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  • Five research findings we published at the Institute for Family Studies in 2020 that might offer hope and direction for families in 2021 and beyond. Tweet This
  • Marriage buffers against pandemic stress, more family time strengthens teen mental health, divorce is declining, and more good news to take into 2021. Tweet This

A new year is supposed to be about a fresh start—the hope and promise of doing and being better as we put the old year behind us. Barely a week in to 2021, however, we are still facing rising COVID infection rates, increasing political turmoil, a disappointing vaccine rollout, the threat of further lockdowns in some areas, and more uncertainty about the future. But as Sarah Coyne pointed out on these pages, it is possible to turn a traumatic event (or year) into a period of growth by finding meaning through the crisis. This involves looking back at what we learned through the hardships we faced. As we face whatever 2021 might hold, it is helpful to take a quick look back at five important research findings we published at the Institute for Family Studies last year. What did we learn in 2020 that might offer some much-needed hope and direction for families in the new year and beyond?

1. Married individuals generally weather pandemic-related stress better. 

The relationship between marriage and better mental, emotional, and physical health is well established, but the COVID-19 pandemic really brought these benefits into focus for many people. In an analysis of AEI’s survey of parents last summer, IFS senior fellow W. Bradford Wilcox and AEI’s Peyton Roth found that married individuals were less likely to experience feelings of loneliness during the lockdowns. Lyman Stone echoed these findings in his September 2020 research brief on loneliness, where he showed that married parents were the least lonely Americans. Additionally, married individuals reported being less stressed during the lockdowns and better able to endure financial challenges. In a review of the COVID Impact Survey, Roth and Wilcox found that “married men, women, and families are less likely to experience hunger, to be less dependent on public assistance, and to be better prepared to cover unexpected expenses during this pandemic, when compared with single adults and families headed by single parents.” 

All of this makes sense, considering the wide body of research linking marriage to overall well-being, including a lower likelihood of suicide and early death. Tyler VanderWeele of Harvard's Human Flourishing Program detailed some of this research here at IFS a few years back, noting that the “contribution of marriage to human flourishing is substantial” with married individuals enjoying better life satisfaction, better overall health, and longer lives than divorced or single individuals.

2. More family time is good for teen mental health.

One positive outcome of 2020 was more time together at home for families—which turns out to be a mental health booster for teens. A first-of-its-kind IFS/Wheatley Institution report, Teens in Quarantine, which was based on a May-July 2020 survey, found that teen depression and loneliness was actually lower in 2020 than in 2018. Teens in two-parent families fared the best, reporting higher levels of mental health than teens in single-parent families. One of the main reasons for the improvement in teen mental health cited in the report is that teens are spending more time with their parents and siblings, “which might have mitigated the negative effects of the pandemic.” Specifically, 56% of teens said they were talking to their parents more than before the pandemic, 54% said their families ate dinner together more often, and 68% said their families were closer. As the report notes, “it appears that one of the primary foundations for teen resilience during the pandemic is family support and connection.”  

3. Divorce is declining.

Perhaps the most important research we published on the IFS blog in 2020, which was also our most popular post of the year, is that marriage in the United States is more stable today. As Wendy Wang reported, the divorce rate is at its lowest point in 50 years. While early media reports cited a possible increase in divorce filings during the pandemic, Lyman Stone analyzed data from five states to show that divorce actually declined in 2020. These findings were confirmed in new research from Bowling Green University’s Center for Family and Demographic Research. Furthermore, the most recent American Family Survey found that the pandemic has brought some couples closer rather than driving them apart, with 58% saying the pandemic created a deeper appreciation for their spouse. Also, Wilcox predicted that marriage will become more stable in the future because the "soulmate model" of marriage will die due the global pandemic and its economic consequences. "In facing new trials and tribulations, married men and women will be less focused on their own emotional fulfillment and more focused on meeting the basic financial, social, and educational needs of their children, themselves, and their parents," he wrote. 

Unfortunately, the U.S. marriage rate also reached an all-time low in 2019, and, as Wang pointed out in a recent research brief, the share of never-married Americans is rising. The marriage gap between less-educated and higher-educated Americans also continues to widen. This means that unless something changes, fewer Americans and their children will reap the benefits of marriage highlighted above.

4. Religious schooling is strongly associated with healthier family formation for students

Throughout this pandemic, parents with children in private schools have benefited from more in-person instruction for their children compared to parents with kids in public schools. While the academic benefits of private schooling for kids are well known, our recent report with AEI highlights a lesser-known outcome of religious schooling: healthier future family lives for students. The Protestant Family Ethic, which compared public and private school students, found that those who attended private schools were more likely to be in a stable marriage as adults and to have their children inside marriage compared to public-school attendees. This association was stronger among students who attended religious schools, especially Protestant private schools. In reflecting on the reasons for the association between attending private school and healthier family life outcomes, the authors point to a more supportive peer environment and stronger traditional messaging from school leaders about the value of marriage and of having and raising children within marriage. As we think about how best to promote marriage to young people who are increasingly delaying or forgoing marriage, especially those from at risk communities, we should consider the key role of private, and particularly religious, education.

5. Faith, meaning, and acts of service can bolster individual and family resilience. 

Over the past year, we published a number of research findings on the power of faith and meaning to improve human flourishing during turbulent times. BYU professors David Dollahite and Loren Marks explained that simple daily religious practices, such as individual and family prayer and reading scripture together, can bolster couple and parental relationships, as well as individual health. They pointed to “a large and growing body of empirical evidence that demonstrates that faith in God and meaningful engagement in a faith community both provide tangible, measurable benefits to mental, relational, and physical health—including years of longevity.” 

IFS contributor Clay Routledge also shared findings from his research on meaning. “Meaning in life has great motivational power,” Routledge wrote. “It gives people hope and the personal agency to take care of themselves and help others.” Indeed, the Washington Post recently reported, “people who have high levels of purpose in life spend fewer nights in hospitals, have lower odds of developing diabetes & over two times lower risk of dying from heart conditions than do others." 

Finally, Dr. VanderWeele explored the health benefits of helping others. His recent study found that volunteering at least two hours a week was associated with higher levels of happiness, optimism, and life purpose, and lower depressive symptoms, loneliness, and physical discomfort, as well as lower rates of death. As he wrote, "Society as a whole, and each of us individually, will more fully thrive if we are continually seeking the good of others."

So how can we use these research findings to strengthen family life in 2021? We can spend more quality time with our spouse and children, embrace the power of faith and faith-based institutions, advance the message that marriage matters to well-being, and pursue more meaningful lives as we find ways to serve others in our communities. By doing these simple things, we can hopefully turn a bad beginning to 2021 into a year when more families flourish regardless of circumstances.