Marriage / Divorce Analysis
Estimated Number of Printed Pages: 4
TOPICS COVERED: The popular media line is that divorce is on the rise, and marriage is over. We simply don't agree.
MEMOS ON RELATED INFORMATION: Family Dissolution, Domestic Violence, Divorce, Marriage Part One (for societal and cultural views) and Marriage Part Two (for marriage demographics), Delaying Marriage
Links to Sources for this material are available below. Please also see The Factbook Sources page for further information regarding Factbook sources and their availability.








Generally, there's two dichotomous trends going on in media: marriage is back, and marriage is dead – mostly because of skyrocketing divorce rates.
Point 1: Marriage isn't dead: most people still get married.
The all-too-little known fact is that almost everyone in the U.S. – and most places around the world – still gets married. In the U.S., it varies a little depending on the age group, but it's still well over 90 percent for everyone. Even most of those who divorce get remarried – myself included. Because, for whatever reason, the first relationship didn't work – but we haven't given up on pursuing the institution of marriage. And, by the way, divorce is not "new" to the U.S., a by-product of the upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s. No, actually, it was the Puritans who first introduced divorce to the American colonies, in 1620. 1.
Yes, we do divorce at a huge rate. But in our obsession over that – we fail to recognize how much the institution of marriage has changed – or how different it is around the world. A hundred years ago, American marriages were motivated as much by economics as they were by love. In South America, marriages have been frequently limited to the wealthy – the poor can't afford them. In Asian and African countries, arranged marriages are still common. In the parts of the Middle East, your ideal mate is a first cousin.
In our not-to-distant past, a successful marriage was defined by how many kids you had and if you got the crops in on time. Now we expect marriage to be a warm, nurturing relationship that develops and fulfills the whole person. We want love and laughter and great sex to boot.
All of which is terrific – as long as we recognize that these are new and difficult expectations. As 1950s sociologist Ray Abrams wrote, “[T]here is little concerted effort to face and come to grips with the problem of love and the stability of marriage . . . When the cult of romantic love is promoted, it is thought that everything else will take care of itself. The argument goes on this wise: If people are really in love they can make a go of their marriage. If their marriage does not succeed, then they did not try hard enough or they were not really in love.” 2.
If we think that the story is how many marriages end, we'll miss the real miracle – how many marriages endure. How many marriages are actually living up to those new, impossibly high, expectations.
Point 2: Divorce numbers are misleading.
As I mentioned in the "Halftime" Chapter of Why Do I Love These People?, and in the Divorce memo, divorce statistics are one of the most regularly abused statistics I've seen in my research.
First, divorce statistics change with a population. Straight historical comparisons over the number of divorces are flawed because they don't take into account what's going on in the population. For example, a younger population will have a higher divorce rate, because younger people end marriages at a higher rate than those who get married later. If the population changes dramatically, more people will get divorced. If more people are married, more people will get divorced.
Divorce rates don't take into account social or economic events that can have a huge influence on both the marriage and divorce rates. During the Depression, divorce rates dropped – because getting a divorce was too expensive. It was cheaper just to abandon a family – which men did, by the millions. In WWII, there was a marriage boom as young women hurriedly married men before they went off to war – and then a divorce boom as their stranger–husbands returned.
Similarly, an over-all divorce rate doesn't help, because it makes it seem like everyone gets divorced at the same point in their marriage, and that isn't the case. Newly married couples are much more likely to get divorced than a couple that's been married for a few years, and couples without children are more likely to divorce than couples with children.
There are even different kinds of divorce rates – some more accurate than others.
And did we mention? Most divorce figures in the U.S. are estimates. Several states don't count how many divorces they have – including California, which stopped counting its divorces years ago.
Contrary to popular belief, which focuses purely on the divorce rate, the fact is actually that the real growth in divorce seems to have finished – there's been a slow decline and leveling off at the end of the Twentieth Century. Of course, divorces are still much higher than they were in decades past – but then, a wedding that doesn't end in divorce will last decades longer than a wedding from the past, because we're living so much longer. In fact, one sociologist has determined that the length of the marriage relationships has actually stayed pretty much the same. It's just the reason for the endpoint that is different – it used to be death (and usually early ones) but now it's divorce.
And finally, divorce rates say nothing about the families that don't end in a formal legal process. 3. But there are more ways to end a marriage – separation and abandonment. Two people who still live in the same house but never speak to each other. Our concern shouldn't be about how many divorces there are, but family stability. (For information on those, go to our memos on Family Dissolution and the other related pages).
Point 3: People get divorced for good reasons.
While there were huge increases in divorce after divorce is legalized or becomes more easily available, that change in the law itself is not even necessarily the trigger. Although it's debated, what is sometimes blamed the trigger for the U.S. increase in divorce is the availability of a "no-fault" divorces. That's when some argue the rates skyrocketed.
But in that critique, there's an embedded presumption that the divorces are really "no fault." And that the couples who get them are taking are the easy way out, when, in fact, that really may not be the case. I'll admit that's an understandable reaction, if you just look at the timeline on divorce.
You might disapprove of the number of divorces in general, but then think about your friend who got divorced. Think about your own divorce. Because in critiques of the rising numbers of divorces, we forget that divorces aren't numbers. They are relationships. And just because it's easy to check a box on a form doesn't mean it's easy to end the relationship. It can be devastating.
And just because the form says "No fault" – that isn't necessarily really be the truth. The couple knows what's happened. They have just decided to keep it to themselves.
People get divorced for really good reasons.
For example, from 20 to 30 percent of divorced marriages involved domestic violence. Separated and divorced women are 14 times more likely to report that they've been victims of violence. A study in Canada found that 50 percent of divorced women there had been abuse victims. 4.
It used to be that wife-beating wasn't a reason to leave your husband. In some cultures, it still isn't. (And in case we think those cultures are so distant – it wasn't until 1992 that the U.S. Catholic Bishops issued a statement that women didn't have to stay married in an abusive relationship – because Catholic wives thought (or were being told) that they had to stay and save their marriage.) 5.
Once you start adding in infidelity, alcohol and drug abuse, the idea that divorces are really "no fault" becomes a farce. Yes, of course, there are the opportunist divorces as well, but how would we protect those with real reasons to divorce without getting them, too? What's the alternative?
Point 4: In a society that is individualist and educated, people will get divorced.
Marriage is about a couple's commitment to cease to function as individuals. Partnership, family, a union of souls – call it what you will, but the whole idea is that "two become one." As more than one sociologist has pointed out, if you live in a society that preaches a gospel of individualism and self-determination, then marriage goes against the very nature of what that society is about. We can't expect all of that belief in individualism to disappear as soon as we step inside the front door of our homes. And if we're individuals inside the home – well, could we expect anything less than to see higher rates of divorce in those societies?
At the same time, education is another factor. When both men and women can be economic providers, women may see less need to get married or stay in a bad marriage. They believe they have the means to survive on their own, so that's what they choose to do. In fact, some studies have shown that the more educated and more skilled a women is, the more likely she is to get divorced. And the reason some women stay in violent relationships is because "I couldn't afford to leave."
1. There are some, particularly European nations, were marriage is on the decline – but they also have new recognized forms of civil partnerships that we don't have in the U.S., so it isn't fair to simply compare them with our institutions. For a discussion on those, please go to our Unmarried Partners page. For the history of marriage and divorce, check out our other pages on Marriage. Regarding the Puritans' use of divorce, see Margaret Talbot, Love, American Style,” New Republic (April 14, 1997).
2. Ray H. Abrams, "The Concept of Family Stability," Annals of the Amer. Acad. of Political and Social Science, Vol. 272, pp. 1-8 (November 1950), p. 4.
3. Or, as Abrams put it, “. . . the index most frequently used to measure the relative amount of family stability is actually a criterion of instability. . . . That index is the divorce rate. The presumption is that realatively high divorce rate is evidence of a great amount of family instability.” However, divorce – he continued – is just a legal recognition of family instability. Ray H. Abrams, “The Concept of Family Stability,” Annals of the Amer. Acad. of Polit. and Soc. Sci., vol. 272, pp. 1-8 (November 1950), p. 2.
4. That's just the tip of the iceberg. For more information, go to our Divorce and Domestic Violence pages.
5. See ________, "When I Call for Help: A Pastoral Response to Domestic Violence Against Women," United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Inc., Washington, DC (2002). Accessed at: on August 13, 2005.