Understanding the US Divorce Rate (Why It's More Complicated Than You Think)

In a previous blog post, we wrote about how the COVID-19 pandemic might affect the US divorce rate. With a wide range of possible factors contributing to the dissolution of a marriage, understanding the divorce rate in the US is more complicated than it might seem.

It's no secret that Americans are interested in divorce. 2019's Marriage Story, a movie about divorce, received six nominations at the Golden Globe Awards and netted actress Laura Dern a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. On any given day, you can find a new tabloid article about the latest celebrity break-up. We live in a uniquely divorce-obsessed culture, and the divorce rate in the US is high because of it.

Or is it...?

In reality, factors such as changing views on marriage in millennials and feminism have made divorce in the US a more nuanced topic than it might initially appear. Today, we're taking a deep dive into divorce in the US.

Is the US Divorce Rate Really 50%? A Brief History of Divorce.

In 1960, the US crude divorce rate (the number of divorces per 1,000 people) was actually fairly low, sitting at around 2.2. However, by 1980 that figure had spiked to 5.2, a 136% increase.

Predictably, columnists and various political figures started ranting about the breakdown of American society and the nuclear family. In reality, there are several less dramatic explanations for the increase. One of the more significant factors was the introduction of no-fault divorce.

Prior to the 1970s, most states only accepted fault-based divorce. In other words, you had to have a reason to file for divorce, such as adultery or domestic violence. In the 1970s, however, many states passed no-fault divorce laws, enabling couples to file for divorce by citing irreconcilable differences rather than a specific type of fault. Removing fault-based restrictions on divorce could easily be responsible for spiking the divorce rate.

Additionally, the 1960s saw the advent of second-wave feminism, a movement that lasted about two decades before transitioning into third-wave feminism (yes, a time period that coincides exactly with the increase in the divorce rate). We'll come back to feminism later, but needless to say, as women's rights and independence increased, women feel more empowered to leave bad relationships.

If you hear someone today say that "around 50% of marriages fail," they're probably drawing statistics from this time period. The truth is, the divorce rate peaked in the 1980s and 90s, at least according to the data we have. Data by the CDC reveals that the crude divorce rate in 2018 was 2.9, notably less than the 1980 rate of 5.2.

It's important to note here that collecting accurate data for the divorce rate is incredibly difficult. For example, the data the CDC used was drawn from only 44 states. Notably, it excluded California, the most populous state in the nation. Additionally, it drew on state-collected data, and many states fail to keep accurate marriage and divorce counts. Finally, the data also included single people, which obviously isn't a useful metric when discussing what percent of marriages end in divorce.

All that being said, the CDC data is still some of the best information we have regarding divorce in the US.

Needless to say, pinning down the exact divorce rate is almost impossible. Any resources we have that claim to do so now are almost certainly false and figuring out an accurate divorce rate would require a monumental overhaul of state and national data collection on divorce and marriage statistics.

Pinning down a precise divorce rate may be almost impossible; however, we can nail down trends. In that regard, research shows that the divorce rate among millennials is declining, while the divorce rate among older generations is increasing.

The Truth About Divorce in the US in 2020

In 2017, the Pew Research Center conducted a study attempting to identify the crude divorce rate for three age groups: 25-39, 40-49, and 50+. Pew then compared their findings to crude divorce rates gathered in 1990 among the same age groups. Their findings were somewhat surprising:
 

  • Among 25-39 year-olds, the crude divorce rate dropped from 30 to 24, a 21% decrease.
  • Among 40-49 year-olds, the crude divorce rate rose from 18 to 21, a 14% increase.
  • Among 50+ year-olds, the crude divorce rate rose from 5 to 10, a 109% increase.
     

Immediately, media outlets across the country debuted articles about how millennials were killing divorce. That may be true, but at this point, we don't really have enough information to state that millennials are getting divorced less with much confidence. There are several factors that play into these statistics.

Millennials are getting married older than previous generations. In 1960, the median marriage age was 20 for women and 23 for men. Now, it's around 27 for women and 29 for men. Consequently a survey of 23-39 year-olds would probably have a smaller data set to draw from than a survey of 50+ year-olds.

Additionally, the divorce rate for baby boomers—many of whom are parents to millennials—has skyrocketed. Many millennials watched their own parents go through ugly divorces, which might play a role in a decreased divorce rate among that generation. It may also explain why millennials are more likely to sign a pre-nup than previous generations. The longer you wait to get married, the more assets you have when you do—and the more valuable a pre-nup becomes.

Social media and globalization may also play a role in decreasing the divorce rate for millennials while simultaneously increasing it among baby boomers. Dating apps and social media platforms have made it easier than ever to meet more people, increasing the average millennial's chances of finding a good match. However, those same platforms may also result in older married individuals jumping ship since finding a new partner is easier than ever.

Increased lifespans might also be a part of the equation, enabling millennials to feel more comfortable waiting to get married and simultaneously increasing the likelihood that baby boomers get tired of their marriages.

Lastly, economics and general morality are factors. Millennials are the first generation in the US poised to make less money (20% less, on average) than their parents (when accounting for inflation) at every stage of their careers. Money often plays a major role in marriage, and money problems are one of the more popular reasons for divorce. Millennials also just seem to care less about the institution of marriage than previous generations.

If millennials want to be financially independent before they marry, they need to wait longer than previous generations—which lines up with an increased median marriage age. On the other hand, the longer millennials wait to get married, the better chance they have of finding someone they're truly compatible with, which could also contribute to the decreasing divorce rate among that generation.

There is one noteworthy trend that bucks the narrative of a divorce rate decrease: Women are getting divorced more, and they like it. A study by Economica found that women tend to be much happier after a divorce than men, which also coincides with the fact that women also tend to have a worse quality of life while married than men.

Feminism and other movements have substantially increased women's rights and their ability to leave poor marriages. Essentially, the more independence women have, the more likely they are to get a divorce. This may be why women who receive promotions are more likely to dissolve their marriages. More women are working than ever before, achieving financial independence and removing the pressure to settle down. This may also play a role in the increasing median marriage age for millennials.

So, Is the Millennial Divorce Rate Really Decreasing?

At the time of writing this article, yes, it appears that millennials are less likely to file for divorce than previous generations. However, thanks to an increase in the median marriage age and other factors listed above, we'll need to wait a while to see if millennials stay married longer than previous generations.

Hopefully, this blog has given you some useful insights into the divorce rate in the US, how millennials approach marriage, and why data for figures like the divorce rate isn't always as simple as it appears.

At Coker, Robb & Cannon, Family Lawyers, we work with clients to help them navigate divorce.

To learn more about our firm or schedule a consultation with an experienced divorce attorney, contact us online or via phone at (940) 293-2313.

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