Here's What The Divorce Rate Actually Means

Here's What The Divorce Rate Actually Means

By Sarah Jacoby, Refinery29

We've been told for decades now that half of all marriages end in divorce — and that it's only getting worse. But, as is the case with most "facts" that get repeated (and repeated and repeated), that's not quite true. And it turns out that divorce rates are actually falling, not rising.

Yep, researchers have found that the rate of divorce in the U.S. actually peaked at about 40% around 1980 and has been declining ever since. And, according to data from the National Survey of Family Growth, the probability of a first marriage lasting at least a decade was 68% for women and 70% for men between 2006 and 2010. The probability that they would make it 20 years was 52% for women and 56% for men, so that percentage is closer to the frequently-cited "half," but still not there.

Other estimates show that three-quarters of those married in the 1990s would make it at least 15 years (compared with just 65% of those married in the 1980s). And if that current trend continues, the vast majority (about two-thirds) of marriages will never divorce.

So how did we even get that half-n-half stat to begin with? Well, we can trace that original claim — that the divorce rate is at 50% and climbing — back to a 1980 census report. That report predicted that half of the couples married between 1976 and 1977 would eventually end up divorced and that rates would only increase from there.

But it's clear that things haven't really played out that way. And today, our picture of divorce is much more complicated — it's one that changes based on your education level, income, location, and a whole bunch of other factors. Plus, of course, your decision to divorce (and get married in the first place) is an incredibly complex and personal one.

All of this means that no single percentage is ever going to apply to everyone. Ahead, we've collected a few of those factors that can increase — and lower — your chances of divorce.


The age at which you marry may have an effect on your chances of divorce. Overall, those who marry before age 25 tend to be more likely to divorce than those who marry after that age. And more recent research suggests that the best age to get married seems to be somewhere between 28 and 32. Still, in general, marrying later in life tends to point to better odds of staying married.

Education Level

The big deal here is college. According to a study from 2007, those with a college degree are about 10 percentage points less likely to divorce. Indeed, more recent research found that women who had completed their college education had a rate of about 14.2 divorces per 1,000 while those who only completed some college had a rate of 23 per 1,000.


States have widely varying rates of divorce. Nevada and Maine have the highest rates (around 14%), according to data from a 2013 survey. Other states with higher rates include Oklahoma, Florida, Oregon, and Kentucky. On the other end, New York, New Jersey, Utah, California, and North Dakota have some of the lowest rates (between 8.7% and 9.7%).


According to an analysis of data from the 2014 Community Survey, Asian women have the lowest rates of divorce, followed by hispanic and white women. Black women have slightly higher rates than white women.

But this one can get complicated because, of course, it correlates with so many other things that also affect your chances of divorce. For instance, women of color face increased barriers to higher levels of education and income, all of which may have a combined effect on the divorce rate among those women.


This one's also tricky. According to a recent study, the divorce rate among same-sex couples in New Hampshire and Vermont is slightly lower than heterosexual couples (1% per year compared to 2%, respectively). But a Washington Post article claims that the statistics used in that study were off. And instead, the divorce rate is about the same for everyone. Stay tuned — more research on this is surely in the works.


Having kids affects your marriage in a multitude of ways. And a recent study found that couples are less likely to get divorced if they have children. But that doesn't mean that your kids are "bringing you closer together." In fact, ratings of happiness and life satisfaction in that same study tended to decrease after couples had children. So at least your misery will have company.


In general, having a stronger connection to religion tends to keep a marriage more stable. But that certainly doesn't mean religious people don't get divorced. A Pew analysis found that, among those who have divorced, 74% were Christian and 20% were agnostic or atheists.

Mental Health

The picture is a little more bleak for those who have mental illnesses. In particular, depression and substance use disorders tend to be the most significantly associated with divorce. Some studies have also found a link between ADHD and divorce, but results are pretty mixed overall.

Your Parents' Marital Status

Divorce in your "family of origin," as researchers call it, does raise your own likelihood of divorce. But it also lowers your chances of marriage in the first place. This may be because kids whose parents have divorced often grow up receiving messages that marriages and relationships in general are not long-lasting.


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Love Magazine: Here's What The Divorce Rate Actually Means
Here's What The Divorce Rate Actually Means
Here's What The Divorce Rate Actually Means
Love Magazine
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