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.