Living in lockdown – whether together, or apart – is likely to put pressure on any relationship. Quarantine can make the heart grow fonder, but it could also build up a desire for a bit more social distancing. Some couples are being forced to live together with no respite. Others are being kept apart. Right now, the likely effect is hard to read.
There are some predictable effects of locking adults up together: global searches for home pregnancy tests have never been so popular.
We can also see that people are not holding weddings over this summer from search data – online searches for rings have already sunk.
It is too soon to say much about the likely long-term effects on family life. History offers limited guidance: we’ve seen demographic responses to crises play out in different ways – and this pandemic is – of course – ‘unprecedented’. There are no precedents. But we can pick out the forces that are likely to be involved.
We can pick out incidents when divorce rates declined in moments of collective crisis. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, divorce rates fell in New York City by 32 per cent – in times of stress and greater awareness of death, people might want to feel closer to their loved ones.
But this is not a universal law. Take the case in South Carolina following the devastation caused by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. In the year after the hurricane, marriage, birth, and divorce rates increased in the 24 counties that had been declared disaster areas.
That is probably because of the extreme economic toll of the storm. If this public health emergency becomes an economic crisis, we may see a baby bust. The 2008 financial crash was followed by a decline in birth rates in the US, Greece, Spain and other advanced economies.
One of the most famous demographic responses to major events is the Baby Boom. The rather extreme process of keeping people apart during the World Wars had the effect of driving them together. Marriage booms bookended both wars, baby booms followed. So too did the number of divorces.
Conversely, there is evidence that prolonged time together puts relationships under strain.
A 2016 US study found that divorce rates in Washington state consistently peak in March and August each year. In other words, after holiday periods. This pattern bears out to some extent in England and Wales: data from the Ministry of Justice shows that, on average, the highest number of divorce filings are submitted in the first and third quarters of each year.
Lockdown is no holiday, but some of the conditions may be similar: couples spending an intense period of time together, under greater financial pressure and consuming more alcohol than usual.
With solicitors in China starting to report a rise in divorce filings, we may end up seeing that couples forced together end up driving each other apart.
The net effects of this crisis are hard to discern – but a long-burning recession where families have been held together against their will is not likely to end happily ever after.
Drawings by Zoë Barker