Divorces and marriages tumbled in US during Covid-19 pandemic, according to study

Young people are waiting longer to tie the knot, and many couples are forgoing marriage entirely.
Young people are waiting longer to tie the knot, and many couples are forgoing marriage entirely.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - The number of Americans getting divorced plummeted last year, while the marriage rate also dropped precipitously as thousands of weddings were postponed or cancelled, according to a new study.

The early look at Covid-19's effect on United States divorce and marriage statistics comes from Bowling Green State University's Centre for Family and Demographic Research, which analysed five states that have released monthly numbers for much of last year.

The data contradicts early predictions that Covid-19 and the stresses of quarantine would cause divorce rates to surge.

In Florida, the largest state analysed, marriage numbers from March through September were 33 per cent lower than researchers would have expected, based on previous years' trends. Divorces in the Sunshine State dropped 28 per cent.

If trends in Florida and other states - Arizona, New Hampshire, Missouri, and Oregon - are repeated nationwide, the US had an estimated "shortfall" of 339,917 marriages and 191,053 divorces, according to the paper by Bowling Green's Wendy Manning and Krista Payne. In 2019, there were roughly 2.2 million marriages in the US, and about one million divorces.

The sharp decline in divorce doesn't mean couples are necessarily happier together in lockdown. Instead, the pandemic may be forcing dissatisfied spouses to stay together for practical reasons.

"Divorce can be expensive, and couples may be reluctant while facing economic uncertainty and/or health issues," said Professor Manning, a sociology professor who is director of the Centre for Family and Demographic Research.

"These folks may feel 'stuck' and they could be delaying divorce until life feels more normal."

Both divorce and marriage rates have been declining for years, as Americans have changed how they approach the institution of matrimony.

Young people are waiting longer to tie the knot, and many couples are forgoing marriage entirely, choosing to live together without a wedding. Those who do marry tend to be better educated and more affluent, a self-selected group that's also likelier to stay together.

In 2019, the US divorce rate was 15.5 per 1,000 married women, according to the National Centre for Family and Marriage Research, down from its peak of 22.6 in 1980.

A dearth of weddings and divorces in March and April 2020 was probably inevitable. Government offices were closed and Americans were being told to stay home. However, the data does not show a big rebound in the summer and autumn - when states mostly reopened - that would reflect a large pent-up demand from the spring.

One exception is Arizona, where divorce numbers did bounce back over the summer to bring the state slightly above expected levels. In New Hampshire, meanwhile, data from March through November show a 10.1 per cent drop in marriage and a 36 per cent plunge in divorce.

In the first half of 2020, there were signs of an impending spike in divorce, with reports of a surge of filings in China as it came out of quarantine, and a disturbing rise in domestic violence arrests and calls to the police while US cities were under stay-at-home orders in March. But Prof Manning said surveys conducted at Bowling Green show most couples report little change in the amount of conflict in their marriages.

Even if couples want a divorce right now, "for lots of people, it's just not practical", said Ms Linda Ravdin, an attorney at Pasternak & Fidis in Bethesda, Maryland.

While couples with relatively simple divorces have been able to reach deals, she said, Covid-19 makes other negotiations difficult. Child custody decisions are hard when schools and daycare centres are closed. Financial settlements are trickier when spouses are out of work or uncertain what the economy holds for their jobs or businesses.

"People are not ready to make big decisions," Ms Ravdin said. "People are - to their credit - trying to do the right thing by their children, by themselves, realising we're all in this predicament together."

For marriage in the US, a key question is how many weddings called off in 2020 will eventually go ahead. If a significant number don't, Covid-19 could have a lasting impact on a generation that was already cautious about tying the knot.

In 2019, Bowling Green's figures show, there were just 30.5 marriages per 1,000 unmarried American women, about a third of the rate's peaks in the early and mid-20th century.