The Truth About Divorce Statistics
by David Gibson
“The truth about marriage is that divorce is getting less common,” New York Times writer Tara Parker-Pope says in her newly released book, “For Better: The Science of a Good Marriage” (Dutton, 2010). For a variety of reasons, “divorce rates have dropped sharply since peaking in the late 1970s,” she observes.
Parker-Pope frequently reports on current marriage research in the Times. Her book says that in recent years she has “interviewed dozens of the world’s top marriage and relationship researchers, and pored over hundreds of published research studies,” exploring “what science has taught us about lasting relationships and the complexities of courtship, love and marriage.”
Inflated divorce statistics can be harmful, Parker-Pope suggests. She is concerned that misleading statistics have “trained a generation to be ambivalent about marriage and divorce.” People are left asking, “If half of all married couples are getting divorced, what’s the big deal?”
Parker-Pope cautions that incorrectly understanding current divorce statistics may result in many people believing that “marriage is more fragile than it really is.” Believing that more people are destined to divorce than is the case could lead some couples simply to give up when problems occur in their marriages, she fears.
The “grim statistic” that 50 percent of marriages are destined to end in divorce has been repeated for years, “but that bleak prognosis doesn’t apply to most couples getting married today or even most of those who married in the last few decades,” according to Parker-Pope. The problem, she adds, lies at least partly in how divorce rates tend to be calculated.
Her book holds that “because so many variables in the marriage-and-divorce equation are changing, a simple calculation comparing marriages and divorces in a given year ends up distorting the result and suggesting that the divorce rate is higher than it really is.”
One factor in the overall divorce-rate picture is that couples today tend to marry at an older age than was the case in 1970, for example. Studies indicate that the “risk for divorce drops significantly when couples wait to wed until after the age of twenty-five,” Parker-Pope writes. She says an added benefit of marrying at a later age may be that “many of the weakest relationships are ending before a couple ever heads to the altar.”
It is true that couples married in the 1970s divorce at high rates, according to Parker-Pope. Then couples typically married “in their late teens and early twenties,” she states; statistics show that the 30-year divorce rate among these couples “is about 47 percent.”
But Parker-Pope finds that “people married in the 1980s and 1990s are getting divorced at lower rates than their counterparts married in the 1970s.” In fact, she says it appears that marital stability is “improving each decade.”
So, for Parker-Pope, today “the good news” is that “far more people are succeeding at marriage than failing.” She says research suggests that “far more than half of married couples today stay married.”
Nonetheless, she points out that “a sizable minority of marriages will eventually fail.” She notes, as well, that fewer people today marry at all.
The writer cautions that current statistics on divorce do not mean that marriage has become easy. Actually, Parker-Pope finds that contemporary couples “have far higher expectations of marriage than did earlier generations.” Social shifts have “raised the bar” for marriage in terms of the emotional fulfillment that is sought, the partnership and fairness that is desired, and the strong sense many spouses have that they ought to remain soul mates.