rate nearing double-digits, we can only hope that rumors of the recession's demise prove true—and soon. Here at YourTango, we wanted to know how the economic downturn in the U.S. has affected dating, marriage, sex and family already, and which of these changes will stick when the recession's over. 

Getting Hitched

Andrew Cherlin, author of The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in American Today, says that since people tend to pull together during a crisis, it wouldn't be surprising to see an overall rise in the marriage rate when the recession's waved the white flag. But, the longer the downturn continues, the more people become discouraged and irritable, which takes a toll on 

"The sooner we can bring about an economic recovery, the more American families we can save from potential despair and divorce," Cherlin says.

Pepper Schwartz agrees that the recession could cause an uptick in new coupling. The sociology professor at the University of Washington in Seattle and author of Everything You Know About Love and Sex is Wrong, says, "People can get distracted by careers and other kinds of ambitions, but when things get tough, they really want a partner—somebody to face life with." 

One thing that's certain: the wedddings taking place in this recessed economy are more modest than they have been in years past. Carley Roney, cofounder of The Knot Inc. (a media company focused on weddings and marriage), says, "With these life events, there's a momentum that goes way beyond what's happening in the economy right now." She points out that couples are finding plenty of ways to cut costs, from hosting smaller weddings to celebrating on Friday nights instead of more in-demand, and therefore costlier, Saturdays. Meanwhile, those putting the wedding off may decide that living under the same roof—sans marriage certificate—is a better option. "Some people are saying, 'OK, it's time to move in together, because it's cheaper,'" Roney says. 

That kind of thinking will be particularly pronounced among blue-collar workers who are seeing their jobs dry up, says Cherlin. 

"Blue-collar men and women are still trying to marry, to live the American dream, so they start more partnerships and eventually enter into more marriages, but many of these relationships fail," he says. He predicts that more children may be born out of wedlock thanks to the turndown, as the number of cohabiting couples rises.

Next: Will There Be A Baby Boom?

Baby-Making

Children are expensive: from diapers to college, there are high costs to having babies. The Agriculture Department estimates that middle-income families, who earn an average of $61,000 a year, spend about $11,000 each year on each child under the age of two.

It's not surprising, then, that many couples who already have kids are holding off on expanding their brood. Betsey Stevenson, assistant professor of business and public policy at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, explains: "Households that are facing severe budgetary issues that were thinking of having an additional child may decide that now's not a good time. For people who already have a couple kids, it may be that this permanently changes whether they ever go onto have an additional child."

On the flip side, first-time mothers seem to have seen the slowdown as a good opportunity to take themselves off the job market and start a family. One National Bureau of Economic Research paper found that an increase in the unemployment rate leads to a decrease in fertility. But once the researchers subtracted out the effect of the divorce rate and proportion of young marriages, they found that a rise in the unemployment rate actually increased fertility. One possibility, says Stevenson, is that women who get laid off decide it's a good time to have a kid because they have more time to care for it. 

The longer the recession lasts, Stevenson predicts, the more likely it is that it will permanently affect family size. And, in fact, condom sales have jumped 6.4 percent nationally since 2008. Experts predict an upswing in pregnancies once the economic turmoil simmers down.

"There will be a baby boom," says Bonnie Eaker Weil, a couples therapist and author of Financial Infidelity.

A look back in history corroborates her theory. Consider the '50s: After a decade of economic woes coupled with war, people bounced back with the white picket fence, prosperous baby-boom era, where women were able to give up jobs held during wartime and returned home to have kids. For that reason, it's hard not to imagine a resurgence of baby-making as soon as the Dow Jones recovers.

Family Life

For already-committed couples, belt tightening can strengthen the relationship.

"People are going back to basics and are spending more time together instead of spending money," Weil says. She also noticed that among her marriage counseling practice, adultery is down. Would-be cheaters are saying, "I won't spend $500 [to wine and dine the other person] when I can't pay for my kids to go to private school." A restoration of economic health—and newfound cash in the wallet—is likely to undo this benefit of the recession, however.

If couples can weather the storm, the toll that economic distress takes on them can ultimately be a benefit. "There are going to be some rocks that you've got to navigate, and nuggets of resentment, but very quickly after that, it's going to bring you back stronger," says Kyla Lange Hart, a principal at Toniq, a New York-based brand strategy firm.

That's why, she says, many couples can look forward to the days after the recession. Hart says shared hardships can lead to a "sensibility shift": instead of each person thinking of themselves as individuals, couples and families recognize that they're a team—that kind of mindset will endure post-recession make them stronger well after the stock market rebounds.

Chicago Tribune reporter Kayce T. Ataiyero predicts that recession-generation kids who watch their parents fix old bikes, cut back on family vacations, cook at home and enlist other money-saving measures, will in turn be more aware of saving and spending in their future. In a recent article, she wrote that today's kids will grow up with recession-ready attitudes, though not quite at the extremes of Great Depression children, who "learned to hoard money in their houses for fear of another banking collapse." The downside, says Stephanie Condon in a recent CBSNews article, is that they are also more likely to grow up obese or with behavioral problems and with less attention to their education, effectively resulting in a "reversal of decades of improvements," according to a Duke University study that she cites. 

House And Home

For most couples—and even singles—owning a home is an integral part of their American dream. Research conducted by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University states, "In American society, buying a home is a rite of passage symbolizing that a person has achieved a certain economic status. Thus, attaining this goal should increase an individual's satisfaction with his or her life." According to Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class, after the economy picks up, home ownership may not hold the glory it once did. Nor will buying a home "together," represent the same rite of passage for couples. It simply might not be an option. Citing flexibility and mobility as important factors in the post-recession U.S., Florida believes that houses in the suburbs will be replaced by apartments in the city.

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"Homeownership occupies a central place in the American dream primarily because decades of policy have put it there," Florida explained in The Atlantic. Florida also explained that there is a correlation between home ownership and higher rates of unemployment because those who are not tied to a home are more willing to move in search of work, and suggests that various tax incentives that encourage people to purchase homes should be eliminated, encouraging people to rent.

Of course, for many couples like Do It Yourself magazine columnists Sherry and John Petersik, buying a home together represents a kind of consummation of the relationship. As their blog YoungHouseLove attests, the couple moved from Manhattan to Richmond, Virginia, purchased a little fix-me-up, got engaged and married, and improved their relationship as they remodeled their house. But a new home doesn't always remain a love nest. Despite the symbolic achievement and unity of buying together, for many couples, home ownership puts undue economic strain on the relationship. Florida's article makes it clear that as long as people need to tighten their belts, the better off they are renting, not trying to own.

Dating

In terms of dating, the recession will likely cement the shift feminism started several decades ago. Gone are the days where women with an old-fashioned sense of etiquette wait for the man to pick up the check.

"Women are pitching in more and are more understanding about money," Weil says. Meanwhile men feel less pressure to take their dates to pricey restaurants or on expensive vacations.

"Regular dates will be more low-key. They may be more like bowling, or maybe some group activities, rather than going to fancy restaurants on a regular basis and having expensive drinks," adds Hart. But that doesn't mean romance is dead—it's just parsed out more slowly. "Special" days, such as birthdays or anniversaries, will "become special again," since splurges are less frequent. Hart expects those moments of celebration to take on new meaning. 

Weil adds that this mindset shift that could outlast the slump. "People are starting to realize what's important," she says, and that's a lesson that can stick.

The sudden change in our nation's economic state may also spark a shift in the dating philosophy. With the collective understanding that having money isn't necessarily a top requirement in a relationship, the chances of people finding love might improve, Dr. Paulette Kouffman Sherman, a psychologist and author of Dating From the Inside Out  predicts.

"There are so many aspects of a person," she says. "It's kind of sick that we only focus on jobs or money." Perhaps the diminishment of both was all we needed to see that clearly.

Additional reporting by Ethan Lascity and Jack Murnighan.

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