Where Logic Meets Love

The 50% Divorce Rate Is a MYTH. I'll Tell You Why.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

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The 50% Divorce Rate Is a MYTH. I'll Tell You Why. | Faith Permeating Life

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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!

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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.

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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).

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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.

5 comments:

  1. And what we see is that the percentage of women age 15 or older who are divorced has gone steadily down since 1980.
    Your source says this is the % of *married* women age 15 or older who are divorced. That's unclear (sounds like they are married and divorced simultaneously!) but I think what they mean is the % of women who were married at the beginning of a year who were divorced at the end of that year. It's important to make this distinction, because if you look at the % of *all* women age 15 and older who are divorced, of course it's declined, because the % of women age 15 and older who have ever been married has declined.

    This factor may or may not be taken into account in the table you reproduced. Women with a high-school education have had decreasing marriage rates over the time period shown, and since. If you don't get married, you can't get divorced. If the relationships most likely to break up are now less likely to involve marriage, then there's a selection bias reflected in the divorce rate.

    I'm not sure what point you intend to make with this article. Do you think that "the cultural perspective on marriage and divorce" would really be so different if 39% rather than 50% was the number publicized?

    Personally, after almost 16 years of unmarried cohabitation, I feel that statistics about the odds of a cohabiting relationship ending within 20 years have nothing more to do with the stability of my own relationship than the statistics about unmarried cohabitors being poor, uneducated, or African-American have to do with my own income, education, or race.

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  2. @'Becca
    To start, I should note that I chose not to get into the reasons why the divorce rate has declined. And as you point out, the number of divorces and the percent of the U.S. population that is divorced has declined in large part because the percent of the population getting married has declined. You make a good point that what I said about the number of divorced women declining makes it sound like it's out of the entire population rather than all married women, so I will change that to be clearer.

    The 10-year divorce chart split by education level is not the percentage of *all* women with a high-school or college education who are divorced. It is the percentage of women in each category who were married and whose marriages ended within 10 years. So in that case, the total number of marriages would not be an explanation for why the divorce rate is going down. Again, I chose not to delve into speculation about the reasons why there may be a declining divorce rate, only to provide some evidence that points to this.

    To be clear, I don't think the 39% figure is an "accurate" divorce rate either. The point I primarily wanted to make is that it is impossible to state with any certainty what percentage of marriages happening today will eventually end in divorce; we will forever have this tension that the longer time period you examine, the more divorces you capture and the less relevant that information is to new marriages. But no matter which way you slice it, it's highly unlikely that half of today's marriages will end in divorce and it's incorrect to say that the divorce rate is 50%, as if it were easily measurable.

    I completely understand your point that broad statistics don't make or break an individual relationship. This is something we discussed in my interpersonal communication class in grad school--you can say that any number of factors (age, education, race or faith differences) make relationships more or less likely to last, but that doesn't change the fact that there will still be couples who, for example, have little education, marry young, and come from completely different backgrounds who have no problem maintaining a long-term relationship, and those whose marriages are statistically likely to succeed but who break up or get divorced. And much of that (though of course not all) can be explained by communication patterns, which is how Dr. John Gottman is able to predict with a high accuracy which couples will get divorced. But even so, general trends, of course, do not determine the fate of any one individual relationship.

    Nonetheless, even within my own limited experience I have heard people talk about "the 50% divorce rate" influencing their own decision, whether to get married (or not) or to get divorced. I don't pretend to make any claims about the extent to which this particular cultural myth affects individual relationships, but I do think it has some impact on the cultural mindset about marriage which in turn has the ability to affect individuals. There are plenty of areas in which research has shown how cultural messages and scripts affect individuals' behavior without their even realizing it; how much larger might the impact be, then, if people are explicitly mentioning it as playing a role in their decisions? Therefore I believe it's important that people have more accurate information--or, where more accurate information is impossible to ascertain, at least some data on general trends and an understanding of why hard-and-fast stats are difficult or impossible to come by. That's why I wrote the article. And because it just bugs me when I see inaccurate information cited repeatedly!

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  3. No offense but 50% doesn't seem inaccurate...especially being that my dad has been married 4 times, both of my sisters have been divorced, as well as my brother. That's just speaking for my immediate family...I could go on for days if I got into friends and co-workers.

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