Fifty percent of marriages end in divorce.
You’ve probably heard that claim several times—just as you may also have heard from other sources that it’s inaccurate. As I’ll explain below, the real number is likely lower, but perhaps not by a lot. One thing is for sure. Arguments over what the divorce rate is and whether it’s dropping are ongoing and unlikely to end anytime soon.
Just last month, Claire Cain Miller argued in the New York Times that the divorce rate has been coming down for a long time even while the odds of divorce remain greatly exaggerated in the minds of many. She highlighted the conclusions of economist Justin Wolfers, who told her that “If current trends continue, nearly two-thirds of marriages will never involve a divorce.” In a follow-up piece, Wolfers explained more about the complexity of the issue and defended his claims.
Some go even further than Cain Miller, arguing that the likelihood of divorcing has never been anything like 50 percent. For example, Shaunti Feldhahn, the author (with Tally Whitehead) of a recent book on the subject, argues that it was never true that half of newly married couples would end up divorced, and that 30 percent is closer to the mark. While not a social scientist, Feldhahn has studied the history of the divorce rate and believes people are too pessimistic about the odds of success in marriage. Although I’m not persuaded that the risk of divorce is that low, I agree with her that many people avoid marriage for fear of divorce even when their own risks are quite low.
In contrast to those who argue that the divorce rate has been coming down, or that it was never that high, demographers Sheela Kennedy and Steven Ruggles argued in an article last year that divorce did not level off or decline in recent decades but actually continued to rise from 1980 to 2010. In fact, Ruggles commented on Cain Miller’s and Wolfers’ New York Times pieces, here and here, arguing that conclusions in both are likely incorrect and that most professional demographers have not accepted the notion that the overall risk of divorce declined during the period in question states Family Studies.
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