Friday, February 6, 2009

Financial problems often drive couples apart, but the nation’s overwhelming economic crisis may be holding them together.

“People simply can’t afford to get divorced. They can’t afford the legal fees; they can’t afford having two separate places to live,” said Michele Weiner-Davis, a Colorado social worker and founder of, an online community for couples considering ending their marriages.

“There are a lot of couples who decide they have to stay together and have become motivated to do so,” she said, adding that her own practice is still busy.

Spouses who are divorcing are finding that the often-nasty experience is now even more contentious.

“[Spouses] want to receive a certain amount of support and the other will say they simply don’t have enough money,” said Michelle Thomas, a divorce lawyer who works in the District. “Divorce has become more contentious because there is less to divide. Then they are separating and the pot has shrunk. It is hard for the other spouse to comprehend that.”

Home values in the Washington area have declined 19.4 percent from a year ago, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Index, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average has fallen nearly 35 percent in the same period, taking a huge chunk out of couples’ home equity and 401(k)s. Job losses make the situation even more difficult.

Divorce rates often fall in a bad economy. Statistics show divorces declining in the District and at least two states - Kansas and Connecticut - over the past three years. Up-to-date figures were not available for Virginia and Maryland.

“Most people don’t want to wait on the mortgage,” said Carolyn Goodman, a divorce lawyer who works in the District, which has the lowest divorce rate in the nation. “It is very hard to refinance right now and many people are being forced to just stay on. That’s where I have seen the change. People may think twice about getting divorced and just separate.”

However, some may benefit from divorce in difficult economic conditions.

Cindy Hartwell, a divorce lawyer in the wealthy Connecticut suburbs of New York, says this can be an opportune time to divorce for the family breadwinner.

“Most of my clients are in financial services,” said Ms. Hartwell, who practices in hedge-fund territory in Fairfield County, Conn. “It’s a good time if you want to get out on the cheap.”

Plunging real estate prices mean that anyone who has to buy out his or her spouse likely will keep the family home for much less money than it would have cost two years ago.

Hard times have forced couples to adjust to new lifestyles, said Michael Radkowsky, a psychologist in the District who specializes in couples therapy.

“The pressure of financial crisis has made people realize they don’t know how to cope well under pressure,” Mr. Radkowsky said.

“Things have just gotten uglier between couples,” Mr. Radkowsky said. “It’s much more raw and more tense and people feel that much more is at stake. There is much less cooperation and good feeling.”

The main problem, he said, is that spending husbands and wives do for themselves, which often goes unnoticed in good times, raises eyebrows when money is tight. This can engender anger and power struggles within the marriage.

“The financial situation has taken away some of the cushioning that a lot of people had in their relationship,” Mr. Radkowsky said.

Some marriages cannot stand the friction even though this is a bad time to get divorced.

“I have people who say, ‘I can’t live like this anymore,’ and file anyway,” Ms. Hartwell said. “I’ve gotten people who say they can’t stand looking at their spouse anymore. Now that the money is gone there is no reason to stay.”

Within the District, divorce and annulment filings fell about 49 percent from 2006 to 2008, said Leah H. Gurowitz, a spokeswoman for the D.C. Courts system. So far this year, the District has recorded 159 filings, on pace to total about 1,900 filings, 200 less than last year.

Nationally, the trend likely is similar, though statistics have not yet been released for last year.

• Betsy Pisik contributed to this report.

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