Is Marriage Obsolete? Divorce Statistics Should Make You Question the Whole Process

March 26, 2012 § 8 Comments

My journey to question everything about relationships continues with an updated look at divorce rates in America.

What kind of a future could my generation really envision when we were young?  The American family dynamic goes through cycles (baby boom, divorce boom) and all I remember was that it seemed more normal to have parents that lived in separate houses than to have the “core nuclear family” like the Cosbys.

In fact, television is a good example of when you started to see people trending further away from the nuclear family: My Two Dads, Full House, Who’s The Boss?, and Step by Step (thanks Brady Bunch) as examples of television families that were in anything but a “normal” situation.  Except that the line between what’s normal and what’s unusual has been blurred out like a nipple on ABC Family.  To me and my friends, growing up in a single-parent (read: single mother) household was what were used to.  It was what we expected.  Would we follow in the footsteps of our fathers?

Most 80s Picture Ever

Well, not necessarily.  Since, you know, our fathers didn’t follow in their fathers footsteps.  Our parent’s parents would hardly consider the word divorce as an option.  Now after several decades of change in laws, social norms, and redefining gender roles, divorce isn’t only an option; it’s the endgame for half of marriages.

How did we get here?  What do we make of it?  Where are we headed?  Is marriage still going to be around in 100 years and should it?

I have examined the numbers from the recent census and other studies.  Some of the numbers are really telling and should be used to give insight on how marriage is viewed and how and when people should even start to consider marriage.  This is what I’ve found:

The Generational Gap

If you got married for the first time between 1960 and 1964, there was a 94.6% chance you’d make your 5th Anniversary if you’re a man and a 93% chance if you are a woman.  Updated for marriages that began between 1995-1999 and it drops to ~89.5% for both.

That 5% drop might not seem like a lot on the surface, but think of it like this: In the mid-sixties, about 1 in 20 marriages didn’t make it to the 5th Anniversary.  In modern years, it’s slightly more than 1 in 10 that don’t make it, or twice as often.  Also take into consideration the fact that with a higher population, nearly twice as many people get married on average per year than in 1960 so that’s twice as many potential broken homes.

"Your knickers are just swell!"

Also consider that a full 60% of men that got married between 1960-1964 made it at least forty years, and 50% of women (most likely the drop between the sexes is the longer lifespan of women) hit this milestone in the 2000s.  Compare that to the fact that 60% of men married between 1980-1984 have made it half as long as that, the twentieth anniversary.

To understand why divorce rates spiked at a certain time however, we have to go back and find some legal and moral reasons for the change:

Fault vs No-Fault Divorces

Though it’s changed a lot over the years in how you’d truly define a divorce, the process of legally ending a marriage dates back centuries.  The French philosopher Voltaire, who was light years ahead of his generation in terms of common sense, once put it as: “Divorce is probably of nearly the same date as marriage. I believe, however, that marriage is some weeks the more ancient.”

"If doth like it, doth place a ring on it"

Legal divorce dating back to the sixteenth century and eventually migrating over to the United States as the country became the “United States,” divorce was indeed possible for married couples but it wasn’t nearly as likely as it is today.  Grounds for divorce had to be real reasons for permanent separation and not just because it was an E! Hollywood Special.  Unless Kris Humphries had committed one of these infractions pre-WWII, him and Kim Kardashian would be forced to live in a multi-million mansion together until death parted them: ” The reasons included desertion, adultery, regular inebriation and impotence, as well as the classic cruel and abusive treatment.”

You see, getting divorce didn’t used to be as easy as cancelling a television program.  (Not that anyone would put it past most Hollywood couples to commit any of those infractions.)

This article on the History of Divorce in the US (linked above) talks about the history of no-fault reasons to end marriage like this:

“Around the mid-1950s in the U.S. several court rulings and state laws clearly recognized the many instances of no-fault reasons to end marriages. These included long-term separation, instances of incompatibility and loss of sanity. In practical terms, though, no-fault legislation was hard to use to actually provide a divorce for couples. It seemed that attorneys and judges were still driven by social mores that established the finality of marriage.”

Couples that wanted to get divorced around this time for reasons as simple as “He smells” or “She wants to join the workforce” in the fifties prompted people to go to states that were more lax on divorce (Nevada, California or in extreme cases, Mexico) to get a legal separation.  However, by the seventies the U.S. was simply going to let go and allow people to break up simply because they wanted to.  Perhaps a minor loophole or two you had to jump through but getting a divorce didn’t become that much different than getting a pot card in California, today.  (Marijuana: “Not legal” but if you want to smoke it in some states, you have to go through the hard process of… filing for a pot card.)

The 70s and 80s is when the divorce boom hit, though in recent years it seems to have plateaued or perhaps decreased.  Two questions: Why did it boom and why did things get steady afterwards?

The Divorce Boom

Religion – The first chart you want to examine is located on the Census website here.   This map isn’t a depiction of religion by state but divorce rates by state for men and women.  An example is this map, showing Marriage Rates by State for Men:

The yellow states are below-average, the average states are green, and the blue states are above average.  The part that will stand out to you is going to be the fact that every single “Below Average” state in the U.S. is located on the Eastern half.  This remains true for women as well, though Florida drops back to “average” because women love a hanging Chad. (rimshot)

So where are men and women keeping it real on marriage and who is calling it quits more often?

Surprising California, the home of the Hollywood marriage, drops to below the national average in divorce rates for both men and women, the only West Coast state that can say that.  What does this have to do with religion?  I’m not entirely sure yet, but let’s check some numbers:

The top 5 states with Christian Adherents (per 2000):

Utah – 74.3%

North Dakota – 72.9%

South Dakota – 67.6%

Rhode Island – 61.7%

Minnesota – 60.5%

The bottom 5 states with Christian Adherents:

Oregon – 30.1%

Nevada – 30.2%

Washington State – 31.8%

Alaska – 33.6%

Maine – 35.3%

Okay, so does the presence of absence of Christian religion affect the marriage and/or divorce rates significantly?

Utah, the land of religion, checks in significantly higher in every category: Marriage and divorce for both men and women.  I suppose that can happen when each man gets four marriages and three divorces a year.  (This is a joke.  You can tell this is a joke because it is obviously a joke.  Some people have not understood that it is a joke.  Those people should cite Hustler v Farwell or note that I made fun of people from my own home state of Washington.)  

North Dakota has more marriages and fewer divorces than most states, while South Dakota stays “average” on every account.  Of course, the population of these states is significantly lower than most.  Same goes for Rhode Island.  There are a lot of people in Minnesota though…

Minnesota and it’s population of over 5 million checks in at average for marriages and has fewer divorces than the average state, giving some credence (perhaps) to the fact that a marriage under God means something.  But it doesn’t mean anything if the marriages of sinners like me also have fewer “I don’t’s.”

Most of us sinners live in the Pacific Northwest, with Oregon, Washington, and Alaska as three of the four lowest God-loving states in the U.S.  If you live in the “lower 46″ you probably just consider us “hippies, man.”  That’s okay.

Marriage in my home state of Washington is higher on all accounts and divorces also check in as “significantly” above U.S. average.  Why?  My best guess is that it’s so cold and wet for nine months out of the year that most Washingtonians are looking for someone to keep ‘em dry during the day and warm at night.  Then after a few years we realize we can’t get away from this person because we’re always cuddling and then we bail.

It’s worth nothing that none of the “Sinner States” check in below-average on divorce.  The only one that checks in below-average on anything is Maine for Men Getting Married.

Seriously, what’s the deal?  Is it all religion?

Well, we know what the deal is with Nevada.  Those crazy S.O.B.’s like to party hard and they import marriages and divorces from other states, as well.  As for the other four?  I find it interesting that three out of four are the northern-most states in the U.S. and Oregon is kissing the butt of Washington, geographically speaking.  (And metaphorically speaking too, go Apples!)

But it can’t be denied that divorce in these states is somewhere between average-to-above average while divorce in the bible belt is average-to-below average.  Maybe God does have to do with it and if that’s the case it lends credence to the idea that marriages are failing more often because faith is failing more often.

Sidenote: New York is the most Jewish state in the union, by far (8.4%) and checks in below-average on all accounts, which I think is the goal.  Get married less often, get divorced less often, make the decision when it’s right and to the right person.  The chances that the high Jewish population of New York and the strict marital guidelines that come with being devoutly Jewish, effect the low divorce and marriage rate of the state, is definitely greater than zero.  Kudos, Jews! :)

This study of religion by Pew Forum from 2007 breaks it down further:

  • The Midwest most closely resembles the religious makeup of the overall population. The South, by a wide margin, has the heaviest concentration of members of evangelical Protestant churches. The Northeast has the greatest concentration of Catholics, and the West has the largest proportion of unaffiliated people, including the largest proportion of atheists and agnostics.

That helps break down the religion regionally for us, but what about the loss of faith?  According to that study:

More than one-quarter of American adults (28%) have left the faith in which they were raised in favor of another religion – or no religion at all. If change in affiliation from one type of Protestantism to another is included, 44% of adults have either switched religious affiliation, moved from being unaffiliated with any religion to being affiliated with a particular faith, or dropped any connection to a specific religious tradition altogether.

The survey finds that the number of people who say they are unaffiliated with any particular faith today (16.1%) is more than double the number who say they were not affiliated with any particular religion as children. Among Americans ages 18-29, one-in-four say they are not currently affiliated with any particular religion.

People are losing their religion like Michael Stipe told them to and as we get older as people and as a nation, the idea that marriage is a “religious ceremony” at all is losing traction.  This was once “One Nation Under God” and with every passing meme becomes “One Nation Under Lolcatz.”

But is marriage as a “practicality” and not as a “religious bond” necessarily a bad thing?  The answer, as I see it is “No, as long as it doesn’t lead to higher divorce rates” but that’s something that might mature over time, just like marriage and social norms have.  We’ve seen how Religion and the lack thereof can effect divorce rates, but how about those social norms?

Changing Gender Roles

Your grandparents and nearly all of the generations before that lived on a certain standard of gender roles that included: Man bring home bacon, woman cook bacon.  It was a co-dependence of man and woman that made marriage feel safe, secure, and practical.  Is it practical anymore?

Women in the workplace has been on the rise for over a century.  Today, women make up 46% of the total U.S. labor force, and the labor-market participation for women 25 to 44 rose from less than 20% of women in 1900 to over 75% by 1999.  The gap between men in the workplace and women in the workplace has become so narrow that it’s basically non-existent and the gap in cents on the dollar for salary closes as well.

This means that women have less of a need for men to take care of them financially (it’s basically a thing of the past) and the growing availability of food, washer/dryer machines, etc., have proven that men don’t need anyone to “do the housework” for them either.  As America grows in convenience for the day-to-day household chores and as women have become financially independent, therefore what is left for a “practical marriage”?

It was only a few generations ago in this country that women were married when they were teenagers as a normal practice and left home to start their own families with the men that “took care of them” and it worked.  The Median Age at First Marriage from 1890-1980 sat between 20.3-22.0 for females and 22.8-26.1 for males.  For the bulk of the time, it’s safe to say that most women were between 20 and 21 and men were ~23-years-old at the time of first marriage.

In 2010, that number was 26.1 for females and 28.2 for males, a rise of 5 to 6 years on the Median Age at First Marriage!  Why?

It’s safe to say that fewer women attended secondary school prior to the 1970s than as of today and therefore weren’t “missing anything” if they got married at 20 or earlier.  You’ll notice that the median age of men back then was still above 22, when they would be getting out of college:  Graduate, find a gal that’s just out of high school, get hitched.

Today, women are going to college just as often as men and they have their own shit to take care of.  People want to feel safe and secure within themselves before marriage, and not just find someone else to make them secure.  That’s where independence comes in today as compared to previous generations.

That kind of attitude is helping to improve the divorce rate, when it is employed: put together a list of stats showing “Age at Marriage for Those Who Divorce in America” and unsurprisingly, the longer you wait, the better:

Age Women Men
Under 20 years old 27.6% 11.7%
20 to 24 years old 36.6% 38.8%
25 to 29 years old 16.4% 22.3%
30 to 34 years old 8.5% 11.6%
35 to 39 years old 5.1% 6.5%

The vast majority of failed marriages, those checking in at over 1/3rd of divorces, began when the men and/or woman was between the ages of 20 and 24 when they tied the knot.  If you wait until 30, the chances of divorce fall to less than 10%!  

This article from CNN breaks it down further and professor Andrew Cherlin sums it up nicely: “Fifty years ago, you had to be married,” he says. “Marriage used to be the first step in adulthood, and now it’s the capstone.”

Today, marriage is what you do when you’ve got your ducks in a row and not what you do to before you get your ducks set up.  It used to be that marriage was how you started a relationship and now it’s how you put the finishing touches on one.

Is that positive or negative?  Is that the reason for the rising divorce rates compared to our grandparents generation or is it how we’ll right the ship?

Divorce Doesn’t Happen Because You Got Married, It Happens Because We Are Different Than We Used To Be And We’re Learning To Adjust

I’d like to consider 1980-present as a learning period for Americans in marriage.  It’s not so much that we just really freaking suck at this whole marriage thing now, it’s that we’ve changed and the laws have changed and the rules have changed and people are learning how to deal with that and make it successful.

Something as major as the institution of marriage isn’t going to adjust to changes in social norms and religious views overnight.  People aren’t just getting married for the wrong reasons on purpose but instead people need to realize that the reasons have changed.  We don’t necessarily need to get married out of necessity anymore, instead people can get married for any number of reasons which perhaps helps lend to a higher rate of divorce.

What’s more interesting is that even after a first failed marriage, you’re more likely to fail on the second and third tries: Almost 2 out 3 second marriages fail and you’re basically screwed on the third marriage, where nearly 75% end in divorce.  (Thanks Larry King.  The number is skewed by so-called “maddicts” aka “marriage addicts”.)

"Oklahoma, Hello, Would you like to get married?"

Despite going through the pains of one failed marriage and hoping that perhaps enough lessons were learned to avoid a second or third fall-through, most marriages end unhappily ever after after your first divorce.  Does that mean you should give up?  Of course not.

The only way America is going to get this right is to keep trying and finding out where the faults are and how to correct them.  From my research I think a few things are key:

  • Wait.  The love of your life will still be there when you’re 30 if they’re really the love of your life and if you make it to 30, your chances only go up.
  • Be financially secure.  If you argue about finances with your spouse once a week, your marriage is 30% more likely to wind up in divorce court.
  • Get your degree.  Women with a bachelors degree were more likely to be married (63%) than those without a high school diploma (49%) and the numbers are nearly the same for men.  Nearly every statistic on marriage and divorce that you can find will favor a person as they go higher and higher up the educational ladder.
  • This site breaks it down further: You’re 30% less likely to get divorced if you have an income over $50,000, 25% less likely if you have graduated college, and 24% less likely if you have a baby 7 months into a marriage.  Kids, you know, they throw some glue into the equation but it’s definitely not permanent glue.  It’s more like the Elmer’s you give a 4-year-old, but still.

Fewer people over the age of 18 are married right now than ever before, teetering on the brink of it falling below 50% and making the “married person” less common than the “single person.”  That’s not just because of the divorce rate (which is shrinking) but also because people are waiting.  I think eventually this waiting will lead to more success because it’s the only way we will be able to get it right.  To step back and realize that we are not our grandparents and we are also not our parents.  We are our own generation and we have to think about how marriage affects us and not how it affected someone thirty or sixty years ago.

Is marriage becoming obsolete?  I don’t think so.  It’s just become more… practical.  And that’s a good thing.

Marry me on Twitter and please don’t divorce me!

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§ 8 Responses to Is Marriage Obsolete? Divorce Statistics Should Make You Question the Whole Process

  • hipnaughtyk says:

    I noticed that you didn’t mention much about LTR’s… Couples who choose to stay together for several years, procreate, and never marry (I.e. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie). I think the conscious decision not to marry is an entirely new concept, and one borne of these ridiculous numbers. Still, you raise a good point.

  • Ellie says:

    To “fail” in marraige just sounds to outdated. I think its a mirical that people can sucessfully stay together longer than a year. Is it such a horrible thing to accept that you just can’t live with each other anymore? Or that you have grown apport. Of course its sad, but is it a failure?

  • free penny press says:

    Save this for a college thesis.. I kid you not.your research is amazing..

  • sweetsound says:

    Working female, bachelor’s degree, grew up in Utah, married at age 20, divorced by age 26. No longer a practicing mormon. Would like an LTR but plan to never marry again. I’m a fucking walking statistic.

  • Pink Ninjabi says:

    Thank you for sharing. This really validates my reasons for waiting after my first divorce. I’m totally fearful of getting married a second time though, because of these stats, but now that I’m 32, it’s nice to know it should only get better from here.

    Thank you for sharing. :D This post really, really helped me validate my reasons for being unmarried. :D


  • Great analysis of some timely research. I agree with you in that expectations with regards to marriage are in the process of transformation, leaving many couples unsure of what they can reasonably want out of the institution. After helping many through the legal hell that is called the divorce process, I’ve seen how these differing expectations led to dissatisfaction and resentment. I waited until I was in my early 30s to tie the knot. At that point, I believe that I had more realistic expectations regarding what my partner can provide for me in terms of companionship, support, etc. Funny enough, I didn’t get married until I knew on a bone-deep level that I didn’t NEED marriage to feel complete. I think everyone should examine marriage instead of accepting it as the inevitable goal of all relationships.

  • [...] unconditional love (not always, making it an imperfect math) but it’s pretty damn close.  If 50% of marriages end in divorce and 66% of second marriages find the same fate, then it almost seems to suggest that [...]

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