Divorce Statistics

People are always asking me about divorce statistics, so I decided to set out what I know
here. This page talks about the divorce rate and the times when people divorce.

What is the Divorce Rate?

We read constantly in the popular media about the “burgeoning divorce rate.” That was true in the 60’s and 70’s, but it’s no longer true today. In addition, everyone has heard the adage that one half of all marriages end in divorce. That’s probably more or less true, but I’m not able to verify it. It’s safer, and therefore more instructive, to look at the percentage of people who get divorced each year. Also, because the rate of marriage changes over time, researchers have tended to focus on the divorce rate among married women over 15. That’s what the graph reflects.

The divorce rate as a percentage of married women over 15 doubled from 1960 until about 1979, when it reached a plateau and began to decline.

For those who insist on knowing the chances that a marriage will fail, there is one principle that is clearly true. First marriages are more likely to end in death (that is, succeed) than subsequent marriages. Also, poor people get divorced more than rich people. Beyond that, it’s risky to make generalizations.

When Do People Divorce?

Marilyn Monroe notwithstanding, there’s no evidence of any “Seven Year Itch” at which husbands or wives tend to seek divorce. If anything, there is a “four year itch.” The graph shows that the chances of divorce increase until the fourth year, when they begin to decline.

First marriages ending in divorce last an average of 11 years for both men and women. Remarriages ending in divorce last an average of 7.4 years for men and 7.1 years for women. Nationally, all marriages ending in divorce last an average of 9.8 years.

There is no statistical verification for the axiom that parties are likelier to divorce when their children leave home. However,  because there is no way of matching the length of marriage with the date on which children leave, it’s impossible to say there is not some increased likelihood of divorce at this time.

One of my favorite stories about the length of marriage is the old tale, supposedly from the Bessemer division of Jefferson County, Alabama, involving a couple seeking a divorce after 68 years of marriage. The judge was overcome with curiosity and asked “Why now, after all this time?” Their reply: “We were waiting for the children to die.”

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