Amid a Pandemic, Americans Turn to Their Families

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Americans are turning to their husbands and wives for support amid a nationwide pandemic that reveals the importance of strong families, results from a new survey suggest.

Results from the 2020 American Family Survey, administered in July by researchers at Brigham Young University, found that more than half of married couples have seen their appreciation for their partners rise during the pandemic and have been better insulated against loneliness and increased interpersonal tension when compared with their unmarried counterparts.

Those findings, along with other indicators from the study, suggest that Americans see relationships as a “source of strength and a set of tools that allow Americans to be resilient in times of challenge,” Chris Karpowitz, one of the survey’s coauthors, said during a Tuesday presentation of its results.

But while those with families are benefiting from tight social bonds amid an unprecedented moment, those benefits do not accrue to everyone, with the pandemic expected to “deepen already existing divides” around family and marriage, Brookings Institution social scholar Richard Reeves said Tuesday. That extends to family formation, with early evidence showing a precipitous drop in new marriages, as people meet less and postpone their marriages more. That could push young people to delay marriage further—exacerbating the preexisting disadvantages that come with putting it off.

As a result, the coronavirus pandemic appears to simultaneously show the importance of family while reducing some Americans’ access to its key institutions. That means, paradoxically, that it is likely to further entrench the growing “marriage gap” and marriage’s development into a luxury good.

Media commentators have feared that the pandemic would further erode the American family, with interest in divorce skyrocketing in jurisdictions such as New York City. But the new AFS offers a more sanguine picture, finding that 56 percent of respondents in a committed relationship said the pandemic has made them appreciate their partner more, and 47 percent said it had deepened their commitment to their relationship, compared with 10 and 9 percent who were negative on each statement.

Married adults have also grown less likely to say their marriage is in trouble—74 percent said their marriage was definitively not in trouble, the highest figure since the AFS was first conducted in 2015. Married people are less likely to be lonely than their unmarried counterparts—26 percent report being lonely, compared with 36 percent in a nonmarital relationship and 48 percent in no relationship. Married couples even report that they’re having sex more often than they did in March, the opposite of the experience of those without a steady partner, and reflecting the isolation of coronavirus quarantine.

Young people, meanwhile, have turned to family in a time of distress. The AFS found that 25 percent of respondents reported living with extended family, a 5 percentage-point bump compared with 2019. That confirms the recent Pew research finding that more than half of Americans ages 18 to 29 are living at home, the highest figure since the Great Depression.

But not everyone is enjoying the spoils of the pandemic, either in a family or outside of it. Among those who are married, those who have seen their economic position worsen have also seen their marriage get worse. Analysis of the AFS data from the Institute for Family Studies found that 45 percent of those who had lost economic position since March said that the pandemic has increased stress on their marriage, compared with 28 percent of those who have seen no economic change and 35 percent of those whose position has improved.

Those who aren’t married, meanwhile, are unlikely to pair off any time soon. Preliminary data, covered by the IFS and a separate group of sociologists, found that the number of monthly marriages has fallen precipitously since March, as couples postpone their nuptials indefinitely. Fewer vows means fewer babies, forming part of a predicted “COVID baby bust.”

Such trends matter because marriage is a major determinant of socioeconomic success, but access to that determinant has increasingly accrued to the already-wealthy. Reeves argued on Tuesday that the pandemic would deepen those preexisting inequalities.

“You can already see in some cases that there are families that are being brought together by it, that have the resources, time, and opportunity to invest in their children,” he said. “From an income and equity point of view, this is a disaster.”

As a result, the pandemic is likely to further exacerbate the rise of marriage as a luxury good, a trend already evident in last year’s AFS. That would mean fewer Americans with access to the bulwark of the family the next time disaster strikes—a perilous cycle with increasingly damaging outcomes.

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