What's Up With The Divorce Rate?

couple arguing

Is it true that 50 percent of marriages end in divorce, or is there a better number?

Divorce is a sticky subject. It's an always present, if not murky, statistic that people like to spat out when they want to give a statistic that won't be questioned. But is the oft-quoted 50% divorce rate we hear about time and again a realistic number?

It's hard to base a real statistic on the divorce rate when it’s so hard to pin down. The vague 50% acknowledges that in one year there are twice as many
marriages as there are divorces.

By CDC reports, which come from census numbers, it looks as though divorce rates for Americans are decreasing. But so, too, are the marriage rates — and the two are decreasing in a harmonious manner. While the divorce rate (per 1,000 people) hovered at 4.0 in 2000 and by 2011 was at 3.6, it's important to note that the marriage rate was 8.2 in 2000 and fell to 6.2 by 2011.

But that doesn't actually estimate an accurate marriage mortality rate because half of the people getting married in a given year aren't doomed to divorce in that same year. When comparing marriage and divorce statistics, the two need to be analyzed independently of one another. The number of people getting divorced in a given year originally married at different times — and it's a fact that that number is decreasing. Marriage and divorce statistics are linked, but shouldn’t be analyzed together. To say right now that 50% of marriages will end in divorce is an uninformed statement.

Research from University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School indicates that age is a strong predictor when determining if a marriage is doomed for divorce or not. In the 1980's, 81% of college graduates who got married after the age of 26 were still married 20 years later as opposed to 65 percent of college grads who married before age 26. Since the average age of marriage is now at 27 and 29 for brides and grooms, perhaps this is a sign that the divorce rate will put on the brakes in the near future.

Tara Parker-Pope's book, For Better, notes that in the 1970s, 23% of college graduates who got married were divorced ten years later. Since that number dropped to 16 percent in the 1990's, that indicates a trend that education also has an impact on a marriage's success.

Even though the number of marriages and divorces are both declining at similar rates, that doesn't necessarily mean that divorce is constantly at 50 percent. Since the number of marriages used to be higher, and the divorce rate is declining, 50% is inaccurate. But it's hard, unfortunately, to pinpoint a truly accurate percentage.

Of the three weddings I attended last year one has ended in divorce. Does that mean the divorce rate is approximately 33 percent? Certainly not — it's more complicated than that. And that’s why 50% isn’t the right answer.

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