Historical data on marriage and divorce in the US

I found the paper Marriage and Divorce: Changes and
their Driving Forces
.  This excerpt from their analysis of the chart in Figure 1 surprised me :

Yet when viewed over a longer time period, we see that while the 1970s had exceptionally high divorce rates, the low divorce rates in previous decades were also somewhat exceptional. Fitting a simple trend line to the divorce rate between 1860 and 1945 (thereby excluding the post–World War II surge in divorce) as shown in Figure 1, suggests that some of the run-up in divorce in the latter third of the twentieth century reflects the divorce rate simply reverting to levels consistent with earlier trends, following unusually low divorce in the 1950s and early 1960s. Indeed, based on extrapolation, family scholars as early as the turn of the last century had predicted future divorce rates like those actually witnessed in the 1980s (Coontz, 2005). While the 1970s overshot the trend, the subsequent fall in divorce has put the divorce rate back on the trend line, and by 2005, the annual divorce rate projected by the pre-1946 trend is quite close to actual divorce rates.

I think they are putting too much weight on the extrapolated trend line.  I don’t believe our current divorce rate is pre ordained, and I especially don’t believe that divorce rates are something which should naturally go up for well over 100 years without reaching a natural limit which drives them back down.  I’m also not very impressed by the “unusually low” divorce rates in the 50s and early 60s or convinced that divorce in the 70s and 80s was a sort of reversion to the natural trend.  The divorce rates of the 50s and early 60s aren’t really that striking compared to the trend, and if anything appear to be a hangover effect from the very impressive spike in divorce just following WWII.

The post WWII spike is very interesting, and it almost appears as if there was a one time shuffling of spouses after the war.  If I didn’t know better I would guess someone had proclaimed a one time divorce/remarry amnesty.  Unlike the bulge which peaked in the 80s, the post WWII spike in divorce corresponds with a spike in marriage.  The two lines move so closely together after WWII that they are nearly impossible to distinguish during the peak of the spike.  On the other hand, with the bulge that peaked in the 80s marriage rates began to fall around the same time divorce was on the steep incline, and have continued this steady fall ever since.

They have another chart which I found very interesting. I can only imagine that those who married in the 1960s assumed they were signing up for the same deal as the people who married 10 years prior. Obviously this was not the case. Also note how little the much vaunted reduced divorce rates have improved the outcomes of those who married in the 1990s in Figure 2.

The length of the line for the 1990-1999 cohort appears short at first, but given that the data source is from 2001 it actually strikes me as being too long.  While the divorce rate for the first few years includes all or nearly all of the marriages which occurred in the decade, the latter part of the line has to be made up only of those marriages which occurred in the very beginning of the decade.  Assuming things are improving, this would overstate the longer term divorce rate for that cohort.  Either way, the authors put what I consider to be a happy face on some very troubling data:

Figure 2 analyzes data from marital histories to assess the fate of first marriages, grouping them by the decade in which the wedding occurred. For those marriages that occurred in the 1950s through the 1970s, we know a lot about their eventual outcomes, and the figure clearly shows that the probability of divorce before each anniversary rose for each successive marriage cohort until the 1970s. For marriages that occurred in the 1970s, 48 percent had dissolved within 25 years, roughly confirming—for this specific cohort—the popular claim that “half of all marriages end in divorce.”1 Yet for first marriages that occurred in the 1980s, the proportion that had dissolved by each anniversary was consistently lower, and it is lower again for marriages that occurred in the 1990s. While it will take several more decades for the long-term fate of recent marriages to be realized, it appears likely that fewer than half of these recent marriages will dissolve.

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27 Responses to Historical data on marriage and divorce in the US

  1. Anonymous Reader says:

    Off the top of my head, I don’t see how the authors can justify their conclusion by looking at the data. All the curves are monotonic; that is, as the curve traces along the X axis (time) it only goes up, it never drops back down. An easy explanation for their conclusion is simple: there are fewer divorces over a certain age for a given cohort because there are fewer marriages within the cohort. That’s leaving aside other issues, such as different attitudes towards divorce from cohort to cohort, etc. Am I missing something, here? Someone please show me if I am.

    Because if the trends shown continue, divorce rates eventually will indeed go down, but only because the majority of couples won’t ever marry in the first place. That’s not good news, there’s no happy face; all the social pathologies that are associated with children of divorce are also associated with children of never married parents. It takes a certain number of more or less normal people to maintain an industrial civilization…

  2. Anonymous Reader says:

    Erratum: all the curves in Figure 2 are monotonic, and I find the “straight line” interpretation of Figure 1 to be rather facile and more than a bit questionable.

  3. Opus says:

    I have inherited various family trees. One goes back as far as the 1550s. There is not in these records the mention of as much as one divorce. Did my ancestors forget or deliberately distort the trees or did all marriages end in death?

  4. PT Barnum says:

    I have inherited various family trees. One goes back as far as the 1550s. There is not in these records the mention of as much as one divorce. Did my ancestors forget or deliberately distort the trees or did all marriages end in death?

    Why not? Am I to take their dignified claims of honesty seriously without collapsing laughing?

    So many provable lies. So many all important omissions. But, but oldster stands PROUD, so PROUD, so SOLEMN. And I’m supposed to take it seriously. I mean really.

  5. greenlander says:

    Dalrock, I’d love to hear your commentary on this one:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jennifer-gauvain/doubts-before-marriage_b_919868.html

  6. Opus says:

    @ P T Barnum

    Your scepticism does you proud.

    So allow me to to speak of what I know:

    My Parents remained married.

    My Grandparents remained married.

    My married Aunt remained married (until the germans killed her husband).

    My sister’s husband’s father remained maried (until the germans killed him).

    Of my great grandparents, my maternal great grandmother died tragically young (but you can’t accuse my great grandfather of murder as he was in India at the time of her death).

    Of my other great grandparents, I have never heard it suggested by my parents of their parents that there was ever a divorce. Furthermore Divorce was in England difficult to obtain and not approved of pre 1970.

    The only reasonable conclusion from Dalrock’s charts is that Divorce is a particularily American Institution.

  7. Lily says:

    Opus I don’t think it’s an American thing. Or perhaps we’re just less keen on the paperwork.

    In a friend’s family, in the late 1890s a great grandmother who had married an older wealthier man ran off with a younger much less well off man (leaving her first set of children behind). She certainly got divorced as she married the other man.

    No divorce I can think of in my family but certainly a bit of infidelity that I’ve heard of from my grandmother about her parents and above generations*. Seems they married someone suitable but then had affairs.

    (*I think less in their generation, they seemed less frivolous, perhaps a post war thing).

    Also, when I look up anyone interesting in history, there is always something, divorces, illigitimate children etc it’s a lot more common than one would think. The upper classes were worse though, I think the loosening up of divorce just let everyone else act the same as them, though not quite so disgracefully.

    Amongst the lower classes, perhaps they just didn’t marry as much? I stumbled some really interesting stuff about rural women a while back (often not marrying till 30 as they saved up first from being in service or working on farms) and someone else stumbled upon some stuff about women working in factories having children out of wedlock, fathers often being ‘transient’ types who seemed to make a habit of it…they often drank a lot of course. iirc the reason we ended up with our draconian licensing laws was so people would be sober enough to work in the armaments factories in ww1?

  8. Lily says:

    Opus here is the link to that report I mentioned
    http://www.bahs.org.uk/52n1a5.pdf
    I may have remembered the marriage thing wrong though as quick scan ‘The average age of first marriage among women never fell below 25 throughout the period’
    I want to reread it properly at some stage, it’s quite interesting as this section (rural women) is quite neglected I think in history.

  9. Dalrock says:

    @Anon Reader

    All the curves are monotonic; that is, as the curve traces along the X axis (time) it only goes up, it never drops back down. An easy explanation for their conclusion is simple: there are fewer divorces over a certain age for a given cohort because there are fewer marriages within the cohort. That’s leaving aside other issues, such as different attitudes towards divorce from cohort to cohort, etc. Am I missing something, here? Someone please show me if I am.

    I’m not sure I understand your statement/question. The second chart looks at cohorts who married during different decades and tracks the percent who have divorced for any given period of time after marriage. All of the marriages occur at the beginning of the period, so the number of remaining marriages declines each year. Because of this, with a constant divorce rate per 1,000 married couples it will naturally bend the curve to the right (I think this is what you are saying). There are other reasons the curve might bend to the right including a declining societal divorce rate and also if one assumes the divorce rate per 1000 couples for the cohort should decline over time as the best suited couples survive the initial rounds of divorce (but I’m not sure we have data to demonstrate this). What is interesting is that the 1950s curve doesn’t really bend to the right, so the divorce rate per 1,000 couples must have been increasing over time just enough to counteract that effect.

    Edit: Looking at the 1950s curve again it looks like the divorce rate was low enough that the bend in the curve was just far less visible. Modeling this on a spreadsheet a divorce rate of 3% per year creates a fairly pronounced bend, but a divorce rate of 1% has a much more subtle bend.

    Edit 2: There is another reason to expect the curve to bend to the right. As women get older their likelihood of divorcing declines. For example 50 year old women divorce far less frequently than women in their late 20s and early 30s. I don’t have specific US data for this, but the UK data is extremely clear on this, and the US data while less conclusive seems to fit the same pattern. But this raises the question of why the curves don’t bend to the right more dramatically. It could be because they cut the charts off at a max of 25 years of marriage.

  10. Dalrock says:

    @Opus

    I have inherited various family trees. One goes back as far as the 1550s. There is not in these records the mention of as much as one divorce. Did my ancestors forget or deliberately distort the trees or did all marriages end in death?

    The chart doesn’t necessarily disagree with what you are seeing in your own family. It shows that until fairly recently divorce was extremely uncommon. It shows divorce was around 1 per 1,000 married couples in 1860 rising to about 5 per 1,000 in 1920. Compare this to the roughly 15 per 1,000 married couples that it shows today, or the over 20 per 1,000 married couples which the US experienced in the late 70s/early 80s.

    For the UK I don’t have historical data going back as far, but it was 2.8 per 1,000 in 1950 and has risen to 10.6 in 2009. See my previous post on UK divorce rates for the full links to the source data, but you can see the table here. To address your separate statement, the US has experienced much higher divorce rates than the UK in the last few decades, but they are coming closer together now.

  11. Dalrock says:

    @Greenlander

    Dalrock, I’d love to hear your commentary on this one:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jennifer-gauvain/doubts-before-marriage_b_919868.html

    Amazing, isn’t it? I quoted the same woman’s study by way of Marie Claire in this post. I also readdressed the same basic issue more recently here and here. I think the point that they knew they could divorce later is really says it all. These women know they can get what they want and don’t care who they destroy in the process.

  12. Old Glory says:

    The fact that their trend line for new divorces on the bottom of the chart still rises, while the line for new marriages noticeably is declining ever so slightly faster… should be a major red flag to the status of marriage in America. If we drew a trend line for the decline of marriage in there, it would almost perfectly mirror the new divorce trend line in the in the opposite direction.. probably a little steeper too.

    I think their conclusion is bogus. If marriage wasn’t in decline over the last 35-40 years, and if that line remained relatively flat over the same period, I bet we would see the new divorce trend line continuously rise. The only reason they can (falsely) conclude what they did is because marriage has been declining and they want us to gloss over this fact.

  13. Old Glory says:

    I guess I should have read their paper first.. skimming over it, they do mention the decline the marriage rates in relation to divorce rates declining. I’ll have to read the paper later to see if they don’t point out that divorce would probably have been rising if marriage trends had remained static.

    [D: Looking at the curve for divorces per 1,000 married women instead of per the population should help some. There is still the question of a change in who marries (the demographics with the highest divorce rates are the ones less likely to marry now) and the delay in first marriage until women are older. The UK data makes it very clear that younger women are much more prone to divorce than older women. I suspect this largely because their sexual market value declines with age. So it is possible a good portion of the declining divorce rate observed is due to women riding the carousel while young and then marrying when they feel their options are rapidly declining. This isn't necessarily good news for marriage... The declining marriage rate is also easy to misinterpret, as I've written about here and here.]

  14. Butterfly Flower says:

    Amazing, isn’t it? I quoted the same woman’s study by way of Marie Claire in this post. I also readdressed the same basic issue more recently here and here. I think the point that they knew they could divorce later is really says it all. These women know they can get what they want and don’t care who they destroy in the process.

    …but are you sure their intentions were entirely selfish?

    I mean, maybe they’d feel too guilty breaking off an engagement with a guy that is head-over heels in love with them?

    [D: Better to do him the kindness of a sexless marriage and then divorcing him later.]

  15. Eric says:

    Dalrock:
    Probably part of the reason for this apparent ‘divorce decline’ is because women increasingly aren’t bothering to get married in the first place. I heard a news report last month that UNESCO concluded a study showing that the percentage of single mothers in the US—at a whopping 24%, if I remember right—is the highest in the developed world by far. (I don’t know if UNESCO reported this, but I do know that that rate far exceeds most of the underdeveloped world as well).

    There was also an article, about the same time posted on the ‘Spearhead’ that showed that 20-something Amerobitches were not marrying at a sustainable rate.

    What I think these statistics mean in relation to your chart is, that divorce is likely declining both because men are increasingly marrying women from non-Anglo/American cultures and because the few remaining American women who hold traditional values aren’t inclined to get divorced. The rest are simply getting knocked up by random thugs and not bothering to marry at all.

    Just as a postscript on the late 40s-50s spike: this is typical in all post-war cultures. There was a spike in marriages too in 1942 (WW2) and 1950/51 (Korea).

  16. Dalrock says:

    @Eric

    Probably part of the reason for this apparent ‘divorce decline’ is because women increasingly aren’t bothering to get married in the first place. I heard a news report last month that UNESCO concluded a study showing that the percentage of single mothers in the US—at a whopping 24%, if I remember right—is the highest in the developed world by far. (I don’t know if UNESCO reported this, but I do know that that rate far exceeds most of the underdeveloped world as well).

    The last year I can find data for (2007) 40% of all babies born in the US were out of wedlock. It breaks down to 28%, 72%, 51%, and 17% for white, black, hispanic, and asian respectively. This is from the 2011 Statistical Abstract of the US, Table 86.

    For a comparison with other countries, see NCHS Data Brief #18, Figure 6. They show the US tied for 7th worst with the Netherlands.

  17. MNL says:

    I wonder if the drop in divorce rate since 1980+ (dotted line) is due to the changing nature of marriage in general, a difference in attitude, behavior, and demographics of those who survived the divorce bubble of the 1970s, and among those who still consider marriage an important life priority. That is, the pool of those remaining married fundamentally shifted starting in the 1970s–and thus, divorce rates dropped in response–albeit after a decade-long purge of the less marriage-committed.

    Consider that a single man or woman today can easily go unmarried throughout his or her entire life without being ostracized or thought of as “wrong” or less of an adult. (Indeed, as this blog reminds us, the single woman making this choice today is often celebrated as “empowered”.) Yet as recently as the 1960s marriage was more or less “what everyone did”. It was a key marker of adulthood. And going back even earlier, polite society may have well wondered what sort of pathology lay behind the unmarried man or women above the age of 30.

    Since the 1980s and the de-institutionalization of marriage, however, it’s as if the “gene pool” of those married has shrunk to include only those who are relatively more committed to or serious about marriage. Marriage (and the dating pool of those wanting to get married) has been winnowed of the “fencesitters” or others who simply rode the marriage-as-social-convention tide. As a result of giving the less marriageable a socially acceptable outlet, divorce rates among those who remain married or marriageable have dropped!

    …Note this doesn’t imply that all is well with modern American marriage or family structure. Even though it’s declined somewhat, today’s divorce rate is still astronomically high by historic standards. Moreover, the same social acceptance granted single men and women not suited for marriage (and who inadvertently improve the divorce stats) is likewise bestowed upon mothers with fatherless children–in spite of their overwhelmingly negative social statistics and health outcomes. (But remember: these women are empowered and can’t be criticized dontcha know!).

  18. Opus says:

    It is sometimes easy for two people who speak (especially when we cannot hear each other’s accents) the same language to think that ones two countries follow identical trajectories. For example I once had a strange disagreement on line with an American (concerning Censorship) which I eventually ascribed to the fact that you have a second amendment and we don’t.

    Likewise here P T Barnum is dismissive of vast numbers of family trees which I had always taken at face value. If he is right (and it is just a supposition on his part) then my ancestors have covered up their divorces, but if Divorce were common then there would be no stigma, in which case there would be no reason to cover up, If divorce were not common it might have been covered up but then it would not be common. One cannot have it both ways.

    In addition to the intact marriages I mentioned, I should also add my sisters and my (now deceased) cousin, and that makes ten. Ask any Brit whether Divorce was common before 1970 and I am sure that you will betold that it was virutally uinknown . To obtain a divorce before 1945 you would have (usually) needed an act of parliament – although I do not claim to be an expert on old divorce law. In support of the rareness of divorce I would further urge the inability of women (the main instutiutors of divorce) to fend for themselves adequately, and the fact certainly in the nineteenth century that on divorce they would not gain custody of any child. Whether they liked their husband or not they had little choice but to stay with them. If P.T Barnum were right it is certainly very curious that there is no hint of half blood relatives in my records. On my father’s side all my ancestors come from a limited locale and essentially one small village. I would suggest that taking all that in to account the records accurately reflect all the marriages, which in those days all had to take place in a church who then provided the resultant record.

    On reflection I can think of one divorce. In 1932 a cousin of my mother’s was a co-repsondent in a divorce. As a result of this he was (as was the case at the time) forced to retire his commission in the Army. Times have certainly changed!

  19. John says:

    I have often thought that unhappy women are reluctant to leave their husbands because of the possibility of losing health benefits. And with the stagnant economy, this phenomenon should increase.

    But that doesn’t prevent her from running around on him while married.

  20. Gerhilda says:

    I appreciate the discussion here and the statistical breakdowns. This is terribly interesting to me. I don’t fit cleanly into any of the divorcee categories. I was raised in a truly patriarchal society, and even though I have been out of that culture for nearly 20 years I still feel a bit lost as to where I fit into my community. My first marriage was at age 18. I was the second wife of a 42 year old man. When I say second wife, I mean that his first wife was still alive and well and living with him. It was a polygamous arrangement.

  21. Eric says:

    Dalrock:
    Those are some scary numbers. I wonder how much that percentage would change if abortions were factored in?
    What’s also interesting is that every country on the chart (except France) with an out-of-wedlock birthrate over 30% is an Anglo or Germanic country: where feminism took its strongest root.

  22. Anonymous Reader says:

    Dalrock, my question basically was “How can the authors justify their conclusion given the data they show”? I don’t see anything to support their conclusion; the second chart doesn’t say to me what they claim it says. I don’t see any substantial improvement; yes, the latest curve is lower than a previous one, but that can be explained by confounding variables such as “less people marrying in the first place”.

    [D: I agree. The "improvement" in the 1990s curve is minuscule; I'm underwhelmed. As I wrote before, the next time they run this it might actually look better for the same time period because the divorce rate in the late 1990s was significantly lower than the beginning of the decade.]

  23. Anonymous Reader says:

    PT, don’t be a jerk. Lots of people have family geneologies that go back multiple generations. A cousin of mine worked on a couple of branches and got them back to the 18th century. I’m like Opus, no verifiable divorces in my ancestry during the 20th century at all, nor in any branches traced back into the 19th, or 18th century.

    In the post-1950 cohort, I have some cousins who got divorced in the 70’s and 80’s. But their parents were married unto death, as were mine. It is not difficult to demonstrate a big change around 1970 or so, and that’s when the laws in the US started changing.

    So what’s your point?

  24. alcestiseshtemoa says:

    Here’s a view:

    In the first chart there is stability from 1860 to 1930, a drop in 1940 (WWII), a huge spike in 1950, a decline in 1960 (sexual revolution, civil rights and liberation movement), followed by a rise in 1980 (a backlash against the 1960’s or a rebound?) and ever since a fall. It seems that the divorce rate has fallen per one thousand people because the marriage rate has fallen.

    In the second chart it’s trickier and perhaps a combination of factors has led to the 1990-1999 state. There’s the sexual market place and liberal morales contributing to a higher divorce rate, women and men whom don’t marry at all and may even sire children outside of legal marriage (for whatever reason) and those whom are serious about marriage.

  25. PT Barnum says:

    Well, Opus and Anonymous Reader, if you can say it, I guess I’ll have to believe you! You have second-hand information from people with every motivation to lie, from a country, England, with a long tradition of lying to protect “honor”.

    Ha ha ha ha ha.

    Really, you guys are just so wacky.

  26. PT Barnum says:

    As for an example of England’s attempt to rehabilitate even it’s most pathetic losers with absurd lies, I give you world-class-fuck-up General Sir Douglas Haig, the Butcher of Somme.

    Every time I read an English account of Somme, I wonder what DIFFERENT, but very inflated, German casualty count I’m going to see today! All the different numbers they give are assuredly wild and absurd lies to anyone who has read anything about the idiocy that was Somme and understood the reality of the insane casualties that can be inflicted by modern guns…. even from FIFTY YEARS BEFORE IN THE CIVIL WAR. Given the “special needs” tactics applied by Haigy, anything less than absurd kill ratios in favor of the Germans is impossible. But the attempt to rehabilitate that world-class-fuck-up continues!

    Marching columns? MARCHING COLUMNS?

  27. Anonymous Reader says:

    Well, Opus and Anonymous Reader, if you can say it, I guess I’ll have to believe you! You have second-hand information from people with every motivation to lie, from a country, England, with a long tradition of lying to protect “honor”.

    Are you just being obnoxious, or is your reading comprehension just plan poor? My bet is on the former. Go troll for flames on some other site, that’s my suggestion.

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