Recession and divorce, it is said, go together like carriage and horse. Those who labor in Splitsville have several explanations for why that might be. There's the lawyer theory, that money provides the soft fatty tissue that insulates the marital skeleton; once it's cut back and people get a good look at the guts of their relationship, they want out. And there's the marriage-counselor theory, that couples who were never quite on the same page in the checkbook finally get pushed off the ledger by endless bickering over their dwindling resources. And the therapist theory, that financial worries cause stress, stress can cause depression, and depression is a total connubial buzz kill.
"Recessions tend to raise divorce rates," says Nobel laureate and University of Chicago Graduate School of Business economist Gary Becker. "But you won't see a pandemic." Census Bureau figures show that over the past 2 1/2 decades, recessions have had only minor effects on divorce rates, which have been slowly waning since the early '80s after 20 years of steadily rising. Those trajectories have been influenced more by the rise of the women's movement and women's earning power, lower fertility and changes in divorce laws than by dour Dows. The only recorded spike in divorces in the past 75 years came right after World War II.
But the trend lines could change, Becker says, depending on the depth of this recession, striking as it does squarely at people's homes. With the financial baggage that many matrimonial vessels are hauling, it's not yet clear whether more spouses will jump ship or start bailing. What is clear is that everybody involved--from the ultra-wealthy to the completely broke, from family-court judges to therapists--has to figure out a new way to navigate.
The Rich, Who Are Different
Steven Eisman helps dissolve the unions of mostly wealthy clients in Nassau County, N.Y. In the traditional thinking about the recession-led split, non--wage earners "who were willing to stay in a less-than-perfect relationship become less willing once the credit cards are taken away," he says. But recently some lawyers have noticed that as stock prices have plunged, they've gotten inquiries from business owners and investors looking to unhitch now, with the idea that being poorer on paper will work to their advantage when dividing assets.
"In most states, the value of a business is part of the matrimonial pot of money that has to be divided up. Often, assets are set at the time of separation," says Neil Stein, partner at Stein & Glazer in Philadelphia. "I've had several clients come to me recently and say, 'I've wanted to get divorced for years but didn't want to give up half of my business. Now that my business is not worth anything, wouldn't it be a good time to do it?'" Conversely, some nonearning spouses of the very wealthy are also trying to game the nuptial market, attempting to lock in a higher rate in case the economy travels further south.
Sumner Redstone filed for divorce on Oct. 17, when his more than 16 million Viacom shares were at $18.85, down from $39.40 six months ago; his CBS shares had dropped about $288 million in value in the same period. Redstone and his wife Paula reportedly have a prenuptial agreement, so it's unlikely the market has much to do with timing, but Mrs. Redstone divorces a poorer man than she would have six weeks ago.
Among the nonwealthy, the two assets that typically need to be divided are 401(k)s and the family residence. But suddenly 401(k)s aren't worth as much, and that home whose mortgage was the mother of all argument starters is not an asset at all. It can't be sold--or at least not for a price that provides money to start over.
Instead of working out who owns what, lawyers and mediators are trying to figure out the fiendishly trickier conundrum of who owes what. "We're negotiating debts--not assets," says Henry Gornbein, a family-law attorney in Oakland County, Mich. "Two, three years ago, I'd be telling you that houses had equity, and you'd either be doing a buying out or selling the house and splitting whatever the proceeds were. Now it's the reverse. You go into court; the judges just don't know what to do."
In the face of this, some couples are attempting to tough it out. "The divorce rate is down in Michigan," says Gornbein. "People have no choice sometimes now except to return to the marriage." Others are choosing to separate or divorce but live together until either the house sells or they go stark raving barmy and will sign anything. A Boston lawyer tells of a woman who had a restraining order against her husband but was forced by economic circumstance to let him move back in. (Eventually they reconciled.)
The ex-as-roommate phenomenon is common enough that Virginia already has case law that governs what couples who are separated but living under the same roof may and may not do if they want the separation to lead to a divorce. Sex is definitely out, as is doing each other's laundry, shopping or cooking for each other and going on a date. Virginia, clearly, is not for ex-lovers.
And then there are the couples who are contemplating divorce because of the strain the poor economy is putting on their poor marriage but think it's because of something else. John Coates, a Deutsche Bank trader turned Cambridge University researcher, measured the naturally occurring steroids in 17 British male traders over time and found high levels of testosterone during bull markets and of cortisol during volatility. Cortisol helps the body deal with threatening situations. But prolonged exposure to it, as during a lengthy downturn, makes people irrationally fearful, so when confronted with neutral situations--say, that their spouse would like the leaves raked--they react as if threatened. In other words, men can get funny when they're losing money. Even those who aren't traders.
Which brings us to cheating. Since no one has yet figured out how to do a National Infidelity Survey, it's hard to track, but experts warn it becomes more likely under stress. "Study after study shows that men deal with stress through escapism and women deal with it by talking," says Jill Brooke, a divorce expert who helps run Firstwivesworld.com "Online porn, massage parlors and escort services are cheaper and quicker than therapy, especially if you lost your health insurance." Often, since the men are operating under stress, they get caught. And often their wives can't bring themselves to take the Silda Spitzer--Elizabeth Edwards high road.
Apart from the ready access to high-speed online porn, what makes this recession different from others is that it's centered on real estate and thus on people's homes, which may explain why women are feeling more anxious about it than men are. In a survey released in October by the American Psychological Association (APA), more women than men reported feeling stress about money (83% vs. 78%) and the economy (84% vs. 75%). And women were more likely than men to say they had symptoms of stress--including irritability and weariness. Plus, their stress levels had risen more sharply over the past six months than men's. So it's harder for women to take up their traditional role as household comforter and easier for the wheels to fall off the whole enterprise.
There is some good news. A study that correlated Playboy centerfolds with market conditions found that men like fuller-figured women more in lean times than in boom times. The APA study showed that when stressed, women liked to eat. Bingo!
But aside from stress-eating, is there anything to be done if you'd rather the market didn't take your marriage down with it? A lot of counselors suggest sitting with your spouse and putting your fears on the table. If partner A does not know the full lay of the dire financial land, partner B should map it out while partner A makes a robust attempt not to scream. Then figure out how to address your liquidity issues as a team. All this honesty might even work as foreplay, suggests New Jersey sex therapist Sandra Leiblum, but if not, she recommends putting down the BlackBerry and reminding your spouse of something that's "free, burns calories, releases tension and creates bonds." Bonds that, luckily, can't be traded.