Staunch believers in marriage cringe when they hear it. Others let it seep into their psyche only to give them anxiety. Hopefully, no one has second-guessed their wedding plans or even obstructed their own happiness, resting their anxieties on a misquoted statistic. That’s right, the often quoted 50% divorce rate for first marriages is a fallacy, as is the 60% for second marriages. There are stats closer to the truth. They paint a complex picture of marriage in America today. The 50% divorce rate was a misquoted stat from the 1970’s that has endured perniciously ever since, popping up in the media hither and thither and making would-be brides and grooms bite their fingernails (if they weren’t doing so already). Per 1,000 people in the U.S., the divorce rate hit its high mark around 1980 at 40%. It’s been declining ever since. Throughout the 2,000’s it’s been dropping steadily. Today the divorce rate for first time marriages is about 30%. But things get more complex when you look closer. All the research on divorce focuses on women. So there are actually two divorce rates. The first is for women who are college educated and get married sometime past their 25th birthday. For this subgroup the divorce rate is about 20%. For those who marry before age 25 and do not earn a higher degree, the rate is far higher; 40%. Those women who marry by age 18 however have the highest divorce rate, 48%. This last group are mostly poor, minority women.
Unfortunately, the oft misquoted 50% divorce rate has infected our outlook on marriage. After all, who wouldn’t be more confident walking down the aisle with a 70% chance of success, rather than a 50% likelihood of failure? When women began flooding colleges and the work sphere en masse beginning around the late 1970’s the marital landscape changed. This was when the divorce rate diverged into two distinct patterns, one route for college educated women, the other for those who never earned a degree. But the picture becomes even more intricate. Women with a degree who marry younger have poorer marital outcomes than those who marry after age 25. They also accumulate less wealth. The older a woman and her partner are when they get married and the wealthier they are, the more likely they are to stick together. But earning a college degree is the most significant factor as to whether the couple will stay married or split up. So for career women who have earned a college degree and are over 25, the divorce rate is very low.
Divorce stats are cumulative. Think of it as a continuum rather than a snapshot. Looking at things over a period of time gives us a better view of what’s going on. 10% of first time marriages end in divorce within the first five years. The next 10% end at the tenth year. This is of course blending the two subgroups mentioned earlier. But looking at it in this way, it takes until the 18th marriage year before the divorce rate hits 30%. It would take to the 50th year to reach 40%. About half of all divorces happen within the first five years. After that, the chances of getting divorced become far lower. There is very limited data associated with second marriages. But it looks as though the outcomes are very similar to first marriages. So if you are in a marriage or entering into one, don’t let the stats skew your view. If you are planning out your life at this moment, including marriage, perhaps wait until you have a degree and are old enough to give it the best chance of success. To make sure you and your spouse don’t end up on the wrong side of the pie chart read, The 8 Acts of Love That Make Your Marriage Last: A Marriage Therapist’s No-Nonsense Guide on how to Prevent Divorce, Build Love, Increase Sex, and Make Your Marriage Last by Abe Kass.