That 50 Percent Divorce Statistic Hasn't Been True For a Long Time

That 50 Percent Divorce Statistic Hasn't Been True For a Long Time

If you and your friends got married in the 2000s, and trends stay where they appear to be headed, two-thirds of you lovebirds will stay married. Forever, like you intended, even though that statistic about 50 percent of marriages ending in divorce was likely stuck in the back of your mind. It turns out that, though we won’t give up the ghost of the marriage that is half empty, divorce rates are on a three-decade decline.

In a NYT piece looking at the stubbornness of the 50 percent divorce rate myth, Claire Cain Miller reiterates what she says social scientists have been trying to tell us for a while now: Divorce rates reached their peak in the 1970s and 1980s and have been going down—not up, and not holding steady—ever since. Some 70 percent of folks who got married in the 1990s made it 15 whole years together, a 5 percent increase from the previous two decades. And nearly 75 percent of marriages from the last decade are going to make it to death.

Look, we’ve solved the unsolvable! We’ve figured out how to put up with each other for our entire lives! Marriages are stronger than ever! We outsmarted our own hardwiring and took the serial out of serial monogamy!

Well, not quite. Our steady upswing in putting up with each other is easily explained by a handful of factors. Here are the some of the reasons Miller cites for the decline:

  • More permissive attitudes
  • Waiting longer to marry
  • Birth control
  • Cohabiting first and breaking up rather than marrying
  • Marrying for love, so they actually like each other
  • Fewer people are getting married overall
  • Greater acceptance of single-parent households
  • Feminism

Of course, as has been noted previously, the divorce rate isn’t going down for everyone. It’s going down mostly for college-educated people, but working-class couples are still more likely to split at near peak-divorce levels. Miller writes:

Working-class families often have more traditional notions about male breadwinners than do the college-educated — yet economic changes have left many of the men in these families struggling to find work. As a result, many wait to achieve a level of stability that never comes and thus never marry, while others split up during tough economic times.

This has made marriage seem less like a prerequisite for adult life and more like a luxury for the better-educated. And this is, in part, why fewer people are marrying. But Miller ties much of this 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.”

Roger that, universe. Greater economic access meant women could begin picking men for more reasons than simply earning potential, or literally any other reason than “pays the bills” and “doesn’t beat you.”

Naturally, when both partners have something like real choice rather than “no better choice” disguised as choice, we’re more inclined to be happy with our mates. And choices. What is really interesting then, is that this makes that peak divorce rate—and the subsequent canard that 50 percent of all marriages end in divorce—the exception and not the rule. Miller writes:

Ultimately, a long view is likely to show that the rapid rise in divorce during the 1970s and early 1980s was an anomaly. It occurred 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.

Yes, just love.

This probably isn’t making anyone going through a divorce right now feel any better. After all, if you can no longer blame your split on a flawed institution or bad fifty-fifty odds, you might just have to accept that you married the wrong person, that “just love” didn’t pan out either.

But I contend that this is actually a good thing to realize, and an easier thing to stomach. Even if divorce rates are only lower for some groups, it at least means that we are beginning to see marriage for what it actually is: A right everyone should have, but that not everyone needs to exercise.

Rather than view marriage as an inevitable milestone, maybe we should see it as a well-calculated luxury. Maybe the issue is not that we must recalibrate the institution for inevitable breakups, maybe it’s that we should recalibrate it for more harmonious unions.

So go ahead: Live in sin first! It’ll help you avoid divorce. Wait longer to get married! It will help you avoid divorce. Marry someone closer to your age! Smaller age gaps between spouses will help you avoid divorce. Think more about the point of all this, and the benefit, and the cost, and maybe also try doing these things, and you too could finally be part of a good statistic.

Illustration by Tara Jacoby.

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