Thursday, August 16, 2012


EVE: You can be single and not alone. Marriage bites!
ADAM: I didn't know that.
EVE: Everybody knows that. Ask my divorced sisters. Or ask my divorced mom and dad.
ADAM: They're all divorced?
EVE: Everybody's divorced.
-Blast From The Past

Marriage is on the decline, we're told. One of the arguments sometimes used to support homosexual "marriage" is that since marriage is so destroyed anyway, how could having homosexuals getting married matter? Over 50% of marriages end in divorce in America, we're told endlessly. Nobody gets married anyway, we're told.

A report in the New York Times by Sam Roberts recently went like this:
Don’t stock up on silver anniversary cards. More than half the Americans who might have celebrated their 25th wedding anniversaries since 2000 were divorced, separated or widowed before reaching that milestone, according to the latest census survey, released yesterday.

For the first time at least since World War II, women and men who married in the late 1970s had a less than even chance of still being married 25 years later.

“We know that somewhere between 40 percent and 50 percent of marriages dissolve,” said Barbara Risman, executive officer of the Council on Contemporary Families, a research group. “Now, when people marry, everyone wonders, is this one of those marriages that will be around for awhile.”

But David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values, a marriage research and advocacy group, said he was struck that the percentage of people who celebrated their 15th anniversary had declined. “This seems to be saying more recent marriages are more fragile,” Mr. Blankenhorn said.
Why Sam Roberts joined those paragraphs with the word "but" is a bit unclear, but the message is very clear: marriages are doomed. There's no point in even getting married, nobody stays together anyway, we're told.

Is that true? Again, not exactly. Marriage is in bad shape, but according to census data its actually getting better, not worse. There are a lot of statistical problems with how the "50% divorce rate" and other stats come about.

For example, the New York Times story above relied on a census study done in mid 2004. It looked at marriages that occurred between 1975 and 1979, and as Betsy Stevenson and Justin Wolvers note:
But here’s the rub: The census data come from a survey conducted in mid-2004, and at that time, it had not yet been 25 years since the wedding day of around 1 in 10 of those whose marriages they surveyed. And if your wedding was in late 1979, it was simply impossible to have celebrated a 25th anniversary when asked about your marriage in mid-2004.If you waited until those marriages could have reached that anniversary suddenly 53% of them made it. Its like doing a story about people not living to age 25 before their 25th birthday. Its at best misleading. But 53% isn't the whole picture, and that's because of another problem with the data.

How did the press come up with the 50% divorce number? Well the main one quoted is based on a study done in 1981 which compared marriages to divorces. The raw numbers were around 2,422,000 and divorces totalled approximately 1,213,000. Marriages divided by divorces = around 50%! The problem with this is that they just took raw numbers without looking at the data.

In a hypothetical family you can have six brothers with three divorces. That's awful, it a 50% divorce rate! Except when you find out that one brother had all three of those divorces and the others are happily married, now the rate is much lower: 16% in fact. It has to do with what you're measuring.

Do you want to measure number of divorces or number of sustained marriages? If all you care about is the number of divorces, then the basic division works. 3 out of 6. If you want to look at the number of marriages ending in divorce, then you have to take into account who is getting those divorces.

The fact is, the great majority of divorces are by people who have already had at least one divorce. In other words, the divorce numbers are skewed by repeats from the same person. That means your chance of divorce isn't affected, just this person who keeps getting divorced. If you factor in these serial divorce stats, the chances of a marriage ending in divorce drops to no higher than 41%.

And consider, that raw data of 2,422,000 marriages wasn't every marriage in America, it was everyone who was married after a certain date, ignoring preexisting marriages. Which makes the percentage of divorces even more misleading.

According to one study, in a given year your marriage is 98% likely to survive to the next, which suggests the rate is significantly less than 50%. According to another, the rate of divorce in America has actually declined over recent years, probably due to fewer marriages, at the very least. According to several studies, if you make it past 10 years, you're very likely to endure, because 60% of divorces end before that 10 year line - but again, the serial divorcer skews those numbers because they rarely make it past 10 years with multiple divorces.

Another interesting bit of information is that your level of education appears to affect your chances at marriage longevity:
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 1979.
And there's a funny thing about statistics. They don't describe how you will end up, they describe how a large body of chances ends up. Even if the divorce statistics are 90%, your marriage is up to you and your spouse. You could end up in the 10%. You could divorce tomorrow, you are not compelled by statistics and data.

What makes the difference is not some soulless god of numbers or the 'marriage culture' of America, but your comprehension of marriage, love, relationship, commitment, and responsibility. If you start out your marriage wondering how long it will last before you get a divorce, that's not a very good basis. If you start out your marriage all based on how it makes you feel and what you get out of it, you're setting yourself up to fail.

If you start out with the commitment to stay together, to focus on the other person, to sacrifice and give, to serve and honor, to cherish and protect, then that's a different story entirely. Unfortunately it takes both people doing this to make it work. Marriage takes two to happen but only one to break apart. If both go into it with the assumption and determination that this is a permanent, unbreakable covenant that will be very different than at least one thinking its just an extension to dating that you can break about if its not fulfilling enough.

Certainly society and culture have some impact. If you're inundated with the idea that nobody stays married, that its misery to be married, that your highest goal in life is to be comfortable and happy, and that its weird to stay with one person for long, then that's going to take its toll. Society treating marriage as just one more step along the relationship road that can be ended if its not working out how you hoped sets the stage for more divorces.

And certainly divorce laws designed to make it as easy, painless, and straightforward to get a divorce (in the name of equality for women, originally) contribute to divorce stats as well. If its hard to get a divorce, you're less likely to run to that as an option rather than fighting to stay together. But ultimately it all ends up being up to two people.

If you're facing this pain and difficulty, consider this first:

*This is part of the Common Knowledge series: Things we know that ain't so.


Eric said...

One of the most alarming things about marriage rates is the trend of working class people to forego marriage and the values surrounding it. This was not always the case. Charles Murray talks about this a lot in his book 'Coming Apart'. Here is a brief clip of him discussing it:

Christopher R Taylor said...

I agree, that's a far more deadly and significant threat to marriage than divorce.

Anonymous said...

Your right. My mom's been married 5 times and divorced 4. I've been married to the same man for 20 years. The divorce rate in my family is astronomical.
As an adult, I don't really know that many people who've been divorced. I was beginning to think that it was maybe due to like-minded people gravitating to each other, but maybe it's just in reality not many people get divorced.

Anonymous said...

A great post!