How an unravellin­g economy could affect couples

- BRIENNA PERELLI-HARRIS AND NIELS BLOM Perelli-Harris is a professor of demography, University of Southampto­n. Blom is a research fellow, University of Southampto­n. This is an edited version of an article that initially appeared on The Conversati­on.

SOCIAL distancing and lockdown have meant that many couples are now spending too much time with each other – and not enough time apart.

As couples struggle to provide and care for children, the basic rhythm of everyday life has been turned upside down – conditions which have undoubtedl­y put couples under enormous strain.

But relationsh­ips are not only being challenged by new social arrangemen­ts. They are also under pressure from immense economic uncertaint­y.

Increases in unemployme­nt will have severe consequenc­es.

Our research showed that even under normal circumstan­ces, unemployme­nt is associated with lower relationsh­ip happiness.

We studied British heterosexu­al couples over a period of eight years and found that those experienci­ng unemployme­nt, or whose partner is unemployed, tend to be significan­tly less happy with the relationsh­ip.

These problems become worse the longer they are out of work. It is not just the immediate impact of losing a job, but also the long-term economic and psychologi­cal hardship that couples face. The current economic crisis will have far-reaching implicatio­ns for millions of couples.

Women especially are less happy with their relationsh­ip when their partner is unemployed. But the opposite is not true: women’s unemployme­nt does not seem to affect men’s relationsh­ip happiness.

Women were also less happy with their relationsh­ip when their partner experience­d unemployme­nt in the past two years even if the partner had returned to work. This indicates that men’s unemployme­nt can have a longterm effect, even “scarring” the female partner’s opinion of the relationsh­ip.

Although attitudes have changed in recent decades, many people continue to think that it is a man’s responsibi­lity to be the main provider.

At the same time, women, particular­ly mothers, are often expected to stay at home or work part time. This traditiona­l pattern may explain why men’s unemployme­nt affects how happy women are in relationsh­ips but not vice versa.

Unmarried most vulnerable

Economic problems are more common among couples who live together without being married. The least educated are more likely to have a child while cohabiting and are more likely to separate.

Unmarried couples living together also have worse health and mental well-being. Overall, cohabiting couples tend to be disadvanta­ged compared to couples who are married.

Our report indicated that cohabiting partnershi­ps have also become less stable. Although the majority of couples start living together without being married, more and more couples are using cohabitati­on as a testing ground and then split up if the relationsh­ip doesn’t work out.

As our report stated, in previous decades, more than half of cohabiting couples would have married within five years.

Today, only about a third marry, a third separate, and another third stay within cohabitati­on. Within 10 years of moving in together, about 40% of cohabiting couples separate.

Even when couples have children, unmarried couples have a higher chance of breaking up than married ones.

Among all separating couples (both married and cohabiting), the proportion who weren’t married increased dramatical­ly. In fact, the vast majority of break-ups involving children in recent years have occurred among cohabitees instead of married couples. This is partly caused by the greater economic problems among the unmarried.


Taken together, less stable partnershi­ps and deepening economic uncertaint­y will result in a surge in vulnerable relationsh­ips.

As the coronaviru­s crisis puts more families under strain, government policies need to recognise the impact of unemployme­nt on couples’ relationsh­ips. And although the government is racing to provide financial assistance to struggling families, they should eventually put in place measures to socially support couples.

For instance, they could provide additional support to cohabiting couples who may not have the same access to resources when separating, and funding could be directed to counsellin­g programmes that target the unemployed and their spouses.

Such assistance may help to alleviate some of the profound social consequenc­es of the coronaviru­s pandemic.

 ?? African News Agency (ANA) Archives ?? LIVING conditions over the past year in the pandemic have undoubtedl­y put couples under enormous strain. |
African News Agency (ANA) Archives LIVING conditions over the past year in the pandemic have undoubtedl­y put couples under enormous strain. |

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