Marriage Statistics Divorced from Reality?

One of the most quoted statistics is that 50 percent of all marriages end in divorce. Now that divorce stat is coming under scrutiny.

In her book, “For Better,” Tara Parker-Pope, a New York Times reporter (and herself a divorcée), debunks the 50% stat. Since the 1970s, when more women started going to college and delaying marriage, “marital stability appears to be improving each decade,” she writes. For example, about 23% of college graduates who married in the 1970s split within 10 years against 16 percent for those who wed in the 1990s.

Couples who stay together seem more likely to have a college education, marry a bit later, and not be lower income. Two demographic characteristics relate to child-free folks as well – they tend to have higher education and incomes.

According to the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, in the 1980s, 81 percent of college grads who got married at 26 or older were still married 20 years later and 65 percent of grads who got married before they were 26 were married 20 years later. But just 49 percent of those who married young and did so without a degree lasted 20 years, an association that Parker-Pope spends little time discussing.

She contends that the 50 percent statistic is a myth that persists because it’s something of a political Swiss Army knife, handy for any number of agendas. Social conservatives use it to call for more marriage-friendly policies; liberals use it to argue for funding for programs that help single moms.

Ms. Parker-Pope argues grim marriage stats become a self-fulfilling prophecy. “It makes us ambivalent and more vulnerable to giving up.”
It seems clear that less-educated, lower-income couples split up more often than college grads and may be doing so in higher numbers than before. “The people who are most likely to get divorced have the least resources to deal with its impact, particularly on children,” says Penn State sociologist Paul Amato.

It’s interesting that there’s no mention of kids and their influence on marriages lasting longer or not. In general, the more education a woman has, the fewer children she has. So if marital stability has to do with higher education, one could surmise that there will be fewer children involved, if any.

The 50 percent is “a very murky statistic,” says Jennifer Baker, director of the marriage- and family-therapy programs at Forest Institute, a postgraduate psychology school in Springfield, Missouri. “It’s very difficult to know, if a couple gets married today, whether they’ll still be married in 40 years.”

States collect data in different ways, so the numbers change dramatically depending on the methods and sources that are used. In the end, the best that researchers can do is look for trends within a specific group or cohort and project what will happen.

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