2020 was certainly a rough year and we were glad to see it fade in the rear-view mirror. But that annual turn of the calendar into 2021 brought more unexpected challenges to life.

It’s worth asking, “How has the family fared this year? How has it gotten stronger? Has it weakened? What new knowledge did we gain?”

Amid the pandemic, scholars have continued studying the family and its fascinating dynamics. As we put a satin bow on the year, let’s look at some of the most important developments in family research in 2021.

#5 – COVID Strengthened Marriage in Important Ways

As The Daily Citizen reported in early June, two leading sociologist of the family from Bowling Green State University’s Center for Family and Demographic Research provided what they describe as “our first opportunity to assess how the pandemic may have influenced both marriage and divorce levels” across the United States. Their research explained that, compared with data from 2018 and 2019, disruptions from the pandemic brought “about 21,000 fewer marriages and 16,000 fewer divorces” in five states (Arizona, Florida, Missouri, New Hampshire, and Oregon).

Research-based evidence demonstrated the COVID pandemic brought married couples closer. Sociologists at the Institute for Family Studies found that even though American couples felt increased life-strain, they also reported the trials helped their marriages in many ways, allowing them to develop a growing appreciation for each other. These scholars discovered “the share of married people who said their marriage is in trouble” fell during the pandemic. They add, “While there is no question that some couples are struggling, the evidence generally points in the opposite direction.”

The rate of married couples, aged 18-55, who stated their marriage was in trouble declined markedly from 40% in 2019 to 29% in 2020. In light of these findings, the lead researcher on this project, Professor W. Bradford Wilcox of the University of Virginia, told The Daily Citizen, “As the pandemic fallout unfolded, we are seeing many husbands and wives are turning, not away from one another, but towards one another.” He adds, “They are seeking more practical and emotional support from one another.” Specifically, Wilcox contends, “From what I see, I think the people who are currently married will generally emerge from all of this trial and tribulation stronger in their marriages.”

#4 – Just 18% of American Households Are Families with Married Parents

While marriages appear to be strengthening during the pandemic years, marriage as a foundational institution is sadly declining. In late 2021, demographers at the U.S. Census Bureau discovered that fewer than 20% of American families are founded and maintained by married parents.

In raw numbers, there are 23.1 million American homes with nuclear families (married mother and father raising their own children) out of 130 million households. The Census Bureau explains this number “is the fewest since 1959.”

This means only 17.8% of U.S. households are established on the healthy bedrock of a husband and wife raising their kids together. This is down from 18.6% in 2020, and down even more drastically over previous decades. In 1970, 40% of U.S. households consisted of a married mother and father with children. This year, that number has been more than halved.

Accounting for the decline between 2020 and 2021, the reasons given for the drop include the pandemic delaying marriage and a continued decline in birth rate.

Given the rich, research-based benefits of marriage for adults and children, this decline is a tragedy. And it leads us to our next major research discovery for 2021.

#3 – Marriage Continues to Dramatically Boost All Important Measures of Human Well-Being

The Daily Citizen reported in April just how profoundly the best, university-based medical, psychological, and social science research continues to demonstrate that marriage is far more than just a sacred or sentimental institution. It makes a real demonstrable difference in all of the most important measures of human thriving for women, men, children, and society at large.

Harvard Medical School explains,

[T]here is fascinating — and compelling — research suggesting that married people enjoy better health than single people. For example, as compared with those who are single, those who are married tend to

– live longer

– have fewer strokes and heart attacks

– have a lower chance of becoming depressed

– be less likely to have advanced cancer at the time of diagnosis and more likely to survive cancer for a longer period of time

– survive a major operation more often.

Our April article offered four reasons for improved health among married couples. 

First is that married people tend to have better immune function. Marriage seems to actually improve disease resistance. Second, married people take fewer risks, eat better, and maintain generally healthier lifestyles than those in other relational categories. Third, married people tend to have better emotional support systems that contribute to improved health and healing. Finally, married people tend to be healthier prior to marriage and stay that way.

Thus, fighting for and working toward a more pro-marriage culture is essential and an effort all genuine social justice sectors should engage in.

#2 Cohabitation Still Linked to Increased Divorce

Professor Scott Stanley from the University of Denver is a long and valued friend of Focus on the Family. He is one of the leading scholars in a very small but distinguished group who carefully study the nature and consequences of unmarried cohabitation. It has long and consistently been established that living together before marriage is related to a significant host of negative relational outcomes and habits, including increased infidelity, physical and verbal abuse, relational manipulation, unequal sharing of income and household chores, as well as increased likelihood of divorce.

Stanley published a very important and influential article in 2021 showing how the best data continues to demonstrate that cohabitation is still related to increased divorce. Despite this, more than 70% of marriages today are preceded by living together. The elevated risk of divorce is true for those who cohabit with or without their eventual spouse, but to varying degrees. Stanley explains, “Most people believe cohabitation should improve one’s odds of marital success. [One recent study] suggests this may only be true very early in marriage. Otherwise, not so much. As ever on this subject, questions abound.” Stanley adds, “One of the most intriguing questions remains: why is there any association with risk?”

In the work Stanley has done with his colleagues, he leans strongly in the direction that the act of cohabiting, and its defined lack of commitment and relational clarity, actually trains couples to interact with each other and future partners in increasingly unhealthy ways. Cohabitation is still not a wise way to test a relationship.

#1 – Divorce Rate Continues to Drop and Active Faith Reduces Divorce

It has been well-established among family demographers that the divorce rate in America has been declining over the last few decades. For every 1,000 marriages in the last year, only 14.9 ended in divorce, according to the newly released American Community Survey data from the Census Bureau. This is the lowest rate seen in 50 years. It is even slightly lower than 1970, when 15 marriages ended in divorce per 1,000 marriages. And all indications point to this trend continuing into 2022.

This is great news for Americans who are married. It means their marriages will likely be more stable, and their children more likely to grow up with two married parents, which provides them the best chance for success later in life.

And finally, two leading family scholars, and men of deep faith, just published original research showing that young people who grow up with an active faith are significantly less likely to face divorce when they do marry. As these scholars explain, “religiosity is associated with a markedly higher likelihood of going directly from singleness to a married union without cohabiting ahead of time, and generally at younger ages.” Broken down by faith groups, the data on likelihood of marrying without having ever cohabited looks like this…

They add, “Our results also suggest that religion fosters relationship stability by pushing young adults away from cohabitation, which is highly unstable, and toward marriage, which is much more stable.”

These scholars conclude, “The upshot of all this is that the religious model of marriage and family appears to boost the odds that young adults can marry before 30 without increasing their risk of landing in divorce court.”

These new findings mean science continues to show that couples, young and old, who have a serious connection to their faith, enjoy markedly lower risk of divorce.

The entire staff at The Daily Citizen looks forward to continuing to track important research findings on the family into 2022. We invite you to join us as faithful partners in this vital work.

Photo from Shutterstock.