December 5, 2014 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
Amid all the negative developments we see every day, it’s good to see this small but significant counterbalance (New York Times, 12/3/14). It’s an article by Justin Wolfers who’s proven himself over the years to be a pretty good and scrupulous social scientist. His message is that the divorce rate in the United States is much lower than it was 30-35 years ago and seems to be dropping further. For anyone who cares about children’s well-being, that’s good news.
We routinely read that the divorce rate in this country is close to 50%, a claim that’s abject nonsense. It’s derived by comparing the number of divorces in a given year to the number of marriages in that same year. As such, the figure just doesn’t make much sense. The overwhelming majority of those divorces were to couples who weren’t married that year. More importantly, the number of divorces tends to reflect the larger baby boom generation whose marriages had finally played out while the marriages reflect the smaller generation of marriage-age people, mostly in their late 20s. In short, the 50% rate compares apples to oranges.
If we really want an idea of how durable marriages are, we do things like find out what percentage of marriages last how long. What percentage of marriages are done by year three, year five, year ten, etc.? And if we want an accurate divorce rate then we do things like find the number of divorces per 1,000 people in the population studied or, more accurately, the number of divorces per 1,000 married couples. When we do that, as Wolfers details, the divorce rate in the United States has been falling since the late 70s or early 80s. Following no-fault divorce laws, the rate spiked and since then it’s been trending down.
In one sense, divorce is easy to measure, because it leaves a paper trail, in the form of divorce certificates on file at county courthouses. At the end of each year, most states ask each county how many new divorce certificates they’ve issued, and the states report the total number to the federal government. The federal government then calculates a divorce rate, measured as the number of divorces per thousand people.
By this measure, the divorce rate peaked at 5.3 divorces per thousand people in 1981, before falling to 4.7 in 1990, and it has since fallen further to 3.6 in 2011, the most recent year for which data are available. Of course, the marriage rate has also fallen over this period. But even measuring divorces relative to the population that could plausibly get divorced — the number of people who are married — shows that divorce peaked in 1979, and has fallen by about 24 percent since.
So by one measure, the divorce rate has fallen by about one-third and by another about one-fourth. Perhaps most remarkably, the divorce rate has dropped most in the most recent years.
Consistent with the other data, the American Community Survey suggests that divorce has fallen by about 11 percent since these data were first collected in 2008. This decline is all the more striking given the stress that the recession must have put on so many marriages.
And that’s not just a result of there being fewer marriages, theoretically a shortcoming of the previously mentioned data.
These marital histories also offer a useful way of disentangling the extent to which fewer divorces are the result of marriages becoming more stable, rather than simply reflecting fewer marriages. If marriages are becoming more stable, then couples married in recent years should be more likely to celebrate their 10th anniversary together than couples married in earlier decades. And indeed, 76 percent of people whose first marriages occurred in the early 1990s went on to celebrate their 10th anniversary, up from 73 percent for those married in the early 1980s, and 74 percent for those married in the early 1970s. Marriages have become more likely to endure, although they are not yet as stable as those that occurred in the 1960s.
So, although we haven’t made it back to where we were in the 1960s, we’re at least headed in that direction.
For society generally and kids, that’s all good news. Married couples are a stabilizing influence on society. Married people are more likely to be employed, less likely to commit crimes, have higher net worths, are less likely to abuse drugs or alcohol, etc. than are unmarried adults. And of course kids raised by two parents, preferably biological ones, do better than other kids on a vast array of personal and social measures. So people staying married longer is a good thing for us all.
One question Wolfers doesn’t attempt to answer is why the reversal of course. I don’t know of anyone who has a firm answer to that question, but I’d hazard the guess that it has something to do with the realization that staying married is better than getting divorced, both for the adults involved and especially for the kids.
One aspect of that is financial. Two people living together can support themselves more easily and at a better level than can two people living apart. It doesn’t take a genius to figure that out, and I suspect many people do.
Another is that most people want to be partnered with someone. We humans are a monogamous species even if that means serial monogamy. So the prospect of divorce likely also means the prospect of remarriage. I suspect a lot of couples have come to realize that, rather than go through the pain, upset and dislocation of divorce, only to remarry, staying married looks like the better alternative.
But what I suspect is the main reason for the greater durability of marriages these last thirty years or so is the realization of what divorce does to kids. The simple truth is that the vast majority of parents want what’s best for their children and they’ve come to realize the toll divorce takes on them. I believe a lot of those people are in fact doing the responsible thing – staying married for the sake of the kids. Yes, that very thing that, in the 70s we were told was anathema. Now we know it’s not. Now we know that the divorce industry is all too happy to deprive children of one parent, perhaps permanently, or at least to render him what sociologist Susan Stewart has called a “Disneyland Dad.” Those are fathers who see their kids every other weekend and entirely lose their status as parents, becoming mere entertainers of their own children.
I believe that a lot of people have taken a hard look at the divorce system in this country, seen what it does to kids and said “No thanks.”
That’s at least somewhat supported by the fact that the only demographic among whom divorce is on the rise is among senior citizens. Those of course are the ones whose kids are long out of the nest. Their divorce won’t harm the kids because the kids are adults.
Let’s keep in mind as well that this decline in the divorce rate comes despite a system of child support and alimony payments that does everything but beg wives and mothers to destroy their marriages. Mothers know to a virtual certainty that they’ll get the children, the single driving force behind the fact that 70% of divorces are filed by women, according to researchers Margaret Brinig and Douglas Allen. And as we’ve seen recently, the alimony system makes it doubly likely that women will opt for divorce. Both alimony and child support offer direct cash incentives, particularly to women, to end their marriages.
And yet, more and more, both men and women are resisting the temptation. Good for them. Good for us.
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