Judges Gavel next to a broken heartYou’ve probably heard the common statistic that 50% of marriages end in divorce. This may not sound very encouraging to engaged or newlywed couples, but does it truly reflect the state of marriage in 2019? There’s more going on under the surface when it comes to numbers like these. To understand, it’s worth taking a look at the history of American marriage and divorce trends.

Divorce in America Before 1969

In an October 2016 Time article, journalist Ashley Ross reveals that interest in divorce reform began during the American Revolution. State records before 1867 disclose steadily rising divorce rates during the 19th century. Some couples leveraged legal loopholes to end their marriages. Proof of physical cruelty or adultery could result in an outright divorce, setting the precedent for fault-based divorce. Ironically, former U.S. President Ronald Reagan started the no-fault divorce trend. As California’s governor, he signed the state’s Family Law Act in 1969.

The Washington Post’s Ana Swanson displays a graph from data scientist Randall Olson, who charted divorce and marriage trends ranging from the mid-1800s until the early 2010s. The U.S. government began collecting national divorce statistics in 1867, showing that the divorce rate slowly increased before sharply rising right after World War II. Marriage rates dropped during the Great Depression and spiked after the end of World War I and World War II.

Changing Conditions, Changing Marriages

With the availability of no-fault divorces, American divorce rates rose faster between 1970 and 1980. Writing for the New York Times, Claire Cain Miller explains that this increase coincided with second-wave feminism’s social changes. Middle-class and upper-class white women pursued careers and advanced education in greater numbers. Reproductive autonomy gained more legal and social traction. The postwar social conditions under which many couples had wed were slowly dissolving. Marriage had morphed into more than just pairing together a breadwinner and a homemaker.

As Generation X grew up and many of their parents parted ways, calls for stricter divorce laws grew. Some evangelical Christians accused second-wave feminism of destroying the nuclear family. The 50% divorce statistic became a rallying call for conservative family values. Yet the New York Times’ Dan Hurley divulged in 2005 that the overall divorce rate has never risen above 41%, with some demographics as low as 16%.

Divorce Rates Have Dropped Since 1980

Olson’s graph shows that divorce rates have slowly declined since 1980, but this drop over the last three decades hasn’t gained much attention. The 50% statistic is still frequently quoted in a wide range of contexts. Yet more than 70% of married couples who tied the knot in the 1990s have successfully reached their 15th anniversaries. Those who married in the early 2000s experience even lower divorce rates.

Lower divorce rates may seem to offer a reason to celebrate, but some scholars aren’t cheering over the news. Olson’s graph also shows that marriage rates have declined since 1980. The Atlantic’s Joe Pinkser mentions that many younger adults postpone marriage, with educated people focusing on careers first to attain financial security. Lacking such security, some forego marriage entirely. Working-class or poor couples may not have the financial resources to pursue divorces, so they stay together regardless of their marriages’ conditions. Moreover, these statistics don’t account for cohabiting couples who break up without ever marrying.

A Bigger Picture Behind the Numbers

The history of divorce in the United States is rather complex. Divorce rates have risen since the mid-1800s but have dropped in the last 30 years. There are many reasons why the number of divorces increases or declines, but social conditions, education, and economic realities are the three biggest contributing factors. While humans are emotional beings, these statistics prove that practical realities lie behind why we end a marriage or choose to stay.

Category: Marriage

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