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Divorce Rate Statistics


Divorce Rate Statistics: It's Not as High as You Think

By DAN HURLEY of The New York Times

How many American marriages end in divorce? One in two, if you believe the statistic endlessly repeated in news media reports, academic papers and campaign speeches.

The figure for divorce rate statistics is based on a simple - and flawed - calculation: the annual marriage rate per 1,000 people compared with the annual divorce rate. In 2003, for example, the most recent year for which data is available, there were 7.5 marriages per 1,000 people and 3.8 divorces, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

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But researchers say that this is misleading because the people who are divorcing in any given year are not the same as those who are marrying, and that the statistic is virtually useless in understanding divorce rates. In fact, they say, studies find that the divorce rate in the United States has never reached one in every two marriages, and new research suggests that, with rates now declining, it probably never will.

The method preferred by social scientists in determining the divorce rate is to calculate how many people who have ever married subsequently divorced. Counted that way, the rate has never exceeded about 41 percent, researchers say. Although sharply rising divorce rate statistics in the 1970's led some to project that the number would keep increasing, the rate has instead begun to inch downward.

"At this point, unless there's some kind of turnaround, I wouldn't expect any cohort to reach 50 percent, since none already has," said Dr. Rose M. Kreider, a demographer in the Fertility and Family Statistics Branch of the Census Bureau.

Two years ago, based on a 1996 survey, she and another demographer at the bureau predicted that if trends then in place held steady, the divorce rate statistics for some age groups might eventually hit the 50 percent mark. But in February, the bureau issued a new report, based on 2001 data and written by Dr. Kreider.


According to the report, for people born in 1955 or later, "the proportion ever divorced had actually declined," compared with those among people born earlier.

And, compared with women married before 1975, those married since 1975 had slightly better odds of reaching their 10th and 15th wedding anniversaries with their marriages still intact.

The highest divorce rate statistics in the 2001 survey was 41 percent for men who were then between the ages of 50 to 59, and 39 percent for women in the same age group.

Researchers say that the small drop in the overall divorce rate is caused by a steep decline in the rate among college graduates. As a result, a "divorce divide" has opened up between those with and without college degrees, said Dr. Steven P. Martin, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Maryland.

"Families with highly educated mothers and families with less educated mothers are clearly moving in opposite directions," Dr. Martin wrote in a paper that has not yet been published but has been presented and widely discussed at scientific meetings.

As the overall divorce rate statistics shot up from the early 1960's through the late 1970's, Dr. Martin found, the divorce rate for women with college degrees and those without moved in lockstep, with graduates consistently having about one-third to one-fourth the statistical divorce rate of nongraduates.

But since 1980, the two groups have taken diverging paths. Women without undergraduate degrees have remained at about the same rate, their risk of divorce or separation within the first 10 years of marriage hovering at around 35 percent.

But divorce rate statistics for college graduates, the divorce rate in the first 10 years of marriage has plummeted to just over 16 percent of those married between 1990 and 1994 from 27 percent of those married between 1975 and 1979.

About 60 percent of all marriages that eventually end in divorce do so within the first 10 years, researchers say. If that continues to hold true, the divorce rate for college graduates who married between 1990 and 1994 would end up at only about 25 percent, compared to well over 50 percent for those without a four-year college degree.

"It's a big wow sort of story," Dr. Martin said. "I've been looking for two years at other data sets to see if it's wrong, but it really looks like it's happening."

Still, some researchers remain skeptical about the significance of the small drop in overall divorce rates.

"The crude divorce rate has been going down," said Dr. Andrew J. Cherlin, professor of public policy in the sociology department at Johns Hopkins. "But whether the rates will ultimately reach 45 percent or 50 percent over the next few decades are just projections. None of them are ironclad."

Dr. Larry Bumpass, an emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin's Center for Demography and Ecology, has long held that divorce rates will eventually reach or exceed 50 percent. In an interview, he said that it was "probably right" that the official divorce statistics might fall below 50 percent, but that the rate would still be close.


"About half is still a very sensible statement," he said.

What all experts do agree on is that, after more than a century of rising divorce rates in the United States, the rates abruptly stopped going up around 1980.

Part of the uncertainty about the most recent trends derives from the fact that no detailed annual figures have been available since 1996, when the National Center for Health Statistics stopped collecting detailed data from states on the age, income, education and race of people who divorced.

As a result, estimates from surveys have had to fill in the gaps. "The government has dropped the ball on data collection," said Dr. David Popenoe, professor of sociology and co-director of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University.

Joshua R. Goldstein, associate professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton's Office of Population Research, said the loss of detailed government data, coming at a time when divorce rates were at their highest, might have distorted not only public perception, but people's behavior.

"Expectations of high divorce are in some ways self-fulfilling," he said. "That's a partial explanation for why rates went up in the 1970's."

As word gets out that rates have tempered or actually begun to fall, Dr. Goldstein added, "It could lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy in the other direction."

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