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Recent media reports suggest Covid and the associated lockdowns are set to cause a large spike in the number of divorces. But Harry Benson from the Marriage Foundation is sceptical
Having a daughter who is an A&E doctor living in the house, I’ve been made very aware of how a year of lockdown and restrictions has messed with our mental health.
It would be easy to assume that the extra stress and pressures have also messed with our relationships.
The BBC along with other media outlets have been speculating about a pending ‘divorce boom’, based on a reported increase in Google searches for divorce, and enquiries at some law firms.
The good news is that the hard evidence suggests quite the reverse.
The Department for Justice who reported that petitions for divorce in the third quarter to September were down by 10 per cent on the previous year. So no sign of a divorce boom there.
In terms of future intentions, there’s even less sign.
In both June and September 2020, the UK Longitudinal Household Study conducted a special survey that included questions on relationships, including 'how happy are you in your relationship?’, ‘How often do you quarrel...get on each others nerves...have regrets about marrying or living together...or consider divorce or separation?’
They have asked these questions every year for the past decade so we have a very good idea of what normal looks like.
In a normal year pre-Covid, 2.5 per cent of married fathers and 5.6 per cent of married mothers considered divorce 'all' or 'most' of the time. But by September, these had dropped to just one per cent of fathers and 0.7 per cent for mothers, a long way down on normal levels.
In the June survey, parents were also asked if their relationship had got better or worse. 19 per cent of married fathers and 21 per cent of married mothers said 'better', whereas only 11 per cent of fathers and 7 per cent of mothers said 'worse'.
The people who appeared to have struggled most with lockdown are cohabiting mums, of whom 22 per cent said their relationship had got worse. They also fared a lot worse than cohabiting dads or married parents on unhappiness, getting on each other’s nerves and quarrels.
So what is going on here?
I think a big part of the answer comes from understanding how lockdown has amplified the effects of commitment.
Most people think about commitment in terms of how much couples want to be together. But the other crucial aspect of commitment is how much couples have to be together.
For couples who want to be together, the things that make you have to be together – such as having children, living together, having a network of friends as a couple – feel good. They affirm our mutual decision to be a couple with a future. Marriage is the ultimate expression of this plan. We want to spend the rest of our lives together. That’s the plan.
But for couples where there is any kind of ambiguity – typically more common among parents who are not married – the more you have to be together, the more the relationship can feel strained and you can feel trapped.
What lockdown has done is add a massive extra barrier around our relationships that makes it harder to leave. We no longer have a choice. We have to be together.
I think this is the most plausible explanation for why so many more married parent families appear to have prospered during the past year. Among cohabiting families, there tends to be more ambiguity where the man – more often than not – is less clear about his commitment.
It’s easy to see why lockdown has amplified any lingering insecurities among those who aren’t completely certain their partner is as committed as they are.
As stressful as lockdown is, it seems unlikely that an increase in having to be together will push a lot more couples than usual over the edge.
I’m also acutely aware that not all married couples have had a happy time (nor have all cohabiting parents had a torrid time). Indeed extreme levels of relationship unhappiness are higher than normal for both married mums and dads. But since quarrels and regrets and other signs of difficulty are down, I suspect this reflects how fed up we all are with the restrictions rather than necessarily with each other.
I am sticking my neck out here. It’s still possible that divorce lawyers, who see a part of the national picture, may be right. Maybe this winter things have got a lot worse. But I doubt it for two reasons.
First, the theory fits the data. Married families generally want to be together. As stressful as lockdown is, it seems unlikely that an increase in having to be together will push a lot more couples than usual over the edge. And there’s no evidence whatsoever of this in these big national surveys.
Second, almost all of the change in divorce rates over the past 50 years has been due to more or fewer wives filing for divorce in the early years of marriage. In the two surveys, the proportion of married mums who were seriously considering divorce in June was 84 per cent lower and in September 89 per cent lower than normal pre-Covid levels.
This makes me confident – or foolish – enough to say that there is not going to be a divorce boom. If anything, lockdown restrictions have amplified the vital importance of commitment and marriage.
Harry Benson is Research Director for Marriage Foundation, and author of Commit or Quit: The Two Year Rule and Other Rules for Romance
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