I am rereading the Little House books with my 8-year-old daughter, and this time around, things between Pa and Ma don’t look as peachy as they did when I was a child. Ma, we learn, wants to live in town so the girls can go to school and church. She wants neighbors; she’s afraid of the wilderness. But over her wishes and objections, Pa moves the family farther and farther west, to the edges of the American frontier, where wolves, snow, and locusts threaten everything they have. Pa, it seems, is in possession of a broad streak of recklessness. The Ingalls family lives for a time — illegally — on property that belongs to the Native Americans, and when forced to move (and leave behind their garden, planted with vegetables, after a year of subsisting on corn bread), they find themselves in a cave made of dirt and grass.
Ma’s cheerful optimism sometimes fails her, but mostly she is game: She sweeps the floor; she sets the table; she thinks of poems and songs to divert her girls from hardship. She never, ever says, “I’m out of here,” or “I need a break from your craziness,” or “I’m taking the girls to my parents’ for a while.” She does get tight-lipped, though, and I wonder how many nights Ma went to sleep fantasizing about an easier life, with a spouse whose aspirations kept her closer to comfort.
As hard times afflict Americans again, social scientists are beginning to explore how 21st-century economic distress affects marriages.
The overall divorce rate has declined in America since the eighties, and some have theorized that the current downturn would keep more couples together as it throws them back on their own resourcefulness. In this vision, money trouble brings people who otherwise might have behaved selfishly closer together. “Economic stress seems to have made American marriages slightly more stable overall,” wrote Ross Douthat in the New York Times in 2009. This, like the Little House books, turns out to be fiction. New, unpublished research by Philip Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland and a senior fellow at the Council on Contemporary Families, shows that, based on Census data, there was a small uptick in divorces between 2009 and 2010, a difference of about 30,000 failed marriages. But more interesting is who’s most likely to split: educated people with at least some college education who live in states with high foreclosure rates.
Cohen sees a connection between divorce and the bursting of the real-estate bubble. “I don’t want to oversell it,” Cohen said to me on the phone, “but the story I could tell is that these are the people most affected by the real-estate market.” Divorce is caused by stress and conflict, he says. “Housing for them may be a bigger source of stress.” (The top ten foreclosure states are California, Arizona, Nevada, Georgia, Illinois, Florida, Ohio, Michigan, South Carolina, and Colorado.) I asked Cohen about my “luxury good” theory: If marriage is an aspirational thing, attainable only by people who can afford the attendant investments of emotion, time, and money for babysitters and seasonal throw pillows, then doesn’t an underwater mortgage put the ideal ever farther out of reach? The home, the center of all that fantastical comfy-cozy togetherness and evidence of wedded happiness, is suddenly a prison. You can’t decorate or renovate; your prize becomes an embarrassment. What better proof does a couple need of its failure to make its dreams reality than a home they can’t properly domesticate?
In today’s marriage landscape, poorer people are marrying less than richer ones — and those who do marry get divorced at higher rates. In Cohen’s research, these trends are stable through the recession — which is to say that hard times have not made the people who are statistically most likely to split do it more or less. Unemployment (which also disproportionately afflicts poorer people) has similarly had no noticeable affect on the divorce rate. Instead, it’s the housing market, more than anything else, that’s predictive for divorce now, but only for a certain set — the kind of men and women with the resources to buy overpriced houses.
These are the same couples who married imagining a lifetime of snuggling in front of Downton Abbey. And when stress and conflict causes their relationship to crumble, real estate, once the problem, becomes the solution, too. These couples desire not cheap, quickie divorces in which one party sleeps on couches and the other moves in with mom. They want the high-end, amicable variety with shared custody and two full kitchens. It is possible, says Cohen, that the small uptick in divorces among educated people in fragile housing markets represents the tip of an iceberg — that if the economy continues to sputter along, more people will contemplate breaking up but delay it until they can get disentangled, causing a pent-up demand and, eventually, a boom. He calls this the divorce/recession lull-rebound hypothesis. On a lark, Cohen plotted Google searches for the term “divorce lawyer” from January 2004 to February 2011. The graph slopes gently up, then down, then turns straight vertical at the beginning of 2010.
Over at the Awl, Choire Sicha is fretting over that very thing. He worries that, as divorce waves swamp the neighborhoods of what he not-inaccurately calls “White People Brooklyn,” real-estate prices will surge even higher, pricing single people completely out of the market. “There’ll be none of this ‘you can have the kids in summer’ stuff that the previous generation did,” he writes. “It’s going to be like three days on, three days off — or-three day alternating weekends, or alternating weeks. And given the pressure for establishing residence for the ‘good’ schools, it’s going to have a devastating impact on real estate and on vacancy rate.” In similar circumstances, Pa have would have sent the keys back to the bank and moved the family to an ungentrified corner of Queens, while Ma gritted her teeth and thought of another hymn to sing. Contemporary homesteaders would sit around their artisanal farm tables, sipping their cold-brewed coffee as they silently wonder what went wrong.