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The Divorce Encyclopedia
Divorce Statistics


Term Definition Divorce Statistics - to the altar and to divorce court, by the numbers.
Application in Divorce Some years ago, a man wrote a little book called How to Lie with Statistics, which argues that statistics are a way people lie without being held accountable. To be sure, many people use statistics for their own purposes, particularly to advance their own political agendas. Even when they used in good faith, statistics, which are quantified abstractions, can be very misleading. (Consider former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, a leading architect of the Vietnam War, whose statistical representations of progress in that conflict convinced him, at least for a time, that America was winning. "If it can be quantified," said McNamara, "it can be understood.")

The popular wisdom holds that half of American marriages end in divorce -- a statement that makes matrimony only a little less appealing that riding with Custer to the Little Big Horn. In a general way, the divorce rate in America began climbing in the 1960s, took off dramatically in the 1970s and 1980s, as almost all states enacted no-fault divorce. But raw numbers mask as much as they reveal.

For sure, stark percentages in newspaper headlines ("50 percent of marriages fail") arrest attention. And commentators at both ends of the political spectrum zero in American family life -- marriage, children and divorce -- because it hits home. Conservatives trumpet divorce numbers as evidence of the erosion of moral values and with this, the suggestion of moral dry rot; liberals, looking the same numbers, suggest that they show the changing trends of a permissive, tolerant and more inclusive civilization.

Because they are so often politicized, divorce statistics can be very misleading. The conventional wisdom holds that "America remains plagued by a divorce epidemic," yet the latest available numbers suggest that the rate per 1,000 people -- the per capita rate, as it is called -- has declined steadily from its peak of 5.3 divorces in 1981 to a low of 3.6 divorces. This is the lowest rate since 1970.

Yet this encouraging number can be misleading. The number of couples who live together without marrying, young people either by cohabitation before marriage or older people living common law after a conventional marriage ended in the death of a first partner, has increased tenfold since 1960; the marriage rate has dropped by nearly 30 percent in the past quarter century; and Americans wait about five years longer to marry than they did in 1970. Indeed, the time since 1970 are the very years when the much celebrated Baby Boomers passed through their peak marriage years. The size of this group, some 75 million people, is enough to influence aggregate numbers.

Very small changes in the makeup of a society cause significant changes in numbers like divorce rates. Delays and postponement in the age of first marriages and cohabitation cause changes in divorce rates. Even changes in the ages of a demographic cohort can influence rates.

Some researchers contend that divorce rates are indeed "falling substantially among college-educated couples but not among less-affluent, less-educated couples." Good jobs and a higher standard of living, the argument goes, lead to "less tension at home and a lower probability of divorce."

Moreover, geography apparently plays a part in the statistics of divorce. Eleven southern states -- Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas -- averaged 5.1 divorces per 1,000, compared with nine states in the Northeast -- Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont, which averaged 3.5 divorces per 1,000 people.

Statistics, by very nature of quantified abstractions, are difficult to interpret unless they can be put back into the context from which they are abstracted.

When a reporter once gave his editor a statistical argument, the editor listened and then said, "When it is you, it is 100 percent." When Rufus and Rhonda head for the rocks, it is 100 percent, and whether or not this happens during a rise or a dip in the divorce rate of everyone else does not mean a hills of beans. It’s 100 percent for them.

See also Christian Divorce.

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