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U.S. Divorce Rates and Statistics

An in depth examination and analysis of the divorce rates in the United States.

Divorce By The Statistics: It Doesn't Add Up

Someone once said that people who use statistics to make arguments use numbers the way a drunk uses a streetlight: not for illumination but for support.

Every day, divorce statistics punctuate the pronouncements of social commentators who use them, not to throw light on the subject, but to convince readers of their political point of view. Commentators write with an agenda, and they wittingly or unwittingly mislead casual readers. And when Rev. Dogood quotes a newspaper headline "50 Percent of Marriages Fail" in his Sunday sermon, his parishioners leave church feeling that the Western world is on its way to hell in a hand basket. Imagine that. That means, one in two marriages will head for the rocks someday, think Sam and Sally (who hope for the best for themselves, of course). The truth is that Sam and Sally and Rev. Dogood and all of America negotiate life in a blizzard of numbers and statistics that make critical thinking very difficult. The tsunami of raw data and undigested information that inundates everyone makes it difficult to form a reasoned response to a basic question, what does this really mean?

For sure, percentages ("50 percent of marriages fail") suggest a precision and objectivity, but it is not that simple. Divorce statistics, like all statistics, are quantified abstractions that are difficult to interpret correctly unless they can be put into context from which they are abstracted. And what seems like good news can be very misleading unless it is put in the context of life experience. For example, not long ago the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia announced optimistically that a slight drop in the per 1,000 divorce rate of married women signaled evidence that "the challenges of job losses, foreclosures and depleted retirement accounts may be driving some couples to stick together." Yet past experience demonstrates that both marriage and divorce rates "tend to fall when the economy heads south and then rise when good times return."

In the end, the numbers, the moralizing, the commentary (and the sermon) don't really illuminate so much as reinforce preconceived notions about the state of American family life.

Overall, the divorce rate shot up after World War II, then declined, only to rise again in the 1960s and 1970s, and then leveled off during the 1980s, but in trying to give meaning to these statistics great care must be taken. According to the National Marriage Project, the "overall divorce rate" peaked at 22.6 divorces per 1,000 marriages in 1980, 20.9 in 1990, and 18.8 in 2000. Yet it should be remembered the sheer size of the much studied Baby Boom - 75 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964 - is enough to influence the aggregate marriage and divorce statistics.

Half of All Marriages End in Divorce? True or False

The 50 percent statistic is very misleading, if not completely wrong. "The demographics of divorce are routinely reported wrong, calculated wrong or misinterpreted," says Robert Hughes, a former professor in the Department of Human & Family Services, College of Human Environmental Science, University of Missouri-Columbia. Hughes says that for every two marriages that occurred in the 1990s there was one divorce. "This does not mean the divorce rate is 50 percent [because] the people getting married in a single year are not the same ones getting divorced," he says.

No one is really certain about how the 50 percent number imbedded itself so deeply in popular imagination. "The assumption has been (by those who have not studied it carefully) is that the 50 percent number came from someone noticing that, in the U.S., we have about 2.4 million marriages a year and 1.2 million divorces a year. Hence, 50 percent of married couples divorce," says Scott M. Stanley of the University of Denver.

"No serious demographer ever looked at the approximately 2.4 million marriages a year and the 1.2 million divorces a year to arrive at the 50 percent number. That is a misunderstanding that began early in the debate about what the divorce rate reality - a misunderstanding that is, unfortunately, widely perpetuated," Stanley says.

Part of the difficulty with divorce statistics is that the rates measure divorces in different ways.

Divorce rates become clearer when the calculation and compilation of the statistics is understood. Federal funding for the collection and publication of detailed marriage and divorce statistics was suspended in 1996, and as a result an annual count of divorces in the United States is not complete. Not all states report divorces, but despite this limitation the U.S Census Bureau calculates what is known as a crude divorce rate - the number of divorces per 1,000 people in the population. This calculation leaves much to be desired because it includes children and single adults who are not at risk of divorce. "[C]hanges in the proportion of children in the population will affect the divorce rate, even if the underlying divorce trend is stable," according to Paul R. Amato, who wrote "Interpreting Divorce Rates, Marriage Rates and Data on the Percentage of Children with Single Parents," a publication of the National Health Marriage Resource Center. With these limitations in mind, the crude rate rose from 2.2 in 1960 to 5.3 in 1981 - a 141 percent increase, and then dropped gradually to 3.6 in 2007 - a 32 percent decline.

The refined divorce rate - the number of divorces per 1,000 married woman - includes only those people at risk of divorce, so social scientists and demographers see it as preferable to the crude rate. Using this routine, the divorce rate ranged from a low of 14.3 in North Dakota to a high of 34.5 in Washington, D.C., for a national average of 19.4, according to National Center for Family and Marriage Research. Using this regime, in 2008, divorce fell from a rate of 17 divorces per 1,000 married women in 2007 to 16.9 per 1,000 married women.

Another number that sometimes comes into social commentaries is what is termed the cohort approach, which is the divorce rate among "people who married in a given year or set of adjacent years. People who married in 1990, for example, may have a different lifetime probability of divorce than people who married in 2000.

Thus, the divorce rate is misleading for a number of reasons. Not all states report divorce statistics. The divorce count is based on the total population, not the total married population. Using per capita at today's population distorts the comparison of current marriages because divorces that happen today arose from a smaller population yesterday.

The Divorce Statistics as They Pertain to Real Life

Po Bronson, the author of Why Do I Love These People? and a contributor to the website The Factbook: Eye-Opening Memos on Everything Family, terms divorce numbers "one of the most regularly abused statistics I've seen in my research."

Bronson puts the numbers into the context of real life. "Divorce rates don't take into account social and economic events that can have a huge influence on both marriage and divorce rates. During the Depression, divorce rates dropped - because getting a divorce was too expensive. It was cheaper to just abandon a family - which men did...In World War II, there was a marriage boom as young men hurriedly married before they went off to war - and then a divorce boom as their stranger-husbands returned."

Using an overall divorce rate obscures as much as it reveals, Bronson says. "[A]n over-all divorce rate doesn't help, because it makes it seem like everyone gets divorced at the same point in their marriage, and that's not the case. Newly married couples are much more likely to get divorced than a couple that's been married a couple of years, and couples without children are much more likely to divorce than couples with children."

Because statistics are abstracted quantifications, people tend to forget they come from real life. Very often social commentary about divorce rates implies a cause and effect relationship between no-fault divorce and soaring divorce rates, that is, the couples casually decide to jettison marriages that hit a rough patch, as all marriages, good and bad, do from time to time. "You might disapprove of the number of divorces," writes Bronson, "but think about your friend who got divorced. Think about your own divorce. Because in critiques of the rising numbers of divorces, we forget that divorces aren't numbers. They are relationships. And just because it's easy to check a box on a form doesn't mean it's easy to end the relationship. It can be devastating. And just because the form says "No Fault" -- that isn't necessarily the truth. The couple knows what's happened. They have just decided to keep it to themselves."

In other words, the term no-fault becomes a flag of convenience when couples decide to lower their sails and end the voyage of a marriage gone south, not the reason they ended the marriage.

Divorce Statistics in the Political Arena

In 2004, political commentators enlisted divorce statistics along the red state-blue state battle lines when the George Barna Research Group announced that the bluest of blue states, Massachusetts, had the lowest divorce rate of 2.4 per 1,000 population, while rosy red Texas came in a 4.1 per 1,000 population. Moreover, nine very red Southern states - Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, George, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and South Carolina -- had divorce rates half again as high as the national average, 4.2 per 1,000 population.

Barna, a born-again Christian, dolefully admitted that the areas of the country where divorce rates were highest are frequently the areas many conservative Christians live.

Of course, the numbers gave left-leaning commentators a chance to beg the question: if the blue state liberals care less about family values, as red state conservatives allege, why are the divorce rates lowest in the blue states and highest in the red states? Right-leaning commentators countered that in "liberal Massachusetts" and other parts of the Northeast more people are likely to be cohabiting rather than marrying.

And of course the numbers begot more numbers and interpretations. The Northeast and the Midwest have large populations of Catholics and Lutherans, two denominations which lower divorce rates.

William V. D'Antonio, a professor emeritus at the University of Connecticut and visiting research professor at Catholic University in Washington, offered a more textured explanation: more couples marry for the first time at a younger age in the South; average household incomes are lower in the South; Southern states do have a lower percentage of Roman Catholics; and education. "Massachusetts has about the highest rate of education in the country, with 85 percent completing high school. For Texas the rate is 76 percent. One third of Massachusetts residents have completed high school, compared with 23 percent of Texans, and the other Northeast states are right behind Massachusetts.

"The liberals from Massachusetts have long prided themselves on their emphasis on education, and it has paid off: People who stay in school longer get married at a later age, when they are more mature, are more likely to secure a better job, and job income increases with each level of formal education. As a result, Massachusetts also leads in per capita and family income while births by teenagers, as a percent of total births, was 7.4 for Massachusetts and 16.1 for Texas."

A Look at Financial Burden and Divorce Rates

Sometimes people turn to divorce statistics for clues that foreshadow the likelihood of marital success or failure. According to a 2009 study by Jeffrey Dew at the Utah State University, one of the best indicators of marital discord is what he terms "financial disagreements." Couples who "disagree about finances once a week" are over 30 percent more likely to get divorced than couples that report "disagreeing about finances a few times a month." Disagreeing about finance means fighting about money.

According to Dew, couples who disagree about money less than once per month run a 30 to 40 percent increase in the risk of divorce. This rate increases steeply when the partners fight several times per month, once a week, several times a week, to almost daily, when the risk increases to 125 percent to 160 percent.

In his study, Dew examined the responses of 2,800 couples surveyed in 1987 by the National Survey of Families and Households, who were contacted again in 1992, "and asked if they were still married." Of all the common items on the agenda of domestic disputes - chores, in-laws, spending time together, sex and money - "money disputes were the best harbinger of divorce."

Dew's metric of percent of increase in the risk of divorce may be a bit murky, but fights about money carry a big price. People may fight about how to spend what they have, but more often couples wake up too late to the cost of high living, which is debt. In extreme cases, debt becomes like an unwelcome stranger in their marriage, and recriminations and bickering soon take a toll.

Divorce Statistics of Second Marriages

One divorce statistic that always surprises people is the divorced rate of second and third marriages. Most people who divorce spin the roulette wheel of romance again. The conventional wisdom holds that a one-time divorce loser has learned from his or her experience, that he or she has made mistakes but moved on, a wiser man or woman, and that wedded bliss is more likely "the second time around," as the song goes. Alas, the conventional wisdom, as is so often the case, is wrong. While percentage differs slightly (depending on the source), 60 to 67 percent of second marriages fail, and 70 to 73 percent of third marriages end on the rocks.

The wisdom of experience goes only so far. Unfinished business from the first marriage must be attended to. Rebound marriages, money woes and worries, step relationships, bickering with former spouses about support, custody and visitation - all create liabilities when people go down the aisle again.

Divorce Statistics that Mean Something

The one-on-two statistic so endlessly repeated by moralizing clerics, grandstanding politicians and tendentious commentators misleads people because people who are divorcing in any given year are not the same people who are marrying.

A better way, researchers suggest, calculates how many people who ever married subsequently divorced. Counted this way, the divorce rate has never exceeded 41 percent and is even now edging down. "This highest rate of divorce in the 2001 survey [of the Fertility and Family Branch of the Census Bureau] was 41 percent for men who were then between the ages of 50 and 59, and 39 percent for women in the same age group."

While the real divorce rate is open to discussion and debate, some researchers see a widening and significant "divorce divide" between the college educated and non college-educated in the United States. The divorce rate has been falling off strongly among the college-educated America, even as it continues to creep up to the less schooled, according to Andrew J. Cherlin, a professor of public police in the sociology department at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Studies suggest that more highly educated people tend to marry at a later age and more of them live together without marrying. "In funny way, the postponing of marriage is lowering the divorce rate - young couples live together without marrying, and then they break up the split doesn't count as a divorce."

Cherlin suggests that these divorce divide may relate to the widening gap between the incomes of the top and bottom of society. Educated couples "have been the winners in our globalized economy - they've gotten better jobs, and their incomes are going up, so there's less strain on their marriages," he says.

Probably, a discussion of divorce rates and divorce statistics must include the dramatic growth in the number of unmarried couples who are cohabiting. Between 1960 and 1998, the number of unmarried, cohabiting couples increased from 439,000 to 4.2 million - a tenfold increase, and greater than the rates of marriage and divorce. These informal unions come into existence and dissolve much more easily than marriages and divorces. The formation and dissolutions increase the fluidity in American life.

Divorce Statistics With a Purpose

Robert McNamara, one of the leading architects of the catastrophic Vietnam War, believed in data, statistics and numbers. "If it can be quantified," said McNamara, "it can be understood." McNamara's statistical representations convinced him that America was winning a war it plainly was losing. So it is with numbers. They are not much use if they cannot be transmuted into knowledge, understanding and, yes, even wisdom.

Professor Stanley at the University of Denver suggests that people consider the following statements:

- About 31 percent of a person's friends, aged 35 to 54, who are married, engaged or cohabiting have already previously been married.

- People who have been married many years (say, 35-plus) and have never been divorced have almost no chance of the marriage ending in divorce.

- The rate of divorce per year per 1,000 people has been declining since 1980.

- A young couple marrying for the first time today has a lifetime divorce risk of 40 percent, "unless current trends change significantly."

"Each of these statements is true and defensible," says Stanley. "One the positive side, the rate has been slowly declining. On the negative side, a young couple does really have a high chance of not making it...Marriages starting out today are at great risk for divorce or marital distress."

These numbers are not set in stone, and divorce rates mask entirely the social costs of failed marriages and broken families. For example, without a doubt, the so-called "feminization of poverty" includes, not only unmarried or never married single women struggling to raise their children as solo mothers, but also many divorced woman who are now struggling to manage as single custodial mothers. The children of these women often grow up in environments where the father is an occasional visitor or absent entirely. So often the children of divorce, are at risk. An avalanche of data and statistics demonstrate "a wide variety of negative behavioral and education consequences" to children growing up in fatherless homes. Children from fatherless homes account for 63 percent of youth suicides, 71 percent of the pregnant teenagers, 90 percent of the homeless and runaway children, and 70 percent of the institutionalized juveniles. They account for 85 percent of the children with behavioral disorders, 80 percent of rapists, 71 percent of all high school dropouts, 75 percent of all adolescent patients in chemical abuse centers and 85 percent of all youths in prison. Using these numbers to study productively the impact of divorce on real people living real lives calls to mind a remark attributed to Albert Einstein, who said, "Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."


Hope springs eternal. Even one- and two-time divorce losers try again, convinced that this time they have found Mr. Right or Mrs. Wonderful. Divorce statistics mean less than nothing when two people, hopeful of a long and happy life together, go to the altar. Just as no solider going into battle for the first time believes there is a bullet with his name on it, so no newly weds believe they will ever head for the rocks. No, when Sam and Sally walk down the aisle, their marriage has been made in the heaven. Divorce numbers? They don't mean a thing. They add up for someone else.

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