Myths about Divorce

Happy Mother’s Day this weekend! In honor of the day I’d think we should talk about divorce myths. I was scanning the Family Research Council blog and they repeated the commonly-believed myth that half of all marriages end in divorce. But what is the evidence this is true?

*Updated with cohabitation information*

Divorce is often maligned, and even though quite a few of us wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for divorce (thanks Mom!) it still gets a bad rap. For some reason, the moralists think that divorce is a uniform negative, but really, what kind of world would it be if women didn’t have the option of leaving abusive marriages, or if people were expected to stay in defective relationships for life because they made a stupid, yet permanent, error? After all the majority of divorces are initiated by women, and the most common causes are things like infidelity and abuse. Why should we expect women (and to a lesser extent men) to stay in such relationships? Even if there isn’t abuse, why should we expect people to be unhappy for the rest of their lives because they made a bad choice?

There are many myths about marriage and divorce, and many of them are tied to the classic fallacy that things used to be better in olden-times and all problems of society are increasing in frequency. People believe marriage is declining, divorce is increasing, and in general families are falling to pieces all over. But when you actually look at the data, this picture is false.

When viewed over a 60-year period, the marriage rate, for example, has remained fairly constant, with several long periods of slight ups and downs. The number of marriages per 1,000 people now hovers at 8.5, compared with a 60-year average of 10.1. The variations that did occur tended to come in times of depression and war, when fewer people got hitched because of economic or obvious logistical reasons.

Interestingly, while the 1950s are thought of as boom time for the family, the marriage rates were relatively low through the latter half of the decade and into the early 1960s. (Indeed, today’s rate beats that of 1958.) Then in 1968, when hippies were supposedly lovin’ the ones they were with, the marriage rate rose and stayed relatively high through 1975. It’s only when the numbers are viewed within a narrow 20-year context that marriage looks to be on its deathbed.

And despite the buzz that divorce is at epidemic proportions, the NCHS report shows that the divorce rate has, in fact, been slowly declining since its perilous peak in 1981, when it reached a rate of 5.3 divorces per 1,000 people.

Further, the idea that 50% of marriages end in divorce is just an oft-repeated myth. It’s a statistical flub that comes from comparing the number of marriages in a given year to the number of divorces in a given year. However, since the marriages and divorces aren’t occurring in the same year, this doesn’t give an accurate picture of how many marriages are failing and is notoriously susceptible to population dynamics. Your actual chances of a failed marriage are about one in four, and the 50% figure is considered to be statistical nonsense.

To establish an actual divorce rate requires tracking and analyzing significant samples of actual marriages through decades, which is not an easy task. Recent US scholarship based on such longterm tracking, reported for example in the New York Times on April 19, 2005, has found that about 60% of all marriages that result in divorce do so in the first decade, and more than 80% do so within the first 20 years; that the percentage of all marriages that eventually end in divorce peaked in the United States at about 41% around 1980, and has been slowly declining ever since, standing by 2002 at around 31%,

Divorces reached a peak in the early eighties at a rate of about 40 percent (which was the highest level since the 1950s), and divorce has since entered a 20-year decline. The current rate of divorce is about 30-34% in any given year, and is lower among the college-educated (about 20%), Catholics, Muslims, and atheists. In a comparison of various religious denominations, the group that actually performs the worst are Baptists and Evangelical christians, so I guess it makes sense that they seem to be most concerned with the idea of a divorce epidemic.

Further, divorce doesn’t deserve to be villainized as some kind of great failing. People shouldn’t have to suffer forever for mistakes, and men and women certainly shouldn’t be forced to endure abusive relationships or infidelity just because of the United States’ puritanical beliefs about marriage as a permanent sacrament.

Maybe instead of demonizing divorce we should instead discourage this absurd idea that people should have to be married before they have sex. If we really want to prevent stupid decisions and future heartbreak the emphasis should be placed on finding compatible partners, rather than obsessing over keeping people celibate until marriage. We want people to get married for the right reasons, not just so they can finally get laid.

**Update** I’ve been doing some searching on the cohabitation issue. I suspect it’s just more improper correlation/causation errors. It seems the main article they’re relying on is this one from 1989 in the journal of Demographics. However, one passage is critical, from the abstract:

Multivariate analysis reveals higher rates of cohabitation among women, whites, persons who did not complete high school, and those from families who received welfare or who lived in a single-parent family while growing up

And from the article:

Contrary to a common view of cohabitation as college student behavior, education is strongly and negatively related to rates of cohabitation before first marriage. The highest rates of cohabitation are found among the least educated. Unmarried persons who have completed college are 64 percent less likely to cohabit than those who did not complete high school.

SInce all those groups are part of the crowd that is more likely to divorce, I suspect the higher rates (57% of cohabitants vs 30% of non-cohabitants) are due to other factors than a direct cause of cohabitation. This sounds like a selection issue.

Therefore I find the claims that cohabitation is a direct cause of divorce to be based on rather specious reasoning and in need of study under better-controlled circumstances. I would need to see a study that compares equivalent demographic groups with and without cohabitation. Anyone got one?

Larry L. Bumpass; James A. Sweet, “National Estimates of Cohabitation”, Demography, vol 26, no. 4, November 1989.


35 responses to “Myths about Divorce”

  1. I couldn’t agree more…

    My wife & I have been living together for just over 20 years…. but we’ve just celebrated our 11 year wedding anniversary…

    We reckon that living together first made it much easier live together longer — the barrier to leaving was way lower – especially before we had kids. It was easy to leave… so we had to work together much more to stay… no external ‘compulsion’ existed to force us together longer than we wanted.

    As it happens – we decided to get married when we discovered my wife was pregnant… not because we ‘had to’ but because we wanted to affirm our desire to be together – essentially forever.

  2. Michael LoPrete

    The other, other, alternative is to abandon this notion of marriage as permanent.

    They may only exist right now in Romney’s bizzaro-France, but 7-year marriage contracts make a whole lot of sense.

  3. Jokermage

    The other, other, other, alternative is to destroy government-sanctioned marriage.

  4. darthWilliam

    Couldn’t agree more with you on the ‘wait until you’re married to have sex’ nonsense. I tell my kids just the opposite – sex is a very important part of life (it’s kinda of the main reason why you are married to your spouse and not just friends) so you want to be sure the sex is good before you make a lifetime committment. And those ‘purity’ balls just make me want to throw up. That type of crap borders on child abuse IMHO.


  5. Ubu Walker

    What about the study that claims that people who live together before getting married are 75% more likely to get divorced than other couples? Is this woo too?

  6. Mark C. Chu-Carroll


    That’s partially nonsense. The actual figure isn’t 75%; it’s somewhat lower – I’ve generally seen it pegged at slightly above 50%.

    The main nonsense part of it is the classic “correlation implies causation” fallacy. There’s a group of people who won’t get divorced no matter what; another group that will only get divorced under the most extreme circumstances. Those two groups are part of the population that doesn’t live together before marriage. As a result, the population of couples that doesn’t live together before marriage has a lower divorce rate than those that do – because it includes the people who are less likely to divorce. It doesn’t mean that *for a given couple*, if they live together before they get married, they’re more likely to get divorced.

    What you can find by doing more careful studies is that there’s a certain probability of marriages that will fail. Within that, there’s a sub-population that won’t get divorced even if their marriages are total disasters. If you exclude that group, the divorce rate is quite uniform, and living together before marriage or not doesn’t have any statistically significant impact.

  7. Kagehi

    Well.. Lets just think about this a moment. From here

    Number of marriages: 2,230,000
    bullet graphicMarriage rate: 7.5 per 1,000 total population
    bullet graphicDivorce rate: 3.6 per 1,000 population (46 reporting States and D.C.)

    Which means that if only say 20 in every 100 people didn’t live together, which seems quite likely, and is probably actually low, then 1,784,000 marriages must be from those that do love together and by there claim, the total number of divorces from that must be roughly 1,338,000 of all marriages. That is 60% of **all** people that marry, or roughly 600 in every 1,000 people. Mind you, I probably did the math wrong, but… I can’t see the statistic making sense without the actual numbers being already skewed heavily in favor of people that *never* live together before marrying. Assuming I am doing the math close to right, I am not that good at statistics, it would take almost a 9-1 ratio in favor of people “not” living together before marriage for the 75% statistic to even come close to the actual number of divorces per 1,000 recorded.

    Even if I am doing the math wrong, I have a real difficult time imagining that they got that number from any place other than pulling out of their backsides, and if its like “most” of their numbers, the actual data probably shows the complete reverse, once you remove their carefully shoehorned monkey wrench from the gear box to get real results.

  8. Kagehi

    Also, what Marc said. If you want to look for fresh water fish, look in the rivers and lakes, just don’t go telling people that they can expect to find large numbers of Japanese Koy swimming among the coral reefs, just because “statics” you carefully ignore about where those things “live” imply that there should be millions of them in places they can’t. Same with Marc’s statement about people that **won’t** divorce, no matter the justification. If the question is purely about divorce, then maybe.. Eliminate the people that don’t count, since they wouldn’t ever do it anyway, and you might as well be trying to find pet gold fish in the great barrier reef. Of course you are not going to bloody find any.

  9. Im still thinking of how to write my planned ‘conservative dream’ post. Im planning to argue that a lot of conservative policies come from the belief in an idealised, perfect world and constant attempts to surpress any deviation from in. In this idealised world, all marriages last for life.

  10. j snow

    Reduce divorce rates by legislating a mandatory requirement for every male to sign a pre-nuptual agreement detailing his legal and and financial obligations in case of divorce prior to receiving a marriage license. It would be called the “Truth In Marriage Act.”

    Women file over 75% of all divorce actions because it is perceived as profitable to them. In fact, it is the Divorce Industrial Complex that benefits from our 50%+ divorce rate. First you have all the divorce lawyers that feed on the misery of two people fighting one another. Second you have the “support” industry of psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers who also feed on peoples misery. Lastly you have the State Court personnel and staff that feed off of the Federal funding and mandatory garnishment of wages of non-custodial parents.

    In a word, the whole divorce industrial complex is a fraud on society perpetrated by a corrupt and immoral legal profession. For that reason, the legal profession would never advocate fixing their gravy train problem they created in the first place.

    Q: What do you call 5,000 lawyers at the bottom of the ocean?

    A: A good start.

  11. Lemme guess, j snow: she got the gold mine, you got the shaft, right?

  12. snypey

    Oh, braVO, j snow!

    Don’t you love how moralists/conservatives eschew any aspect of personal responsibility when it’s shown that their belief systems are flawed?

  13. I agree that the FRC should make the effort to get things right. I’m not sure, though, that replacing ‘half’ with ‘a third’ or ‘a quarter’ in their post makes a lot of difference.

    How about their claim that life is shorter for people who don’t stay together? I bet that doesn’t stack up very well against the kind of analysis Mark Chu-Carroll and Kagehi have given, either, and is, in my opinion, much more outrageous: “Stay together or die, sinner!”

  14. J snow clearly didn’t read anything that was written as he/she repeated the 50% myth then just spouted off about unrealistic excuses for high divorce rates.

    As is explained in the articles, the most common causes for divorce are infidelity and abuse, the remainder is considered irreconcilable differences of one sort or another and “family stress”. People simply don’t get divorces for the money any substantial portion of the time. This is just misogyny if you ask me.

    As for the lawyer hate? Well, that’s just more BS. There are financial drawbacks for divorce but the absence of equitable distribution was what previously shackled women to abusive relationships long after they should have escaped for their safety and happiness. Further, I like lawyers, I’m friends with lawyers, and the hate directed at them as a class of people is completely inappropriate. Lawyers serve a useful and necessary function in a society of laws.

    As usual the moralizing “family values” trolls have no reading comprehension and nothing of value to add to a discussion.

    Finally, David. I suspect that there is some truth to “life is longer” bit, but the hint is in the statistical data. For instance, college-educated couples tend to divorce about 20% compared to national average of 34% and groups like evangelicals and baptists. I think what they’re detecting is a poverty effect. Once again, correlation is not causation.

  15. 99.9 percent


    I’ve been married three decades, co-habitated prior to marriage, and have this cited “low-education level” albatross dragging me down to the depths of easy excuses. And I don’t even believe in this religious morality/familial responsibility crap that society tried to saddle me with.

    Looks like I’m carrying water for a bunch of divorcing slackers in these longitudinal studies and statistics. But today I’m happy that I’m at least useful as a data point (which makes my day and gives meaning to my otherwise wasted life).

  16. Herb West

    So Wikipedia is an authority on marriage statistics?

  17. Well, I’ve been living with my partner for more than 12 years and we’re probably going to get hitched this year. Obviously, after all that lead time, we’ll only be doing it so we can have a nice juicy divorce. Who can resist the melodrama?

    Of course, we’re both men, and the union opportunity has only recently appeared around here; that distorts the model a little. I guess cohabiting straight couples always jump right in without working out the kinks first, right? Marriage is just a random whim to them, right?


  18. Chance

    Just to throw this out there but your numbers are exactly telling the entire story. While less people are getting divorced the number is quite abit more than 1 out of 4. That figure takes into account all people currently married but doesn’t reflect the younger generation(those under 40). According to Barna it is possible that those currently in their 20’s will have a legit 50% divorce rate simply because 25% of those married under 30 have already had at least 1 divorce.

    And of course the cohabitation bit is bunk.

  19. Herb:
    The page the wikipedia article gets the 54.8% of marriages end in divorce statistic is this one, which in turn cites “Monthly Vital Statistics Report, Vol. 49, No. 6, National Center for Health Statistics,” which can be accessed here. They’ve got all sorts of statistical gems in there, like C-section data and death rates and etc. etc. by state and what-have-you. But pertaining to the topic at hand, it looks like the cited number comes from dividing the number of marriages by the number of divorces … except I can’t seem to figure out which particular percentages they chose to divide (they give lots of different averages there from 1998 to 2000, and most of the ratios are more like 47 to 51% than way up at 54%). Regardless, that kind of ratio, as described in the post, is not an accurate measure of the percentage of marriages ending in divorce.

  20. Chance

    IN one sense it is true,” says Scott Richert, assistant editor of The Family in America, a journal published by The Rockford Institute. “If you look at all marriages that took place last year, about 45 to 50 percent will eventually end in divorce.” He draws that conclusion based on the fact that the annual ratio of divorces-to-marriages has been about one in two for more than a generation.

    “There’s been a slight downward trend in the past several years,” Richert says, “but basically that number has been consistent since no-fault divorce began in 1970.”

    But remember, we’re talking about two groups of people. Richert’s statement doesn’t necessarily contradict Barna’s, because Richert is talking about new marriages and Barna is talking about all marriages. Among the 55-and-older population, for example, marriages are quite stable. Most marriages that fail do so before the partners reach their mid-40s.

    Thats from the article above. The 40-50% number will have alot more validity not less in the coming years.

  21. Ian Gould

    I don’t have time to look up the statistics but there’s another important positive related to divorce.

    Since divorce laws were liberalised in the US, the spousal murder rate has declined significantly. (Spouse in this context includes people who are cohabiting regardless of their marital status.)

    From memory, there are now about 1,000 fewer spousal homicides per year in the US per year than in the 1960’s.

    Similar declines have been observed in other countries.

  22. “How about their claim that life is shorter for people who don’t stay together?”

    Actually, I think this one is true… ive read about it in some much more credible places than the FRC’s propaganda. The analysis I read didn’t go into much detail, but it concluded this was probably due to a financial cause – married couples benefit from reduced per-individual cost of living and get better health-insurance coverage than singles. And in the US, with its entirely private medical industry, you get what you pay for. The more financially successful someone is, the better their medical care, the longer they live.

  23. gerald spezio

    Who could DENY that smiling lawyerperson Hoofnagle has deep legal training. Most importantly who could deny that he is a member of the monopolistic fraternity that demands lawyer fees in return for the publicly paid lawyer/judge scribbling his name to your legal divorce.

  24. Chris didn’t write this article Gerald. And he’s an academic attorney who previously worked in public interest/privacy law.

    The other criticism continue to rely on taking the divorce rate and dividing it by the marriage rate, and as long as that’s the methodology I’m not going to believe the conclusions, it’s simply too sloppy.

    Barna’s survey is interesting but he did cover enough of a time range to get a pretty good idea of what the final divorce rate would be. The overwhelming majority of divorces will occur in the first 10 years, and the remainder usually within 20. You don’t need a 40-year window because that’s simply not when the divorces are going to occur.

    This next generation – who knows? Maybe they’re already showing a high divorce rate, but that may be because only the idiots have decided to get married at 16 or whatever.

    If you want to see what I think good methodology for figuring this question out looks like, see this census report(PDF) that surveys adults about how many times they’ve been divorced, etc., rather than these stupid marriage/divorce rate divisions. You see the same thing. Boomers are peaking at about 39% (and I don’t think they’re going to squeak the numbers up to 50 in their 60s and 70s – they’re stuck with who they’re with), other generations look like they’re coming in lower and I think the survey statistics that predict about a 30-35% divorce rate are accurate.

    The main point I want people to come away with from reading this is that the divorce rate can not be determined by dividing divorces/1000 people by marriages/1000 people for any given year. This is silly, it has nothing to do with anything because you’re comparing vastly different cohorts of people and behavior of individuals split by decades. It is a meaningless statistic. Further, the data from individual surveys such as those from Barna to the US Census, suggest a peak of around 41% for an all time high, and an actual figure of around 35% over all. Finally, for specific groups the ranges run higher or lower, and no one should think, going into a new marriage, that their chances are 50/50.

  25. gerald spezio

    Oh, Chris is a “academic attorney.” Is that similar to an academic military person, or an academic at the War College?
    And Wolfie is an academic murderer – never goes near the actual murder.

    Public interest law is an arm of the monopolistic Bar’s very power complex. It helps to keep the schmuckery in line and paying their attorneys’ lucrative fees. Baker and Botts can really deliver big time, but it will cost you.

    The “main point” above could be rephrased – no matter what the divorce rate, lawyers will be milking their fees from their hapless clients. No fee, no paper shuffling, no lawyer/judge’s magisterial signature, no divorce. It’s the only divorce scam in town. Without the judgies scribble, you’ll have to be married for eternity.

    The routinely pompous lawyer/judge is paid from the public till, but he works for his brother and sister lawyerfish. Judges are whores become madams. Your lawyer brother knows all about it.

  26. I’m ethically barred from saying that “judges are whores become madams,” but I wouldn’t say it even if I could.

    I don’t think many lawyers are getting rich on family law. For instance, the $300 “no contest” advertisements you see.

    You know, the world is complex, and we have all sorts of specialists (like doctors) to help people navigate through problems. Sure, there are scummy lawyers, but all jobs have scumminess in them somewhere.

    Technically, you could buy a book and do your divorce yourself, if it were not complex. It’s a tradeoff. Hundreds of hours of your time, and the risk that you’ll screw it up, or hire someone to do it for you.

    I any case, I don’t take any offense. There are many lawyers who have acted in ways that have diluted the profession’s reputation. And it’s our fault for not adequately disciplining them for doing so.

  27. gerald spezio

    A NYC criminal lawyer, Monroe Freedman, coined the pregnant phrase, “Judges are whores become madams.” The NY Bar colossus tried but failed to defrock him for his all too vivid vernacular description of the elitist extortion racket.

    Although I am not an annoited esquire, I am reasonably confident that you couldn’t be “ethically barred” from calling
    your brother-in-criminal-extortion what many lawyer fee paying folks call him. Sheesh, you could sue under the free speech rubric. Hey, this has some possibilities.

    Mark says with all too common mystification that we are a nation of laws. We are nation of lawyers who use the law as their instrument of control. Jsnow appears to be one of millions who have been tortured by lawyers laughing their arses off.

  28. What better instrument of control is there than law? Power and might? Religion? We tried those. As bad as he is, I’d rather be ruled by a Bush than a Pope or a Cesar. Law is an innovation. We should be thankful for it.

    And generally speaking, lawyers are not supposed to engage in personal attacks on judges. No responsible person would say that about the judiciary as a whole, or even a substantial segment.

    There was an article discussing attorneys getting too personal on judges a week ago in the Times:

  29. 99.9 percent

    The overwhelming majority of divorces will occur in the first 10 years, and the remainder usually within 20. You don’t need a 40-year window because that’s simply not when the divorces are going to occur.

    The only way that some of these assertions make sense is through continuously ongoing longitudinal studies. Saying that a 40-year window is unnecessary is IMO invalid because it supposes that things (will) remain static. I don’t agree that they do — social changes — like technology aids and lifespan can change when and how people divorce and their choices relative to divorce. Does Vi*gra change people’s outlook relative to divorce rates? I don’t know but it’ll take a while to get a better view. Heck, I get the feeling that people think that this or the next generation may be the last to die; if one lives to indeterminate age, will the divorces still be lumped in the first 20 years?

    Boomers are peaking at about 39% (and I don’t think they’re going to squeak the numbers up to 50 in their 60s and 70s – they’re stuck with who they’re with)

    Bashing the boomers is really picking at low hanging fruit. I’d like to think that even if I split assets with the person I’m with, my choices aren’t that limited. One needs to be flexible and take the globalized view in this world; half of assets may not be much here, but it could be enough in places that earn substantially less. And I hear that money makes people more attractive, — or else CEOs wouldn’t be walking around with trophy mates.

  30. I wasn’t Boomer-bashing as I don’t think there is anything wrong with divorce. You’ll know when I’m boomer bashing.

    As far as the majority of divorces occurring in the first 20 years, I can’t remember which study showed that but it’s remained consistent for the boomers too. I think their rates have leveled. And the generation just before them (1936-44) has clearly topped off at about 34%.

    Again I’ll just reiterate, the current computation of divorce rate from dividing divorces per 1000 by marriages per 1000 for a given year is a stupid stupid statistic. It has no predictive value, and is comparing vastly different sets of people. I hope from the post and comments that the idea that 50% of marriages are doomed is based on this stupid statistic, and when populations are tracked over time the divorce rates are significantly lower.

  31. Further, divorce doesn’t deserve to be villainized as some kind of great failing. People shouldn’t have to suffer forever for mistakes, and men and women certainly shouldn’t be forced to endure abusive relationships or infidelity just because of the United States’ puritanical beliefs about marriage as a permanent sacrament.

    And their kids certainly shouldn’t have to put up with the fallout. Getting divorced was one of the best things my folks ever did for me.

  32. My comment got a little long winded, so I made it a post. It’s a warm and fuzzy divorce story.

    Good to see you here at Scienceblogs, fellas.

  33. While I can’t agree with all of J Snow’s comment, I don’t understand the general derision for his idea of a “truth in marriage” act. I think it’s a great idea… Oh, and lest you think I’ve been recently burned in the divorce game, I’m gay, and marriage (let alone divorce) is not an option where I live.

  34. MarkH wrote:

    [M]en and women certainly shouldn’t be forced to endure abusive relationships or infidelity just because of the United States’ puritanical beliefs about marriage as a permanent sacrament.

    While I don’t wish to dispute what you’re obviously getting at there, it’s interesting to note that actual Puritans (note the capital “P”) regarded marriage not as a sacrament, but as a purely civil contract between two (natural and legal) persons, free from church involvement, and which could be rendered null and void if either party failed to meet his or her contractual obligations. E.g. wives could (and did) divorce their husbands if they felt the nookie was inadequate, either in quantity or quality.

    The concept of marriage as an inviolable sacrament entered what is now the United States not via Puritan Massachusetts, but via “High Church” Anglican (i.e. crypto-Catholic) Virginia (and by extension the coastal regions of the Caolinas and Georgia). Many of the misconceptions which have created the discrepancy between what we think of as “puritanical” and what was actually “Puritanical” is the result of historial revisionism during the Victorian era. For example, while it is true that the Puritans strongly disapproved of extra-marital sex, they were anything but repressed within wedlock. There exist love letters between Puritan spouses which are, even by today’s standards, pretty darn steamy; these were swept under the rug by late 19th-century historians, who considered it inappropriate to acknowledge the existence of such correspondence.

    I strongly recommend Albion’s Seeb by David Hackett-Fischer for anyone with an interest in the roots of American culture.

  35. In the above post, for “Caolinas” please read “Carolinas,” and for “Albion’s Seeb” read “Albion’s Seed.”