by Vicki Larson
I was out on the hiking trails a few weeks ago when a pack of 40-something Nike-outfitted women power-walked right by me. I nodded and said, “Morning,” as I usually do, but they were oblivious to me, deep in a discussion of which I caught a snippet.
“He’s been out of work for eight months now, and she’s getting really frustrated,” one said as the others nodded in silent understanding.
I have no idea who the unemployed-and-frustrated couple is, but with the way the economy has been lately, it could almost any couple we know — or, more likely, several couples we know.
The recession has hit most of us one way or the other, but it has been particularly hard on men. And no matter how many poopie diapers hubbies change or how often they unload the dishwasher, most of us still expect men to be the breadwinners, even if the wives are bringing in big bucks, too.
Take an unemployed man and put him in the same home as a frustrated woman, and here’s what’s likely to happen — divorce.
Maybe not immediately given the recession — who can afford to take one household’s compromised income and make it support two households? But the stress that the troubled economy and high unemployment is dumping on many couples often leads to a lot of anger, blame, misunderstandings and other ugly behaviors, even spousal abuse. It doesn’t look promising.
Any sudden, significant and unanticipated change in a couple’s income puts them at a greater risk of splitting, studies show — despite the rosy picture painted by National Marriage Project sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox not to long ago that recent tough times are giving couples a “new appreciation” for marriage and “togetherness.”
Tell that to the women on the hiking trail!
Ask a therapist what leads couples to split during a recession and he’ll tell you it’s a chain reaction: financial troubles lead to stress, stress leads to depression, depression leads to intimacy issues and on and on. Stressed, depressed, emotionally cut-off people aren’t all that pleasant to be around.
Money and household chores are what most couples tend to argue about anyway, recession or not. Now that everything’s mixed up — more women are in the workforce than men and more jobless hubbies are home watching the kids — are those arguments going to disappear?
And will more hubbies decide that staying home with the kiddies and taking care of the house is such a blast that they want to chuck the business suit and stay home for good, even if the economy rebounds?
Probably not, or at least that hasn’t been the trend, according to University of North Carolina sociologist Philip N. Cohen. “Maybe men getting ‘stuck’ with childcare doesn't bode well for marriages,” he says.
“Stuck” is an unfortunate way to describe it, even if it’s accurate.
My former husband and I didn’t do a lot of things right — we’re divorced, after all — but we did agree about money and childcare. When we were about to become parents for the first time, we knew we wanted one of us to stay home. Since he made more than I did, and since I wanted to be home and he didn’t, I was the “chosen one.”
We also agreed that whoever stayed home would do most of the typical household chores: laundry, cleaning, food shopping and cooking — aka the “pink” jobs. He’d continue with the “blue” ones: car maintenance, lawn mowing, bill-paying. And supporting us.
We both knew that living on one income in our uber-pricey county meant we had to keep our debt low. In other words, sacrifices must be made: no vacations, no fancy cars, minimal primping — haircuts and coloring were fine, but a mani/pedi or facial? No way! — and practically no dining out besides the occasional Mexican eatery or burger joint.
If we didn’t have other problems that led us to split, I have a feeling we would have weathered this recession OK if for no other reason than no one was “stuck” with childcare and we were able to talk about money without flipping out or arguing — something many couples aren’t able to do, according to Wall Street Journal columnist and “Financially Ever After” author Jeff Opdyke.
So, will we see a spike in divorce once the economy starts to rebound?
Cohen says although hard times put a lot of stress on many marriages, there are just as many who rely on their family to make it through. And if makes couples have a “new appreciation” for marriage and “togetherness” as Wilcox says, that’s not so bad.
There’s a telling moment in Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book, “Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage .” As Gilbert and her partner, Felipe (actually Jose Nunes), spend 10 months traveling through Asia in limbo while waiting to hear if he can re-enter the United States and work again, she tries hard to put a good spin on things but he gets deeper and deeper into a funk. At last he explodes, telling her how impotent he feels as a man that he can’t provide for her. She didn’t ask him to provide for her, nor did she even expect it. But, it was a particularly enlightening moment for Gilbert; she’d just hadn’t realized how it felt for him.
That may be a lesson for all of us.