The divorce myth

It seems like talk about divorce is popping up on a bunch of parenting blogs, from RebelDad to the Business Week Working Parents blog.  I just don’t have the energy/time right now to write the long thoughtful post I want to about divorce, so I’m just going to put out some links and initial thoughts.

The main point that I want to make is that the number that often gets tossed around about divorce rates — that 50 percent of marriages end in divorce — just isn’t true.  It was a projection based on looking at what if the increase in divorce rates in the 70s continued at that pace, and in fact, the divorce rates have fallen since then.  Moreover, the most significant trend is that the divorce rates have fallen much faster among more educated individuals than among less educated individuals.

For example, of the women with at least a 4-year college degree who
married between 1990 and 1994, only about 17 percent were divorced
within 10 years.  For women without a HS degree, the figure is nearly
40 percent.  I don’t think either the decline in overall divorce rates since the
1970s or the increasing class gap in the rates has penetrated into the
general consciousness.

[For those of you interested in the research: Here's a powerpoint presentation by Steven Martin that goes through the analysis, and here's the full paper of his research on the "divorce divide".  And here's a paper by David Ellwood and Christopher Jencks that talks about it in the context of single parenting more broadly.]

I think it’s a good idea to think about the future and to take risks into account when making your choices. But I don’t think the Leslie Bennetts of the world are doing people a favor by trying to generate hysteria over the risk of divorce, especially for highly educated women.

15 Responses to “The divorce myth”

  1. dave.s. Says:

    Bennett doesn’t work as hard to offend as Hirshman, so that’s a plus. And, since she has put ‘death of a spouse’ into her list of bad-things-that-can-happen, she’s probably even accurate in saying that ‘most’ nonworking wives will face setbacks. Seems a little disingenuous, though, to put widowhood at 80 when your 82-year-old husband dies of congestive heart failure into the same category as his leaving you for some flopsy at 28 with two kids and you lose the house… Almost all of my kids’ friends are from intact marriages. They know a few kids whose parents have divorced, not many – so our experience is that it’s less common than public perception – and we are, as you note, in an almost-entirely-college-educated area.
    Both of us have chosen to work, full time, while our kids are young. We are squirrelling away lots of money to put them through college, when we will likely be retired. This has some real costs, they’ve sometimes expressed envy for their friends who have a parent at home. If one of us had a market value not much less than the cost of child care, we might well have made a different choice. Both have pluses and minuses. But fear of divorce has not been a factor.

  2. jen Says:

    I see this in my everyday life as well. Very few people in my social circle are divorced; in my kids’ entire private school I can think of perhaps three families that are not intact.
    An interesting side effect of this trend is the increased stigma for those who do opt for divorce. It’s almost become a sign of trashiness to be divorced, it’s so associated with the working class. Add to that the fact that many divorced families can’t afford to maintain a single-family home, when that’s the norm for intact families. It all piles on to the “you’re not really middle class any more” message. A painful oversimplification, but there it is.

  3. Andrea Says:

    But surely the comparison is flawed–there is a substantial difference between a statistic for how many marriages will disolve period, vs. how many will end within ten years. THat one link stated that among some groups rates hit 41%.
    Granted, I have a biased viewpoint: but if you knew your chances of getting in a serious accident were 17%, you would probably take substantial precautions in mitigating the consequences. Seventeen per cent might not be greater than half, but even with the flawed comparison, it still seems a bit steep to be cavalier about the risks to income and security from assuming a lifelong partnership.

  4. Megan Says:

    I had a related thought about the brevity of the ten-year time period. I know lots more people whose divorces happened closer to the 20-year mark.

  5. Anjali Says:

    The 50% statistic, even though untrue in and of itself, was also wildly misinterpreted… People assumed that it meant 50% of all married PEOPLE were divorced, which is vastly different than 50% of all marriages ended in divorce — because, of course, some people who remarry divorce again. Regardless, it’s a false assumption.
    Like Megan, the divorces I know of were also at the 20 to 30 year mark, when kids were older and in school/out of the house, and the non-working spouse had already been back at work before the divorce (which certainly refutes Bennett’s claims even more, in my mind).

  6. dave.s. Says:

    Andrea, I’m sorry to see from your blog that your marriage is ending. I hope things go as well as they can for you, your husband and daughter. You’re right, 17% is a big number – and it’s in the range where we do very poorly in thinking about risks.
    To a large extent, I think my wife and I are relying on the state here. Virginia, where we live, has a really invasive and demanding divorce law/court system, and it’s got a relentless focus on making sure the kids do okay, and only after that considering the welfare of the divorcing parents.
    The presumption is for joint custody. The result, in the cases of our friends who have divorced, is that everyone is much poorer (You would expect this, if you are trying to support two households on the same income which supported only one before.) Spouses have rights to a share of the other’s pensions, as community property acquired during the marriage. So, knowing that that’s out there, and it seems to us roughly fair, frees us, I think, from having to think about what happens if… and knowing that it’s real unpleasant helps us focus on keeping our marriage one which we both want to live in.

  7. Elizabeth Says:

    Ok, I found a Census report that has some information on divorce after the 10 year mark:
    Take a look at figure 2. Obviously, plenty of people do get divorced after 10 years, but the odds are a lot smaller than in the early years of marriage (it looks like the 7 year itch may be real!). And while people who married after 1971 are more likely to divorce at any stage than people who married before 1970, it looks like the divorces are more evenly distributed for the earlier cohort. This is consistent with the idea that there was a “pent up” demand for divorce before the liberalizations of the 1970s.

  8. Elizabeth Says:

    Dave, that’s an interesting point. I do believe that pre-nuptual (or post-nuptual) agreements are a valuable way for non-wage-earning spouses to protect themselves against the risk of divorce, but you’re right that they may not be necessary in a state with sufficiently strong community property laws.

  9. bj Says:

    I agree with Andrea that the probability of loss of a wage-earning spouse (and divorce and death have different effects on finances) is high enough that people have to plan for the possibility. I too have noted that few of my children’s families have divorced parents, but I think that’s at least partially an age factor. I see different dynamics as the children get older. People seem relatively disinclined to divorce when children are young (and demanding). I see many more families with teenage kids in divorce than young kids.
    I do think there are changing social dynamics — for one thing, I think fathers are more involved in their children’s lives, and thus more likely to see what they will loose from their children if they leave.
    What I fear though is a return to the family dynamics of the 50s, where the man’s role as a parent was as a wage earner. I see a real potential for problems in families where the father seems to be living a life largely separated from the family (at work, not with a mistress, but work is a mistress too).
    So, non-wage earners need to protect themselves. True, the laws of the state might do, but you need to know what they are and feel comfortable with their outcomes.

  10. Jennifer Says:

    I’m another one whose children have few divorced parents, but I suspect that that is also because divorced parents (particularly single mothers) are less able to afford to live in my upper middle class area, rather than necessarily because people in this area don’t divorce.
    I’m going to hunt out the Australian statistics now, after reading a statistic in Sunday’s paper that 40% of all marriages end in divorce here in Australia (from some official sounding institute, too).

  11. Andrea Says:

    I wondered, over the weekend, if the higher divorce rates among people with less education might be due more to financial pressures.
    We’ve probably all heard that the top three sources of conflict among married couples are sex, housework and money; and if you have more money, the second two are easier to resolve.
    There is something that really bugs me about the idea, implicit in this study, that the reason that women with more education are less likely to be divorced is because they are somehow superior (smarter, make better choices, have better values, whatever).

  12. Elizabeth Says:

    Some of it probably has to do with financial pressures. During the welfare reform era, there was a program called the Minnesota Family Investment Program that provided earnings supplements to families working their way off of welfare. One of the striking findings was a reduction in divorce rates among the experimental group compared to the control group:
    But there’s also a bunch of other things that I think the educational status is picking up — especially age at marriage (more educated individuals are far less likely to marry very young — I married at 24, and was a vast outlier among my friends). Also because less educated individuals are also far more likely to have children young, whether or not married, there’s an increased likelihood of blended families, which is another huge source of strain on relationships.

  13. Genevieve Says:

    In my son’s school, I don’t see anything unusual about kids having divorced parents. The majority of his friends’ parents are married, but there certainly are some with divorced parents, where we’ve coordinated birthday parties with the parent the child was staying with that weekend. It certainly isn’t a stigma among the kids or among the other parents.

  14. dave.s. Says:

    Elizabeth, your remark makes me think more carefully about non-wage-earners – and I think here in Virginia they could come out poorly. My wife and I both work, though she makes about three times what I make. We would both be able to move forward if we divorced, the Va. rules would make a reasonably just outcome (though I would never drive a new car again). We would both be a lot less prosperous, and that’s reasonable, we’d have to support one more dwelling out of the same income. One of us would have to buy the other out of the house. Substantial new mortgage obligations.
    But, yes, I think if you went off to a conference and got swept off your feet by a fabulous Nebraska state human services commissioner and decided you could no longer live with the mister, he would get his half of your home equity and maybe some child support if he convinced the judge that as the non-homewrecker he should be the custodial parent. And rights to some share of your pension down the road. He’d have to start working, absolutely for sure, and probably at a position well behind the folks he trained with, as his degree would be stale and moldy and folks would wonder about his commitment to work. Much of this is what alimony was designed for, there’s something to be said for it. A nuptial agreement could solve – what? Still there is the absolutely enormous expense of supporting another household, and substituting for the child care each parent is providing to the other.

  15. Mieke Says:

    I got divorced (no kids) after six years of marriage and ten years together. I have since remarried (2 kids) and am about to hit the 7 year mark (12 years together).
    I am the child of divorced parents. 2/3 of my friends (we graduated from high school) in 1986 came from divorced homes. Interestingly most of the divorced happened when we were in middle school – at least 5 in 7th grade.
    Now – we have two friends who are divorced with kids, but the majority of our friends are still married. It may be that married couples hang out together more than they do with single parents – at least one of our friends dropped out of our group becuase she was so raw and couldn’t take hanging around couples and listening to them talking about their lives.
    Regarding community property states like California – there is a formula that the courts use to calculate how much spouses are entitled to – there is some magic number in the ten year mark.

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