Divorce Rate Lower Than You Think

What’s the divorce rate in the U.S.? 50%, right? At least that’s the statistic that gets tossed around with monotonous consistency by people who want to say anything about divorce. I’ve been challenging this for years, and now here’s an article in The New York Times that gets it. Hint: it’s good news.

Those who say that one in two marriages end in divorce are reaching that conclusion from a simple and naive application of the current number of marriages coupled with the current number of divorces. In 2003, for example, figures from the National Center for Health Statistics show there were 7.5 marriages per 1,000 people and 3.8 divorces. But the people who are divorcing are (with a few exceptions) not the people who are marrying.

To understand accurately the true divorce rate, we must instead investigate some sample of people who marry and then study them over time to see the percentage who later divorce. The latest research applying this methodology shows the divorce rate has never topped 41% and is now slowly declining.

The slight dip in divorce rates is driven more than any single factor by a sharp decline in the divorce rate among highly-educated couples, specifically couples in which the wife has a college degree. In the 1960s and 1970s, the divorce rate involving wives with college degrees — although lower than that for wives without degrees — increased at about the same rate. That is, the divorce rate for wives with college degrees remained about a third to a fourth of that of wives without degrees.

Since 1980, however, the divorce rate for the two groups have diverged. The divorce rate for wives with college degrees dropped to about 16% during the first 10 years of marriage, while the rate for wives without degrees has stayed about the same.

About 60% of divorces happen during the first 10 years of marriage. If that statistic remains, the divorce rate for college graduates who married in the early 1990s is projected to be around 25% and about 50% for non-college graduates.

The story in the Times doesn’t deal with this, but the divorce rate is much lower among first-time marriages than among subsequent marriages. So if you are a young college graduate who is marrying for the first time to another college graduate, your chance of divorce may be well be in the 20% range, even lower if the marriage of your parents and that of your fiance’s parents are still intact.

And here’s a last little kicker to entice you: divorce is driven at least partially by perception. That is, at least some couples have allowed the fallacy of one in two marriages ending in divorce to persuade them that it’s normal for couples to divorce. Is it possible that, when word gets out that the divorce rate among their peers is much lower, perhaps less than one in five, they might fight just a little harder to save their marriage?

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