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.