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Since this has come up no fewer than three times in the past two weeks, I decided I needed to devote a post to debunking the myth that "50% of today's marriages end in divorce."
Much of the information below comes from the book For Better by Tara Parker-Pope, published in 2010. If you want to know more, definitely check out the book!
----Let's start with the first problem in answering the question "How many marriages end in divorce?": In order for a marriage to be unequivocally counted as not ending in divorce, at least one partner needs to be dead and the partners need to have been legally married at the time of death. If both partners are still alive and married, they *might* still divorce someday, right?
Unfortunately, if we're trying to count marriages that ended in death rather than divorce, by and large we're looking at people who got married around the 1950s or before. And it's pretty difficult to argue that the culture and circumstances under which my grandparents got married have anything to do with the likelihood that a couple getting married today, in 2012, will get divorced, which is what people want to know, right? So that method of measuring the divorce rate is out.
Let's start with a shorter time frame. According to a U.S. Census Bureau survey in 2009, the median length of a marriage that eventually ended in divorce was 8 years. (Source, page 18.) Given this fact, it seems pretty safe to look at people who got married 20 or 30 years ago and see what percentage of those marriages ended in divorce within 20 years. There may still be people who will get divorced after 20+ years, but we should be able to capture the vast majority of divorces that are going to happen from that cohort.
What we see is that the percentage of couples married in the 1980s who were divorced within 20 years was actually 39%. (Source: For Better, page 14, based on the research of Dr. Betsey Stevenson.)
However, this still doesn't give us a very accurate picture of the likelihood that a marriage today will end in divorce. Many things have changed since the 1980s that could affect the divorce rate. For one thing, the median age at which people get married has increased: in 1980, it was 24.7 for men and 22.0 for women; in 2010, it was 28.2 for men and 26.1 for women. (Source.) And we do know that, historically, divorce is more common among women who are married before age 25 than those married after age 25. (Source: For Better page 13.)
While we won't know the 20-year divorce rate of people getting married today until 2032, we can see whether divorce rates have been going up or down over time.
And what we see is that the number of divorces per 1,000 married women age 15 and older has gone steadily down since 1980. (Source.)
Looking at an even shorter time frame, of 10 years post-marriage, also shows the divorce rate dropping. Here's a comparison of women's divorce rates 10 years post-marriage by their educational level:
Ten-Year Divorce Rates for Three Generations of Women
|COLLEGE GRADS||HIGH SCHOOL|
|1970s:||23 percent||26 percent|
|1980s:||20 percent||25 percent|
|1990s:||16 percent||19 percent|
(Source: For Better, page 13, based on the research of Dr. Betsey Stevenson and Adam Isen.)
It is impossible (unless you are psychic) to know exactly how many couples getting married today will get divorced before one of them dies. But we can get a general sense of how frequently people are getting divorced and whether that is increasing or decreasing, and based on the information we have, I can say confidently that it is very unlikely that 50% of the marriages beginning in 2012 will end in divorce.
----So where did this 50% number come from? Very simply, somebody took the number of divorces in a single year and divided it by the number of marriages that same year. And even that number is not consistent: In 2010 it was 42% -- though that figure is equally as meaningless. (Source.)
Here's a quick illustration of why making a calculation like this and extrapolating it to couples getting married today is ridiculous: In 2009 in the United States, there were 2,437,163 deaths (Source) and 4,130,665 births (Source).
Nobody would look at those two numbers and say, "This means 59% of people born in the United States this year will die someday" (unless they had a very loose grasp on the reality of their own mortality).
----Why is it important to debunk the 50% myth? Because it changes the cultural perspective on marriage and divorce. If it were true that 50% of marriages ended in divorce, that would mean that the likelihood of your marriage lasting 'til death do you part was no better than flipping a coin.
This kind of thinking, in my opinion, devalues the institution of marriage more than anything else. For example, here's a story that 'Becca left on my Don’t Pop the Bubble post last year:
I was astonished when I went to my 10th high school reunion and found that about 10% of my class was divorced already at age 28, and 3 people had been divorced twice! Each time I was talking at any length with someone who had divorced, I said in a concerned way, "Oh gosh, I'm sorry, what happened?" and every one of them looked surprised and said, "Well, it's not so bad; it just didn't work out." They seemed to think it was no different from going out and breaking up in high school; it's just that when you are a grownup, marriage is supposed to happen after a certain time going out, and breaking up is called divorce.
I'm not trying to imply by this that marriage is always good and divorce is always bad. But I do believe that both marriage and divorce are serious decisions and should be treated as such.
In case you're wondering, there isn't much of a difference between first and second marriages. Dr. Stevenson's research cited in For Better (page 17) found that while there was a slightly higher divorce rate for second marriages compared to first marriages, there was a small number of people who could be called "serial" divorcers (people who get married and divorced multiple times within a short period of time). Dr. Stevenson estimated that if you eliminated these serial divorcers from the data set, the rate of divorce was pretty much the same for first and second marriages. (The initial difference can be explained by the fact that the serial divorcers make up a larger slice of all second marriages than of all first marriages because there are fewer second marriages than first marriages.)
So there you go. It's entirely inaccurate to say that half of all marriages end in divorce. And now you know why.
I invite you to take a second and share this post. Put a little more hope in the world.