Divorce Rate: It's Not as High as You Think - 4/05
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Mon Apr 18 20:45:47 EDT 2005
Divorce Rate: It's Not as High as You Think
By DAN HURLEY
The New York Times
April 19, 2005
(Another good reason to send our daughters to college. - diane)
How many American marriages end in divorce? One in two, if you believe the
statistic endlessly repeated in news media reports, academic papers and
The figure 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.
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 rates in the 1970's led some to project that
the number would keep increasing, the rate has instead begun to inch
"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
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
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
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 rate of divorce 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
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
"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 rates 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 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 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
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
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
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
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