By Cindy Perman, CNBC.com
In tough times, some strained marriages crack. Others try to hold on until they just can't hold on any longer. One thing's for sure: Bad economies are good times for the cheating business - and other freaky stuff couples do to survive.
You might think that the divorce rate would spike during a recession but in fact, it's been pretty consistent around 50 percent for the past five years, said Ken Altshuler, president-elect of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers.
That number briefly dropped to about 35 to 40 percent for about six months during the recession as some starry-eyed lovers tried to hang on, but then shot up to 60 to 65 percent for the next six months as those hangers-on caved under the weight of the added financial stress that came with the recession. But since the spring of 2010, as the economy has shown signs of recovery and then faltered again, that number has remained consistent at around 50 percent.
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"People have just accepted that the new normal is a bad financial situation," Altshuler said.
What has changed, however, is how people divide up the marital assets. The home used to be a couple's biggest asset, now for many, it's their biggest debt.
"I have seen a huge number of clients losing their homes to short sales or foreclosures and I really thought the down housing market would decrease divorces," Altshuler said. "It hasn't had one iota of change on divorce filing but it has dramatically changed property settlements."
With new bank rules, it now takes from six to 18 months for the bank to foreclose on a property, when that process used to just take six months. As a result, he said, some couples are getting creative and having one spouse stay in the home through the foreclosure process. Not having to pay the mortgage, reduces a huge burden - and stress - on the family. That way, the other partner has more money for spousal and child support.
Other couples are turning to what's called "nesting." That means that the family keeps the house and the kids live there full time. The now-divorced parents take turns living there based on when it's their turn with the kids. They might stay with friends during the off time or a shared apartment.
Altshuler said "nesting" isn't a new concept but the reason couples are choosing it is. "Now, they're not doing it so much for the kids, as doing it to increase the value of their asset," Altshuler said.
Divorce coach Lee Block, who also runs the divorce dating site, PostDivorceDatingClub.com, said she's known several couples who choose the nesting route and cautions that it requires a lot of trust between the partners. "You have to trust that your ex is not going to go through your stuff," she said.
She's also seen a role reversal where more women are paying spousal and child support to men who have lost their jobs. "The father may keep primary custody because he's been at home while she's out working," Block said.
One business that has totally boomed through these tough economic times - you might call it a reverse economic indicator - is the affair business.
In early 2009, about four months into the recession, Ashley Madison, a "married dating service for discreet encounters," saw its business start to take off. And for the next six quarters, as the economy hit rock bottom and then leveled off, the affair site saw its revenue growth steadily rise.
"We're not a recession-proof business, we're a recession-growth business," said Noel Biderman, CEO of Avid Life Media, the parent company of Ashley Madison. "Everyone looks for a temporary way to feel better about themselves," he said.
Biderman said they have gotten a ton of emails from clients in Michigan, Arizona Nevada, states where the housing market has been hardest hit by the recession.
"People were basically confessing in their profile that 'The marriage is really over - we're just waiting for the market to recover,'" he said, adding: "Who wants to pay $40,000 for a divorce when you can pay $49 for an affair?!"
Here's how it works (I know you're dying to know): It's "pay as you play," so the more you want to play, the more you pay. For $49, you get 100 credits. That allows you to chat with about 20 different members. You can then decide how much information you want to share with that person, photos, etc., and if/when you want to meet. When it's over, Ashley Madison deletes all correspondence from both inboxes - so no one ever has ammunition to blackmail you. (Click here to read more FAQs.)
Biderman says the busiest time for the site is, without fail, Monday morning, as spouses who've had their weekend hopes of marital bliss dashed - or an excessive spike in their marital aggravation level - turn to a discreet affair to fill the void. He said that's also true with other high-expectation holidays: Their traffic spikes the day after Valentine's Day, Father's Day and Mother's Day. The end of the year is an exception - business is slow as more couples, happy or not, choose to spend the holidays with family.
Though, he said, thanks to mobile devices, they're also getting a pickup in the evening as more spouses feel comfortable slinking off to the basement or bathroom to check a few profiles.
And, while you might think that high-profile affair busts like Tiger Woods would be a deterrent, they're actually a boost to the affair business because a lot of people see that and say, "You see? Everyone does it."
One telling sign of these hard financial times: Medical professionals used to be one the biggest users of the affair site. Now, for the past few years, it's been people who work in financial services. They also saw an uptick in education and government as those professions saw a lot of layoffs.
A big question Biderman often gets is, why do politicians cheat so much?
"To get there, you have to take a lot of risks in life," Biderman said of politicians. "These people have risk-taking personality types." They're more willing to take risks in their career, as well as their personal lives.
There was a brief period in about February or March where growth in the affair business started to level out, which some might see as an encouraging sign for the economy. But, with apologies to all of you bulls out there, their business is back on an upswing again.
And, while the U.S. watches Europe's financial crisis unfold, Ashley Madison is there. Biderman said business in Spain and other hard-hit European countries where the company operates, is booming.
Hey, if the economy's a rockin', don't come a knockin'.
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