Divorce Rates: Why Do So Many Marriages Fail?

Love, Heartbreak

Why are divorce rates so high and what can you do to reduce the chance of separation or divorce?

The things we hear about marriage and divorce today are so frightening.

"Most of today’s marriages end in divorce!"

"Divorce rate keeps climbing!"

"Rise in marriages that end in the first year!"

Marital problems, such as cheating, abuse, financial stress, differences in child rearing and stepchildren can make the whole marriage prospect more stressful than exciting. But why do so many marriages fail? What is behind that disheartening 50 percent divorce rate? What are the real facts?

Not surprisingly, it's complicated, but lets dig in.

The Stats

Before anything else, let's look at the statistics. We've all heard that "one in two marriages" divorce rate quoted, but what does that mean? Well, as is often the case with statistics, there's a little more to the facts than is easily summarized in Vegas-style odds. The question of whether any particular marriage will or won't end in divorce is basically impossible to answer. The best calculations the experts can manage right now are based on the marriage rate each year compared to the divorce rate the same year (6.8 per 1000 vs 3.6 per 1000).

It may be obvious to you already that this way of calculating doesn't actually tell us what percentage of today's marriages will end in divorce. We are comparing within one year instead of across time. The divorces that happen this year are mostly not the marriages that happened this year (with the exception of a few of those crazy celebrity style short-term marriages).

It is very difficult to find hard statistics but the general consensus is that the divorce rates for first marriages is about 40-50 percent and as high as 65-75 percent for second and third marriages. That still cannot predict whether a particular marriage will or won't end in divorce or even give precise odds on that possibility. Why? Firstly, because these are all "retrospective" data (numbers based on marriages and divorces up until now). Secondly, there are a ton of factors that affect the rates. Let's look at some of those.

What affects the divorce rate?

According to the National Survey of Family Growth completed by the Division of Vital Statistics of the CDC, some of the factors that affect the "survival rate" of first marriages are age at first marriage, timing of the birth of the first child and education level (for women only).

The proportion of women who reach the 20 year milestone in the marriages is higher for women who have bachelor's degrees (78% compared to 39-41% for women with no college at all). Women who have their first birth at least eight months after marriage (66% compared to 33% for first birth prior to marriage). Then there are those who marry later (73% of women who married after age 25 reached at least 15 years of marriage compared to 46% for those who married before age 20).

While there are a lot of possible explanations for these statistics, a major influence is socioeconomic status (more or less what we used to think of as "class" such as lower class, middle class or upper class). Women from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are less likely to finish school, go on to higher education or have many job and life opportunities. They are also more likely to have early pregnancies and early marriages. Living at or near the poverty level means a huge dose of stress. This makes it just as hard to maintain a marriage as it does to finish school, keep a roof over your head or a hundred other things.

One more terrible and frustrating statistic is that of all groups of men and women in the country, African American women have the lowest marriage rates and highest divorce rates. Again, it's complicated, but this could be explained by the "doubly whammy" of institutional sexism and racism that African American women face. This tends to limit their opportunities and keeps a higher proportion of African American women in lower socioeconomic levels.

So what makes a marriage last?

The stats above may make it seem like it's impossible to affect the chances of divorce. Once you're married, you can't go back and change how old you were, whether you had kids and certainly not your ethnicity. But there is good news. The best predictor for whether a seemingly happy couple will eventually divorce is not their age, income or even whether they are facing life stressors. It's their communication.

Couples who use positive communication and problem solving strategies, even when they disagree, are more likely to stay together in the long run. Whereas destructive, negative or even contemptuous communication breaks the relationship down. Other issues may arise when couples have different definitions of what makes a good or satisfying relationship but don't realize it. All of this can be addressed with a focus on learning about each other (even after years together). Listening, sharing feelings without accusations and finding ways to meet each other's needs, even if they differ. It's crucial that couples learn how to have a mature, healthy relationship.

There is hope for marriage. The divorce rate actually appears to have been declining over the past decade or two (shocking, right?). Couples who go into a marriage with a lifelong commitment in mind are more likely to keep that commitment. There are more options than ever before when it comes to marriage counseling and education.

While divorce, like death and taxes, is here to stay, the old notion "til death do us part" isn't going anywhere either.


  • Copen, C.E., Daniels, K., Vespa, J., and Mosher, W.D. (2012). “First Marriages in the United States: Data From the 2006–2010 National Survey of Family Growth.” National Health Statistics Reports. 49: 1-22.
  • Lavner, J.A. & Bradbury, T.N. (2012). "Why do even satisfied newlyweds eventually go on to divorce?" Journal of Family Psychology, 26 (1): 1-10.
  • Birditt, K.S., Brown, E., Orbuch, T.L., and McIlvane, J.M. (2010). "Marital conflict behaviors and implications for divorce over 16 years." Journal of Marriage and Family, 72 (5): 1188-1204.
  • Rosen-Grandon, J. R., Myers, J. E., Hattie, J. A. (2004). “The Relationship Between Marital Characteristics, Marital Interaction Processes, and Marital Satisfaction.” Journal of Counseling & Development.  82 (1): 58-68.
  • National Marriage and Divorce Rate Trends. CDC/NCHS National Vital Statistics System. retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nvss/marriage_divorce_tables.htm


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