Divorce can feel omnipresent in the U.S., casting a long shadow over even the happiest, most secure marriages. In trying to understand how so many marriages seem to end in divorce, we can all think of people we know whose families have broken up or summon our famously high divorce rate as proof that all marriages are vulnerable. But that oft-cited divorce statistic — that half of all marriages in the U.S. end in divorce — turns out to be totally unreliable and essentially meaningless in measuring the actual risk of divorce. It’s a number derived from flawed data sets and faulty assumptions. The divorce rate in America is a number that even sociologists have trouble pinning down — and this has consequences for marriages all over the U.S.
The U.S. divorce “rate,” on its face, isn’t complicated. Looking at the total number of divorces in a year among the total U.S. population, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found there were 3.2 divorces per 1,000 people in 2016. Unfortunately, this answer is so much a ballpark as to be questionably useful. “It’s a good metric, but it’s crude,” says Howard J. Markman, Ph.D., a psychology professor and co-director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver.
There are a few reasons why this number is imprecise. The latest CDC marriage and divorce stats are based on data reported by just 44 states and Washington, D.C., What’s more, some states report marriage counts but not divorce counts and vice versa, says Krista K. Payne, Ph.D., a data analyst at the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. California, for example — a state with some 40 million people — isn’t included in the CDC’s divorce rate. Data collection isn’t uniform either, so states can get those numbers however they want.
Once you start digging, you can see that divorce rates like the one used by the CDC are fundamentally flawed. Even if we got a more accurate number, we’re asking the wrong question. For example, a rate like the one the CDC uses lumps single people in with married people. This is absurd. “If you’re not married, your risk of divorce is zero. But [researchers] use those vital stats because that’s what they have.”
To fix these flaws, sociologists have looked to compare the number of divorces that happen in a year with the number of marriages in a year, or comparing the flows in and out, says Betsey Stevenson, a labor economist and professor at the University of Michigan who served on the White House Council of Economic Advisers during the Obama administration.
“If the same percentage of people marry every year, it should balance out, is the thinking,” she says. “But it ignores how many people are already married. If 100 people get married this year and 100 people divorce, the divorce rate is 100 percent.”
That flow-in-and-out measurement is where the one-in-two figure came from, Stevenson says. It’s not useful, she says, because, “People marrying today are different, and their patterns of marriage look different.”
Why does this cause such a statistically misleading number? Stevenson offers an example to illustrate the flaws within: If her daughter wanted to figure out her risk of dying of lung cancer someday, it wouldn’t be very revealing to look at how many people in her grandparents’ generation were dying of the disease. Cigarette-smoking rates have dropped so dramatically over the past few decades that the risk of someone born in the 2000s would be very different than the risk for someone born in the 1950s. Although people’s ability to stay together and not divorce isn’t likely to change as much as the number of people in the U.S. who smoke, her analogy illustrates how lumping different age groups into a figure can muddy its significance for different demographics.
Divorce in America: The Baby Boomer Factor
One of the biggest problems with national divorce averages is that they include baby boomers, a group that, statistically, is very prone to divorce. One reason why they divorce a lot is that they get married a lot. Boomers — that is, people born between 1946 and around 1964 — generally married young, which is one of the biggest contributors to divorce risk. Researchers, however, are starting to tease out the differences in divorce among different age groups.
In a new study, University of Maryland sociologist Philip N. Cohen used data from the CDC’s American Community Survey (ACS), which began collecting information about marriage and divorce in 2008, to determine that the proportion of married women who divorce each year dropped 18 percent in the past decade. All of that decline was among women under 45 years old.
Also interesting, Payne says, is that among 20- to 45-year-olds, the divorce rate in 2014–16 is lower than the divorce rate among the same age group in 2008–10. Among those older than 45, the divorce rate is nearly identical at both points in time.
“That means that any difference in overall rates between the two time periods is being driven by the lower rates among the 20- to 45-year-olds,” she says. “The main story here is that the characteristics of women, particularly millennial women, who are married today, are very different from the characteristics of their parents. This really is looking at two different cohorts.”
In fact, baby boomers dying off “all but guarantees” a decline in the risk of divorce in the coming years, Cohen noted in his paper. The authors of an earlier paper titled “Breaking Up Is Hard to Count” came to a similar conclusion, noting that if current trends continue, two-thirds of couples might not divorce.
In addition, Cohen discovered that women who reported getting married in the year before the survey tended to have a lower “divorce-risk profile,” meaning they were likely to be older in their first marriages and to have a college degree and no children in their households — all traits associated with a lower risk for divorce.
Divorce in America: Nailing Down the Numbers
That divorce rates are dropping goes against conventional wisdom, Cohen wrote in a blog about his research. Between 1960 and 1980, the “crude divorce rate” went from 2.2 to 5.2, an increase of 136 percent, which inspired some freaking-out about the dissolution of the American family.
Other experts, however, disagree a bit about some of the reasons divorce rates were so high in the 1970s. Many point to the rise of no-fault divorces as a big reason for the spike; though changes in divorce law during that decade might have sped up divorces, they didn’t really lead to an increase in their number, Stevenson says. What’s more agreed-upon is that divorce in America has declined since the 1980s, and in fact has fallen pretty steadily over the years.
The latest figures indicate that the overall divorce rate is the lowest it has been since 1970, at 16.7 per 1,000, in 2016. This is the “refined” rate, which looks at the total number of married women, who are thought to be better reporters of personal information than men tend to be, Payne notes.
“Using data from the ACS and calculating a rate that specifies married women, you’re looking at the risk of people who could actually divorce,” she says. The ‘first divorce rate,’ or the number of marriages that ended in divorce per 1,000 first marriages for women 18 and older, was 15.4 in 2016, according to research by the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at the Bowling Green State University. As noted earlier, black women experience divorce at the highest rate, 26.1 per 1,000, and the rate is lowest for Asian women at 9.2 per 1,000.
Ideally, you’d get the most accurate picture of divorce risk by following married people over time, Payne says. So you’d look at, say, all the marriages that started in 1993, and then look at who’s still married in 2018. But that kind of longitudinal data is harder to come by, not to mention expensive to do. The best estimate, based on projections, is that 45 percent of marriages will end in divorce.
But it’s important to ask how useful it is to consider — or worry about — what impact that number should have on your life.
“The way people have talked about the divorce rate for so long has been wrong,” Payne says. “It’s important to talk about social problems, but we need to be specific about what we’re defining. Lumping things together that shouldn’t be isn’t helpful.”
It might be wise, then, to look at divorce rates in the appropriate context rather than inflate their importance, especially when family formation patterns are changing over time, Stevenson adds.
“People should think about how they define success,” she says. “Is it never divorcing, or 30 years of marriage in which most are pretty good but after 30 years you decide to go in a different direction? I think it’s a hard question, particularly when there’s a lot of longevity.”
Divorce in America: The Changing Shape of Marriage
Although it’s nice that divorce rates are dropping, there are other contributing factors in addition to the boomer effect. The number of people getting married has fallen quite a bit, too, so there are simply fewer marriages to split up. The number of unmarried adults is at a record high of 20 percent, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center report. In 1960, 68 percent of 20-somethings were married; in 2008, that number was only 26 percent. An earlier Pew poll revealed that 39 percent of respondents said marriage is now obsolete.
Marriage has become more about status than necessity. Today, marriage is more likely to be an end goal after couples get all their ducks — such as completed college degrees and good jobs for both partners — in a row. Poorer couples are more likely to get married hoping for a greater level of financial stability, which can put a lot of pressure on a marriage. College grads are less likely to think marriage should provide financial security and more likely to look to themselves to provide it.
It’s still somewhat surprising that divorce rates are dropping considering how socially acceptable divorce is compared to what it used to be. So it’s likely the drop reflects that the pool of people getting married is narrowing.
“The U.S. is progressing toward a system in which marriage is rarer, and more stable, than it was in the past, representing an increasingly central component of the structure of social inequality,” Cohen wrote in his study abstract.
In other words, falling divorce rates don’t necessarily mean that millennials are acing marriage as much as it means that marriage itself is becoming a more specialized institution reserved for elites. Among the poor and uneducated, Payne adds, divorce rates are pretty much the same as they were in the 1980s.
“What we’re seeing with millennials is one, they’re much less likely to get married than the previous generation, so marriage itself is getting more selective,” Payne says. “Marriage also trends among the college-educated population, and college-educated people are the least likely to divorce.”
She also notes that white and Asian women have higher marriage rates than black women and native-born Hispanic women, who both have higher rates of divorce. “So the types of people who are getting married are also the least likely to get divorced,” she says.