The Divorce Surge is Over – The Myth Lives On

Divorce rates increased in the 1970s and 1980s, but in the last 20 years they have dropped, according to The New York Times.

Conservative commentators lament high poverty levels and blame marital failure, claiming “the divorce rate is going up.” For example, Untying the Knot, the divorce reality show, rolled out last June as “a way to look at a situation that 50 percent of married couples unfortunately end up in.”

However, the divorce rate is falling not rising, and half of all marriages do not end in divorce. It has not been rising for some time. Even though social scientists have undone the myth of skyrocketing divorce, the popular wisdom, which is so often wrong and so often manipulated for political advantage, holds that the institution of marriage is tittering on the rocks. Despite hand wringing, the divorce rate peaked in the 1970s and early 1980s and has been declining for the three decades since.

Excluding marriages where a spouse died, about 70 percent of marriages that began in the 1990s reached their 15th anniversary – up from about 65 percent of those that began in the 1970s and 1980s. Couples married in the 2000s are so far divorcing at even lower rates. Nearly two-thirds of marriages will never involve a divorce if current trends continue, according to data from Justin Wolfers, a University of Michigan economist, who also contributes to the The Upshot, a New York Times blog.

Later marriages, effective birth control, and the rise of so-called love marriages – all have contributed to the decline in divorce rates. These same forces have helped reduce the divorce rate in parts of Europe, too.

However, some of the decline can be attributed to changing gender roles – whom the feminist revolution helped and whom it left behind.

“Two-thirds of divorces are initiated by women,” said William Doherty, a marriage therapist and professor of family social science at University of Minnesota, “so when you’re talking about changes in divorce rates, in many ways you’re talking about changes in women’s expectations.”

Marriage trends happen to be a force behind rising economic and social inequality. The decline in divorce is concentrated among people with college degrees; for the less educated, divorce rates are closer to those of the peak divorce years. Of college-educated people married in the early 2000s, only about 11 percent divorced by their seventh anniversary, the last year for which data is available; among people without college degrees, 17 percent were divorced.

The economic transformation called globalization has left many blue-collar men in the dust of unemployment or underemployment, yet many working-class families often have more traditional notions about male breadwinners than do the college-educated. As a result, many wait to achieve a level of financial security that never happens and thus never marry; others part ways during tough economic times.

“As the middle of our labor market has eroded, the ability of high school-educated Americans to build a firm economic foundation for a marriage has been greatly reduced,” said Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist and author of Labor’s Love Lost: The Rise and Fall of the Working-Class Family in America. “Better-educated Americans have found a new marriage model in which both spouses work and they build a strong economic foundation for their marriage.”

In part, the decline in divorce clearly stems from the fact that fewer people are getting married. Poorer and less-educated Americans are forgoing one of the most conspicuous channel markers in the passage to adulthood – marriage.

Twenty percent of adults older than 25, some 42 million people, have never married, up from 9 percent in 1960, according to a Pew Research Center report published in September.

The trend has been consistent for decades. Since 1970, each group of young adults has been less likely to marry than the previous generation. Part of the trend can be attributed to the fact that people are simply marrying older, but Pew projects that a quarter of today’s young adults will have never married by 2030, which would be the highest share in modern history.

Seen in the long view, the skyrocketing divorce rate of the 1970s and early 198os is an anomaly that happened at the same time as a new feminist movement, which caused social and economic upheaval. Today, society has adapted, and the divorce rate has declined again.

In the 1950s and 1960s, marriage was about a breadwinner husband and a homemaker wife, who both needed the other’s contributions to the household but didn’t necessarily spend much time together. In the 1970s, all that changed.

Women entered the work force, many of their chores in the home became automated and they gained reproductive rights, as the economist Betsey Stevenson and Mr. Wolfers have argued in their academic work. As a result, marriage has evolved to its modern-day form, based on love and shared passions, and often two incomes and shared housekeeping duties.

The people who married soon before the feminist movement were caught in the upheaval. They had married someone who was a good match for the postwar culture but the wrong partner after times changed. Modern marriage is more stable because people are again marrying people suitable to the world in which we live.

“It’s just love now,” Mr. Wolfers said. “We marry to find our soul mate, rather than a good homemaker or a good earner.”

The delay in marriage is part of the story, allowing people more time to understand what they want in a partner and to find one. The median age for marriage in 1890 was 26 for men and 22 for women. By the 1950s, it had dropped to 23 for men and 20 for women. In 2004, it climbed to 27 for men and 26 for women.

Perhaps surprisingly, more permissive attitudes may also play a role. The fact that most people live together before marrying means that more ill fated relationships end in breakups instead of divorce. And the growing acceptance of single-parent families has reduced the number of shotgun marriages, which were never the most stable of unions, notes Stephanie Coontz, a professor at Evergreen State College and the author of Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage.

Overall, the marriage trends resemble those in many other areas of American life. For people on the wealthier side of the class divide, life is better than it used to be in many ways. For people on the other side, the situation is much more complicated.

And the effects could last for decades, as the children of stable marriages grow up with both the immediate benefits and the role models for successful future relationships – while at the same time, record numbers of children grow up in one-parent households.

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