Trends of the Past Four Decades

Divorce

Figure 5. Number of Divorces per 1,000 Married Women Age 15 and Older, by Year, United States [A]

Figure 5. Number of Divorces per 1,000 Married Women Age 15 and Older, by Year, United States
  1. We have used the number of divorces per 1,000 married women age 15 and older, rather than the crude divorce rate per 1,000 people to help avoid the problem of compositional changes in the population. Even this more refined measure is somewhat susceptible to compositional changes. Calculations for this table are by the National Marriage Project for the United States, less California, Georgia, Hawaii, Indiana, Louisiana, and Minnesota.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau: Statistical Abstract of the United States for 2001 (Table 117). Available online from www.census.gov/prod/www/abs/statab.html; Current Population Survey for 2000 (Table 3). Available online from www.census.gov/cps/; American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates for 2008. Available online from www.census.gov/acs/www/. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Births, Marriages, Divorces, and Deaths: Provisional Data” for 2000 (in National Vital Statistics Report 49), for 2007 (in NVS Report 56) (Table 2), for 2008 (in NVS Report 57) (Table 2), and for 2009 (in NVS Report 58) (Table 2). Available online from www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/nvsr.htm. Relevant data summarized online at www.cdc.gov/nchs/nvss/marriage_divorce_tables.htm.

Figure 6. Percentage of All Persons Age 15 and Older Who Were Divorced,[B] by Sex and Race, United States[A]

Figure 6. Percentage of All Persons Age 15 and Older Who Were Divorced, by Sex and Race, United States
  1. In 2003, the U.S. Census Bureau expanded its racial categories to permit respondents to identify themselves as belonging to more than one race. This means that racial data computations beginning in 2004 may not be strictly comparable to those of prior years.
  2. “Divorced” indicates family status at the time of survey. Divorced respondents who later marry are then no longer considered divorced.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau: Current Population Reports: “Marital Status and Living Arrangements” for 2000 and “America’s Families and Living Arrangements” for 2009 (Table A1). And earlier similar reports. Available online from www.census.gov/prod/www/abs/p20.html.

Key Finding: The American divorce rate today is nearly twice that of 1960, but it has declined since hitting the highest point in our history in the early 1980s. The average couple marrying for the first time now has a lifetime probability of divorce or separation somewhere between 40 and 50 percent.

The increase in divorce, reported in Figure 5, probably has elicited more concern and discussion than any other family-related trend in the United States. Although the long-term trend in divorce has been upward since colonial times, the divorce rate remained level for about two decades after World War II, during the period of high fertility known as the baby boom. By the middle of the 1960s, however, the divorce rate was increasing, and it more than doubled over the next 15 years to reach a historical high point in the early 1980s.

Since then, the divorce rate has modestly declined. The decline apparently represents a slight increase in marital stability.[1] Two probable reasons for this are an increase in the age at which people marry for the first time, and the fact that marriage is increasingly becoming the preserve of the well-educated—both situations are associated with greater marital stability.[2]

Although a majority of divorced persons eventually remarry, the growth of divorce has led to a steep increase in the percentage of all adults who are currently divorced (Figure 6). This percentage, which was only 1.8 percent for males and 2.6 percent for females in 1960, quadrupled by the year 2000. There are more divorced women than divorced men, primarily because the divorced men are more likely to remarry, and to do so sooner.

Overall, the chances remain very high—between 40 and 50 percent—that a first marriage started in recent years will end in either divorce or separation before one partner dies.[3] (But your chances may be lower; see the accompanying box.) The likelihood of divorce has varied considerably among different segments of the American population, being higher for blacks than for whites, for instance, and higher in the South and West than in other parts of the country. But these variations have been diminishing. (The trend toward a greater similarity of divorce rates between whites and blacks, however, is largely attributable to the fact that fewer blacks are marrying.)[4]

One new divorce trend this year’s report reveals is that the educational divide in the United States is widening: less-educated Americans are facing a much higher divorce rate than are their college-educated fellow citizens. At the same time, little has changed in other areas. Teenagers still have considerably higher divorce rates than those who marry after age 21. And the nonreligious are still much more likely to divorce than are the religiously committed.[5]


  1. Joshua R. Goldstein, “The Leveling of Divorce in the United States,” Demography 36 (1999), 409–414.
  2. See Tim B. Heaton, “Factors Contributing to Increased Marital Stability in the United States,” Journal of Family Issues 23 (2002): 392–409; W. Bradford Wilcox, “The Evolution of Divorce,” National Affairs 1 (2009): 81–94.
  3. See Robert Schoen and Nicola Standish, “The Retrenchment of Marriage: Results from Marital Status Life Tables for the United States, 1995,” Population and Development Review 27 (3) (2001): 553–63; R. Kelly Raley and Larry Bumpass, “The Topography of the Divorce Plateau: Levels and Trends in Union Stability in the United States after 1980,” Demographic Research 8 (8) (2003): 245–59.
  4. Jay D. Teachman, “Stability across Cohorts in Divorce Risk Factors,” Demography 39 (2) (2002): 331–51.
  5. Raley and Bumpass, “Topography of Divorce.”

YOUR CHANCES OF DIVORCE
MAY BE MUCH LOWER THAN YOU THINK

By now almost everyone has heard that the national divorce rate is nearly 50 percent of all marriages. This is true for the married population as a whole. But for many people, the actual chances of divorce are far below 50/50.

The background characteristics of the people entering a marriage have major implications for their risk of divorce. Here are some percentage point decreases in the risk of divorce or separation during the first ten years of marriage, according to various personal and social factors:[A]

Factors Percent Decrease
in Risk of Divorce
Making over $50,000 annually (vs. under $25,000) -30%
Having graduated college (vs. not completed high school) -25%
Having a baby seven months or more after marriage (vs. before marriage) -24%
Marrying over 25 years of age (vs. under 18) -24%
Coming from an intact family of origin (vs. divorced parents) -14%
Religious affiliation (vs. none) -14%

So if you are a reasonably well-educated person with a good income, your parents stayed together, you are religious at all, and you marry after age 25 without having a baby first, your chances of divorce are very low indeed.

Also realize that the “near 50 percent” divorce rate refers to the percentage of marriages entered into during a particular year that are projected to end in divorce or separation before one spouse dies. Such projections necessarily assume that the divorce and death rates occurring that year will continue indefinitely—an indicator more useful for evaluating the recent past than for predicting the future. In fact, the divorce rate has been dropping, slowly, since reaching a peak around 1980, and the rate could be lower (or higher) in the future than it is today.[B]

  1. See Matthew D. Bramlett and William D. Mosher, National Center for Health Statistics, “Cohabitation, Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage in the United States,” Vital and Health Statistics 23 (22) (2002). The risks are calculated for women only.
  2. See Rose M. Kreider and Jason M. Fields, U.S. Census Bureau, “Number, Timing and Duration of Marriages and Divorces, 2001,” Current Population Reports P70-80 (2005). Available online from www.census.gov/prod/www/abs/p20.html.