Split Decisions

A Year-By-Year Guide To Your Risk Of Divorce

Newlyweds and old married couples have one thing in common — they can never get too comfortable.

Originally Published: 
Newlyweds in wedding attire kissing in a field

How long does the average marriage last? You’ve heard of the “seven-year-itch,” but is that phenomenon actually true? Is there, as the famous phrase seems to suggest, a “hardest year of marriage,” or is it a myth? Can you get through the toughest years of marriage without raising your risk of divorce? Is there a divorce rate by years of marriage or does that have nothing to do with how long the average marriage lasts?

These questions, ultimately, might just drive you crazy without actually giving you a solid answer on what year of marriage is the hardest or if that’s even calculable, experts say.

“There is no rhyme or reason of methodology or mathematical calculation,” Randy Kessler, a divorce lawyer for 30 years, told Fatherly. “I’ve seen 80-year-old people get divorced and 19-year-olds.” Kessler speaks the truth. Scientists have yet to quantify divorce risk based on years married, because there are just so many other variables that contribute to a breakup. However, isolated studies do give us a general idea of what years of marriage have more risk. Here’s what we know.

Divorce Risk Factors By Length of Marriage

Years 1-2 of Marriage: High Risk of Divorce

Your divorce risk in that first year of marriage is as high as it is obvious. For one, the first year of any marriage is usually rocky, and an ideal time to cut ties and move on. Another reason why some men rush to end broken relationships in year one (and the reason why some women push to stick it out) is that prenuptial agreements tend to kick in only after one year. “A lot of time, what people are worried about is the first year,” says Kessler, who has represented high-profile clients like Michael Jordan and Ludacris in divorces. Because after that, their exes may get a lot of money.

Studies suggest that most marriages that fail (roughly 10 percent) will do so within the first two years. Based on data from 11,000 divorce cases, researchers concluded that men are more likely to cheat on their wives during this stage of the marriage, leading to a spike in infidelity divorces.

Years 3-4 of Marriage: Average Risk of Divorce

Census data suggests the average couple begins having children around year three, and there is ample evidence that children increase relationship stability and decrease divorce risk. You’re not necessarily staying together for the kids, but the kids are helping you stay together. But don’t overestimate the security that a baby brings to a marriage. Kids can be stressed. Perhaps that’s why one study of 522 couples found that marriage quality first begins to decline after four years. ”Most marriages start off with such high levels of quality that it can only change down,” study co-author Larry A. Kurdek, a psychology professor at Wright State University, told the New York Times.

Years 5-8 of Marriage: High Risk of Divorce

You may have heard of the “seven-year itch,” a phrase popularized by a 1952 play and, later, film starring Marilyn Monroe. The itch, refers to a longstanding theory that relationship satisfaction declines after about seven years. Indeed, the notion that marriages stall after seven years is backed by census data. In the 1920s, the average length of a marriage that ended in divorce was 6.6 years. In 1974 it was 7.5 years; in 1990 it was 7.2 years. Today, the average length of a marriage that ends in divorce is eight years, according to several estimates, but that extra year may be due to the fact that the average divorce now takes one year to process and clear the legal system.

Regardless, the itch fluctuates. “I see the seven-year itch around years five and six,” Lisa Helfend Meyer, Certified Specialist in Family Law, says.

There are several reasons why this is one of the riskiest periods for a marriage. Scientists suspect that evolution may be at work — at this point in a marriage, younger children tend to be old enough to have good chances of surviving to adulthood, which may mean couples feel free to transition out of marriage. In other words, as infant mortality risk decreases, the odds of divorce may increase — at least biologically speaking.

Another explanation is that the seven-year itch has become such a normalized notion that it’s now a self-fulfilling prophecy. Couples who are already unhappy may subconsciously wait for the seven-year mark to finally end the marriage, because it’s fashionable. It’s also around year seven that the effects of children begin to wear off. Studies suggest that having a son protects a marriage against divorce for approximately three years (year six, for the average couple). The icing on the cake? A woman’s desire to cheat tends to peak around year six.

Years 9-15 of Marriage: Low Risk of Divorce

By year nine, most couples no longer have infants at home and there’s some evidence that, as children get older, parents report increased relationship satisfaction (there’s also evidence that divorce risk increases as children get older, so take that with a grain of salt). Meanwhile, couples that make it to their 10th-anniversary experience a lower divorce risk each subsequent year. Meyer says that this could be a result of relationship expectations becoming more practical over time.

“Once you realize that life is not a fairy tale, then you settle into life and focus on your family and career,” she says. But year 10, Meyer adds, is also when it first becomes prohibitively expensive and emotionally wrenching for couples to divorce, which may figure into this decreased risk.

Studies suggest that 20 percent of marriages end within the first five years and that this number increased by 12 percent within 10 years. But between 10 years and 15 years, the rate only increases about 8 percent, implying that one of the safest stages of your marriage is between years 10 and 15.

Years 15-20 of Marriage: Average Risk of Divorce

Most couples now marry in their 30s, which means year 20 puts them in their 50s. The idea of divorcing in your 50s has become so common that, much like the seven-year itch, it now has its own name: gray divorce. Susan Brown of Bowling Green State University coined the term in response to the divorce rate of adults over 50 doublings between 1990 and 2010. Recent findings from the General Social Survey suggest that men and women over age 55 are also more likely to cheat.

“People don’t necessarily want to be married for all those years anymore,” Meyer says. Alternatively, this divorce spike may be coming from men and women who maintained a traditional marriage and family at the expense of their own happiness — and finally reached a breaking point. “A lot of people say, I’ve been unhappy my whole life, I don’t want to spend my last years unhappy,” Kessler says.

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