This year, much of life is taking place from home. Work, school, recreation, and worship are frequently occurring from couches, kitchen tables, and makeshift home offices and classrooms. The demands placed on families, particularly those with children, are high. How are family relationships faring in America during this trying time? The 2020 American Family Survey, an annual nationwide survey of 3,000 people conducted by the Deseret News and Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, provides some insight.1
The Health of American Marriages during COVID-19
Relationship Commitment and Stability
While some might hypothesize the pandemic would lead to more stress in marriage and thus higher divorce rates, for the most part this has not been the case. The American Family Survey finds the majority (56 percent) of adults in a relationship say the pandemic has made them appreciate their partner more and nearly half (47 percent) say the pandemic has increased their relationship commitment. Only 25 percent agree the pandemic has increased stress in their relationship and even fewer, 13 percent, say the pandemic has made them question the strength of their relationship.
Furthermore, the vast majority of couples, 84 percent, say their thoughts about divorcing or breaking up have not changed since the pandemic began. In fact, slightly more respondents (8 percent) say the likelihood of their relationship ending in a divorce or breakup has declined, compared to those that say it has increased (6 percent). (Two percent of couples report they did divorce or break up since the beginning of the pandemic.) So far, available state divorce data suggests divorce rates in the United States will decline this year.
However, couples who have experienced a financial crisis during the pandemic report greater challenges in their marriages than those who have not faced financial struggle. More than one-third (37 percent) of married couples who have experienced a financial crisis during the pandemic say the pandemic has increased stress in their marriage, compared to only 20 percent of couples who have not experienced a financial crisis. Twenty-one percent of couples who have faced a financial crisis say the pandemic has made them question the strength of their marriage, compared to only 8 percent of couples who have not experienced a financial crisis. (Overall, about a third—32 percent—say either one or both partners have experienced a loss of income, and 22 percent say one or both has experienced a temporary layoff, while 11 percent say one or both has experienced a permanent job loss.)
Although most marriages are faring well during the pandemic, the share of Americans in a relationship is lower than in the previous five years of the American Family Survey. Given the restrictions placed on socializing, the decline in romantic relationships is not surprising. In 2020, 37 percent of Americans reported they were not in a relationship, compared to 34 percent in 2019 and 30 percent in 2015. The decline in romantic relationships in 2020 may exacerbate the already-declining marriage rates in the United States, at least for a time.
Perceptions of Marriage as an Institution
Although the majority of survey respondents say the pandemic has made them appreciate their spouse or partner more and nearly half say the pandemic has increased their marital commitment, perceptions of the value of one’s own marriage do not appear to translate into an overall increase in the share of people who value marriage as an institution. During the last five years, the American Family Survey has asked people whether they agree with statements such as: “marriage is needed to create strong families,” “marriage makes families and children financially better off,” “when more people are married, society is better off,” “being legally married is not as important as personal commitment,” “marriage is more of a burden than a benefit,” and “marriage is old-fashioned or out-of-date.” While most people still agree marriage is good for society, support for these ideas has declined over time, and in 2020 these trends either continued to decline or remained flat.
Parenting Perspectives during COVID-19
Parents with children at home have faced unique challenges this year, including managing job responsibilities while overseeing or even providing their children’s education. Many parents simply have fewer institutions to rely on for help with the daily activities of raising children, given the limitation on in-person school, church, and other places that provide services and community for families. While more time together for parents and children may forge stronger relationships, it may also lead to greater parental stress.
While most working parents in the American Family Survey report they are managing work and family life well during the pandemic, a substantial minority report struggling to find a balance between home and work responsibilities (40 percent of fathers and 31 percent of mothers). Overall, fathers report greater challenges with parenting during the pandemic than mothers. For example, 39 percent of fathers say they have struggled being at home with their children, compared to 25 percent of mothers; 32 percent of fathers say they feel they are failing as a parent, compared to 22 percent of mothers; and 31 percent of fathers say their children have become more difficult, compared to 19 percent of mothers.
Most fathers and mothers report feeling more secure about their children’s well-being since the pandemic began and children have been home from school (53 percent of fathers and 60 percent of mothers). However, parents report dissatisfaction with the state of schooling under the pandemic. Fewer than half of employed parents with school-age children say they are satisfied with the home school resources and curriculum provided to them (44 percent of fathers and 47 percent of mothers), and only about 40 percent of fathers and mothers say their children have learned as much at home as at school.
Quite a few parents say the pandemic has made them more likely to consider home schooling in the future (41 percent of fathers and 37 percent of mothers). However, it is possible that schooling has improved since the survey: the survey was conducted in the summer, following the scramble to shift to online learning in the spring. Parents’ perceptions may have been more positive if the survey was conducted during the new school year, after schools and families had more time to adjust.
Feelings of Failure or Success as a Parent
Mothers’ and fathers’ feelings about how well they are doing in their role during the pandemic vary depending on demographics and life circumstances. Overall, 25 percent of parents in the survey report feeling they are failing as a parent since the pandemic began. However, this feeling is more likely when combined with other stressors. Of those who have experienced an economic crisis during the pandemic, 35 percent say they feel they are failing as a parent. Of those who say their relationship is in trouble, 33 percent report feeling they are failing as a parent.
There is little difference between the share of high-income and low-income individuals who report feeling they are failing as a parent (26 percent and 25 percent, respectively). There are differences by race, however, with more Hispanic parents (27 percent) and white parents (26 percent) feeling they are failing as a parent than black parents (18 percent).
Tension within the Family
Only a minority of people report increased tension within the family since the start of the pandemic, and parents do not necessarily report greater tension than families without children. Seventeen percent of married individuals without children said tension had increased since the pandemic began, compared to only 13 percent of married respondents with children. However, 25 percent of single parents report an increase in tension within the family since the pandemic began.
Relationships with Family Members Outside of the Household
Americans’ relationships with family members outside the home also appear to be weathering the pandemic. The vast majority of Americans say their relationships with family members outside their own household have either stayed the same or grown stronger since the pandemic began (64 percent say family relationships have stayed the same and 18 percent say they have grown stronger). Just 9 percent say relationships with family members outside of the home have weakened.
Furthermore, more Americans are living with extended family members in 2020 than in any of the previous five years. In 2020, 25 percent of respondents reported living with extended family members, compared to 20 percent in the 2019 version of the survey and 19 percent in the 2015 survey. Part of the increase in extended family members living together could be due to economic need, although only a small share of people surveyed (4 percent) said they had to move in with other people over the past year due to financial problems, and half of them who moved in with others due to financial need say they did so prior to the pandemic.
As for in-person contact with family members outside the household, roughly one-third (34 percent) of survey respondents said they had placed some restriction on family members outside their home coming to visit. Apparently not all of these family members were aware of the restrictions though, as only 24 percent of respondents said they had ever been restricted from visiting other family members.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic is challenging the strength of some marriage and family relationships, the American Family Survey indicates marriages and families in America are doing well and may be stronger in some ways than before the pandemic started. Still, families who have experienced economic struggles as a result of the pandemic are facing greater challenges than others, and single parents report significantly greater tension in the home than married parents. Furthermore, the pandemic has likely increased barriers for single people interested in building relationships.
As outlined in a recent Social Capital Project report, policy can be reformed to strengthen marriages and families, and communities can take a variety of approaches to bolster family relationships. Americans with fewer economic resources face greater challenges to building and maintaining marriages in general. COVID-19 brings additional hurdles. Finding ways to strengthen marriage and families, particularly during these times, may especially help those facing the greatest challenges.
Senior Policy Advisor
1 The American Family Survey was conducted between July 3 and 14 of 2020.