The State of Marriage and Divorce in the U.S.: Making Sense of the Decline in Divorces and Marriages

coupleA New York Times article recently busted the age old-myth everyone’s heard for years about marriage: namely, that 50% of them end in divorce. But that data doesn’t necessarily mean that marriages today are by any means more stable than those of the past.

Taking a look at the raw numbers the way the federal government does, the Times found that divorces peaked in 1981 at a rate of 5.3 divorces per 1,000 people. In 1990, that figure fell to 4.7 out of 1,000 people and finally hit a record low of 3.6 per 1,000 in 2011.

However, the number of divorces based on population size may not be the best indicator of successful marriages. The number of divorces out of all married couples actually peaked in 1979 and have since then fallen about 24%.

The study uses data from Justin Wolfers, a University of Michigan economist, and shows that even couples who married in the 2000s are so far divorcing at lower rates when compared with couples who married in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Wolfers also points out that more couples are celebrating 15th anniversaries than they did in previous decades.

There are plenty of reasons couples seek a divorce. Some reasons are more obvious, such as adultery or abuse, whereas others may sound more surprising; for example, research presented at the American Psychological Association’s 2011 Annual Convention found that 67% of couples experience a decrease in marital satisfaction after having a baby.

Wolfers’ study points out that later marriages and birth control have contributed to lower divorce rates, as well. In the 1950s, the median age of a first marriage was 23 for men and 20 for women; by 2004, the ages increased to 27 for men and 26 for women.

Time magazine says there could be reasons for why divorce seems more prevalent than it really is.

One reason is that pop culture and Hollywood have a huge influence on the public’s collective consciousness, meaning that all of those celebrity divorces outlines in detail in tabloids have a lasting effect on perceptions of marriage’s success.

The other is more personal: many members of the younger generation, whose parents may have married in the 1970s and 1980s, were more likely to grow up apart from one parent.

But is marriage really doing “better” today than it did previously? Critics of the study say no.

In an article from The Week critiquing the UMich study, author Michael Brendan Dougherty points out that out-of-wedlock births have also dramatically increased over the years for non-Hispanic whites: from 1.9% in 1956 to 30% today. The figures cited by Wolfers about 15th anniversaries don’t really prove that marriages will last any longer, especially as “gray divorces” (or couples separating later in life) are also on the rise.

But this fails to account for another statistic recently brought to light: marriage rates themselves are also in decline.

As of 2012, the marriage rate had declined by 60%, going from about 74 marriages per 1,000 unmarried women to 31 marriages per 1,000 unmarried women two years ago.

Tough economic conditions, such as student loan debt and unemployment, may lead to millennials being the generation least likely to marry by the age of 40, according to Business Insider. And many of them are just fine with that.

In fact, 44% of the 18-29 demographic agree most with the statement that marriage is becoming obsolete — a far higher number than previous generations.

Add in the high costs of marriage (around $25,000 for a wedding) and divorce (about $15,000 on average) and it’s no wonder those marrying in recent years have contributed to a lower divorce rate: many of them can’t afford to marry or divorce in the first place.

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