Making Sense of the New Statistics on Divorce

We’ve all heard and read them now, reports that divorce rates have fallen to a 40-year low. Why is it happening, and what does it mean?

I’m no social researcher and certainly no social statistician, but I’m an interested observer who’s been watching this category of research for a couple of decades now. Would you permit me to add some perspective?

First, we have been exaggerating the likelihood of divorce since I can remember. Most of us grew up hearing that half of  marriages in divorce. That was wrong when we were hearing about it, and it’s wrong today. There was never a moment when half of marriages ended in divorce. There were years when the number of divorce couples was roughly half the number of marrying couples, but that was all that could be said. When you looked at the statistics more closely, the divorce rate was never more than 35-40%, and that was the overall divorce rate.

If you looked closely at the divorce rate among couples marrying for the first time, particularly couples who waited a few years before saying I do, and particularly among well-educated couples, the rate was much more encouraging, on the order of 20-25%. Of course, the flip side of that rosy statistic was that for poor young couples who were marrying for the third time, the numbers looked worse.

Second, it’s hard for most of us to glean usable information from the isolated statistics that appear in most news accounts. For example, we all can read in The Telegraph that divorce rates have declined to a 40 year low, but we can’t tell from the account the reason. Are couples staying married longer? Just marrying less? Are they avoiding divorce because it’s too expensive, or are they truly happy together? All this will become clear only as the social scientists scratch below the headlines and parse out the answers.

Until they do, my suggestion is that we carefully limit the conclusions we draw from news accounts to the actual statistics stated, resisting the urge to allow reporters and the sources they interview tell us what those statistics mean or why married couples do what they do.