Surprise! Divorce rates are actually declining.

“40% of all statistics are wrong . . . “

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If you watch the news, surf the web or read a popular magazine, you’d think that there is virtually no hope for the institution of marriage.  So often I have heard that the divorce rate for first marriages is around 50% and that the divorce rate for second marriages is well over 60%.  But where do these numbers come from and what do they mean? Are they accurate?

As it turns out, we really don’t know.  While it seems counterintuitive, there is no generally accepted method for determining the true divorce rate.  For example, the widely quoted 50% divorce rate in the US actually represents a best-guess, a shortcut method of comparing the number of divorces and marriages in the same year. However that is not an accurate method for assessing the divorce rate because it does not compare equivalent groups. In 1980, for example, older couples may have been divorcing at a high rate because of the introduction of no-fault divorce laws, while younger couples might have been putting off marriage because more women were pursuing careers. Even if the number of marriages that year were twice the number of divorces, that is not the same thing as saying that half of all marriages end in divorce. Dr. Rose M. Kreider, a demographer in the Fertility and Family Statistics Branch of the Census Bureau, told the New York Times in 2005, “At this point, unless there’s some kind of turnaround, I wouldn’t expect any cohort to reach fifty percent, since none already has.”

While we may not know what the true divorce rate really is, we do know one thing: based upon census information gathered by the CDC, the divorce rate in the US is actually declining and his been since its peak in the mid-1980’s.  About 70 percent of marriages that began in the 1990s reached their 15th anniversary (excluding those in which a spouse died), up from about 65 percent of those that began in the 1970s and 1980s. Those who married in the 2000s are so far divorcing at even lower rates. If current trends continue, nearly two-thirds of marriages will never involve a divorce, according to data from Justin Wolfers, a University of Michigan economist.

Measuring divorce rates as defined by the number of divorces per thousand people yields the same basic results.  By this measure, the divorce rate peaked at 5.3 divorces per thousand people in 1981, before falling to 4.7 in 1990, and it has since fallen further to 3.6 in 2011, the most recent year for which data are available. Notably, the marriage rate has also fallen over this period, but even measuring divorces relative to the number of people who are married shows that divorce has fallen by about 24 percent compared to peak percentages.

The decline in divorce rates over the past three decades may be due to a growing tendency to marry later in life and the fact that more people try living together prior to marriage. The trend is also not equal across the board: lower income families and those without college degrees tend to have higher divorce rates.

There is hope that the trend will continue.  Couples whose parents have stayed married are roughly 15% less likely to divorce themselves.  Accordingly, as more couples remain married, the higher the likelihood that their children will also remain married.

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Surprise! Divorce rates are actually declining.