The pandemic highlights how very married most of us have become.


For many Empty Nesters, 2020 has been a year to find out how strong your marriage is. It looks like if you are married, you are very married.


The Stress Test To End All Stress Tests.

When the world realized the pandemic was serious, it immediately birthed a cottage industry. Anyone with a webcam, a bookcase backdrop and an advanced degree in something could predict the future. Lawyers trying to live up to their shark label took particular interest in finding the “growth markets” in our industry. An early popular bet was family law; the theory being that all that time with each other would drive up the divorce rate. Like every piece of 2020 advice other than “save your Pizza Hut coupons,” we were wrong. It turns out that not only are we married, in the words of Audrey Hepburn we are “very married.”

If I get married, I want to be very married.

-Audrey Hepburn

Audrey had good cause to feel that way. Her own father walked away from the family when Audrey was only six; she saw little of him for over 30 years. So little that Audrey needed the help of the Red Cross to locate him in the late 1960’s. Despite their traumatic history, Audrey financially supported her father through the remainder of his life. Consistent with their traumatic history, her father remained distant from Audrey until the day he died. The movie star obviously valued very married status because she understood the pain sort of married parents caused.

Audrey Hepburn, who wanted to be "very married."
The beautiful Audrey Hepburn, with Cary Grant in Charade. Public Domain image.
Defying Expectations.

Despite Audrey’s sentiment, we have heard about the decline of the nuclear family for a good part of our Empty Nester lives. Generally, we connect the decreasing percentage of “traditional families” with the increasing freedoms we enjoy, particularly if we are female. Watching The Vote, a PBS documentary on the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage, reminded me of that fact. Strangely, suffrage opponents argued vehemently that giving women the vote would end the family.

Women's suffrage was seen as a danger to marriage and the family.
Women’s vote as a danger to marriage? Phot by Istock

That thread strengthened when women started to work in large numbers; when women gained some control over their own bodies; and when women could end a marriage simply because they wanted to. We failed to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment for that very reason. If love could not keep us very married, maybe the law could.

The statistics aligned with the theory,. The Baby Boomers, by far the most free generation in history to that point, produced the highest divorce rates in history. So, it stood to reason that when nature reduced our freedom, the equal and opposite reaction would be more people seeking that freedom in family court.

To date, we have beaten the odds. For the most part, we crunch numbers from court filings at the end of the year so “it is still too early to tell.” Yet those states who calculate in real time report decreases in divorce filings. Those numbers may surge as lawyers and courts become more accessible. Still, a Monmouth University Survey completed as the strictest lockdowns eased brought good tidings on the very married front. Married couples report handling the stress of lockdown fairly well; their relationships are good and getting better.


Two Sides To The Coin.

As with so many subjects, however, there is nuance in the numbers. Digging a bit deeper, the declining divorce rate makes more sense. The divorce rate was already trending downward and has been since the late 1980’s. A declining divorce rate should be cause for celebration. In this instance, however, we derive no real benefit from less divorces. The culprit: far fewer marriages. Instead of very married, most of the nation qualifies as never married.

This clip says it all. Form Airplane.

The number of marriages each year on a per capita basis varied when events-most often wars- dictated it. Over all, however, marriage was a stable institution, attracting somewhere between 10-15% of the population each “normal year” for over a century. The number started to dip in the early 1980’s and just kept falling until 2009. We stayed level at about 7% of the population until 2018, when the number fell again to 6.5%, the lowest in our 118 years of keeping records.

Looking even deeper, we see that the fall in marriage rates is nowhere near evenly distributed. The summary is simple. Wealthier, more educated people marry; poorer, less educated people stay single. For instance, the linked study demonstrates that in the top 1/3 of earners, 64% of people enjoy stable, intact marriages. In the bottom 1/3 of earners, only 24% claim a very married status.

The House Always Wins.

We have long known that there is a strong correlation between stable marriages and financial well-being. From that vantage point, the pandemic’s impact on marriages makes sense. We have not seen an uptick in divorces because there are fewer married people to begin with; once married, couples can better weather the financial storm than their single counterparts.

Even worse, finances present the number one obstacle to marriage. The pandemic exacerbates that issue. Plus, dating in a pandemic is more than a challenge. In the immediate future, it is hard to see anything other than a vicious, repeating cycle. The rich continue marrying, a practice that increases their happiness and wealth; the poor (and increasingly, the middle class) cannot or do not grab the brass ring.


Our Empty Nest pandemic experience mirrors the numbers. M’Lissa had to run a school out of our living room for almost three months while my law practice covered the desk in the bedroom. We bumped into each other more than usual. After the restrictions eased, we largely avoided restaurants and social outings, which is difficult for two social people. We gave inordinate time, effort and thought to figuring out risk/reward trade-offs for routine activities. If you want a flow chart on getting a haircut, we can send you one. In all, a full immersion experience into the weirdness of 2020.

While we will be first in line for the vaccine, we also have no doubt that the pandemic confirmed our 36-year union. Forced to stay home, we cooked more and better, exercised often and laughed at all the absurdity. M’Lissa and I spent more time outside this year than in the last five combined. The great Miles Davis once said “Time isn’t the main thing. It’s the only thing.” The pandemic brought many awful things to the world, but the silver lining at our house was time with each other. Although not wise enough to have ever created this time together if left to our own devices, we are smart enough to hold onto a good thing after it fell into our lap.

Very Married meant something different in 2020
Photo by Jasmine Carter from Pexels

I have sympathy for those at the opposite end of the spectrum. I would not trade one minute of competing zoom calls for the quiet that fills other houses. There can be satisfaction in solitude, but only for so long.

Which brings me to my relationship resolution for 2021. I am going to pray more. As a believer in self-sufficiency, I do not often ask for personal help. I think, however, that reminding myself of my blessings is the long route to the same place. Taking the time to appreciate and making the effort to say what works will keep me doing what works. So sometime each day I am going to remark on the remarkable: she said yes 36 years ago and most days since then; if 2020 taught me anything it taught me that very married is my answer to life’s challenges.

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