Susan Walsh did a post the other week titled Your Chances of Divorce May Be Much Lower Than You Think. In it she shared some stats on divorce rates from the 2010 State of Our Unions report by The National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. Overall I think Susan is doing a service by sharing more information on the question of divorce, but I also think that this is a complex question and it would be easy for her readers to walk away with a misunderstanding of the true nature of the risk of divorce. For example, Susan writes (emphasis mine):
So far, Millennials voice more favorable attitudes about marriage, despite a constant drumbeat of gloomy news about marriage from the media. The common myth that the overall national divorce rate is 50% is just one example. (It’s 40%, and has been declining steadily since 1980. That’s bad enough – why exaggerate?) Additionally, the politically correct bias so prevalent in the media renders much of the coverage deceptive at best.
Susan doesn’t cite her source in busting this “myth”, but this question is something which is anything but settled. The very report she cites later in the post puts it this way on P 72:
Overall, the chances remain very high—between 40 and 50 percent—that a first marriage started in recent years will end in either divorce or separation before one partner dies.
On page 73 (the same page Susan pulled her other stats from) they go even farther:
By now almost everyone has heard that the national divorce rate is nearly 50 percent of all marriages. This is true for the married population as a whole.
The initial quoted range of between forty and fifty percent lifetime divorce rates roughly fits what the NY Times reported in an article on divorce rates in April of 2005 (H/T Half Sigma). One of the researchers they interviewed stated that the fifty percent estimate was “very sensible”:
Dr. Larry Bumpass, an emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Demography and Ecology, has long held that divorce rates will eventually reach or exceed 50 percent. In an interview, he said that it was “probably right” that the official divorce statistics might fall below 50 percent, but that the rate would still be close.
“About half is still a very sensible statement,” he said.
However, Susan’s larger point (and Half Sigma’s as well) is that divorce rates vary widely by demographics. The very high overall divorce rates can be misleading because of this. This is a valid point, although even here the good news is bitter sweet.
First the good news:
College educated women have historically exhibited a far lower divorce rate than the population at large. The following data is from Figure 1 on page 19 of the State of Our Unions report:
In the NY Times article they estimate that roughly 60% of all marriages which end in divorce do so within the first ten years of marriage. Assuming this is correct, this would give us a rough lifetime divorce risk estimate for college educated women of under 20% (11% / .6 = 18.3%). Compared with the consensus average of 40-50% average lifetime divorce risk, this is truly impressive.
The Marriage Project authors attribute this much lower divorce rate among college educated women to what they call the “success sequence”:
…highly educated Americans (and their children) adhere devoutly to a “success sequence” norm that puts education, work, marriage, and childbearing in sequence, one after another, in ways that maximize their odds of making good on the American Dream and obtaining a successful family life.
This overlooks the strong relationship between the age of the wife and the rate of divorce. College educated women tend to marry later, and this reduces the incentive they perceive to divorce in the form of remarriage prospects. This also overlooks the impact of IQ. Sorting by education is very close to sorting by IQ, yet the terms “IQ” and “intelligence” aren’t used anywhere in the report. This is especially problematic because they (and Susan) also report lowered divorce risks for a number of other characteristics, many of which tend to be strongly correlated with IQ, such as income, out of wedlock births, and coming from an in tact family. Someone who didn’t understand the nature of the data might not notice that if you add up all of the reductions in risk the report lists in the table on page 72 (and Susan lists in her post) the total risk reduction would be 131%, which would mean a negative risk of divorce. The authors of the report make this worse by following the table with the statement:
So if you are a reasonably well-educated person with a good income, your parents stayed together, you are religious at all, and you marry after age 25 without having a baby first, your chances of divorce are very low indeed.
Very low indeed? Why not simply report what the actual reduction in risk would be?
IQ has been found to have strong and at times contradictory impacts on divorce rates, which in itself should cause at least some pause. In The Bell Curve, Herrnstein and Murray shared their results from analyzing a longitudinal sample of Americans. They found that higher parental Socio Economic Status (SES) tended to increase 5 year divorce rates, while higher IQs tended to lower 5 year divorce rates. Given the strong correlation between parental SES and the IQ of the child this shows two conflicting forces at work in Americas Upper Middle Class. They also looked at the question of education and divorce rates (emphasis mine):
It is clear to all researchers who examine the data that higher education is associated with lower levels of divorce. This was certainly true of the NLSY, where the college sample (persons with a bachelor’s degree, no more and no less) had a divorce rate in the first five years of marriage that was less than half that of the high school sample: 7 percent compared to 19 percent. But this raw outcome is deceptive. Holding some critical other things equal–IQ, socioeconomic status, age, and date of marriage–the divorce rate for the high school graduates in the first five years of marriage was lower than for college graduates.
They also found that IQ played a huge role in divorce rates within the college educated group. Those who were college educated with an IQ of 100 had a 5 year divorce rate of 28%. Those who were college educated with an IQ of 130 had a five year divorce risk of only 9%.
As you can see, the authors of The Bell Curve found that IQ swamped education as a predictor of divorce rates. Yet IQ is an academically taboo topic and therefore is seldom mentioned. This is something to keep in mind whenever looking at risk factors for divorce which might be correlated to IQ.
As I mentioned above the impact of IQ on divorce risks can be contradictory. Researcher J Dronkers investigated the impact of IQ on divorce in his paper Is there a relation between divorce risk and intelligence? Evidence from the Netherlands He found that when divorce was first introduced in the Netherlands (and was therefore “novel”), higher IQ was associated with higher rates of divorce. However, once divorce became common the opposite effect was observed. Since Herrnstein and Murray were looking at the impact of IQ on divorce in the US after divorce had already become common, their results fit with what was observed in the Netherlands.
Now the bad news:
What Susan doesn’t mention when referencing the Marriage Project report is the full title of the report. When she refers to the report as “The State of Our Unions, 2010:” what she leaves off after the colon is the rest of the title: When Marriage Disappears. The same chart which shows that ten year divorce rates are down to 11% for college educated women also shows that for women with a high school diploma ten year divorce rates have remained essentially steady at 37%. If we apply the 60% estimate here, this would mean that roughly 62% of these marriages would ultimately end in divorce. The same basic rates apply for high school dropouts as well. This means that marriage is a foolish proposition for men considering marriage with 70% of American women. Try to push more diners into the restaurant if you wish, but it will only make the problem worse.
Marriage in the US has become something only the elite can afford to dabble in, a fact which is masked by the overall declining divorce rate:
The sad fact behind the decline (and levelling off) of divorce rates in recent years is that it is driven not by overall reductions in divorce risk, but by those who who present the greatest risk of divorce not marrying as often in the first place. The decline in the rate of marriage has masked the larger problem with marriage itself.
Additionally, just because men are avoiding marrying the women with the highest divorce risk it doesn’t mean these women aren’t having children. The trend of the past thirty years has been a normalization of the idea of out of wedlock births for women without a college degree:
So far this remains uncommon amongst college educated women. However, given how quickly high school educated women accepted out of wedlock childbirth this might change in the future. This risk is exacerbated by men like Glenn Stanton lionizing unwed mothers.
The impact of hookup culture on future divorce rates:
One thing the most recent data doesn’t tell us is what impact if any the widespread acceptance of hookup culture will have on divorce rates moving forward. Just because marrying a college educated woman in the late 90s turned out to be a relatively safe bet, it doesn’t mean marrying one today will have the same low risk. Back in the late 90s the hookup culture was still in the early stages. Since then we have seen the growth of hookup culture and a mass of women postponing marriage until the very last minute. All of this adds up to an explosion of former carousel riders suddenly looking to marry. Based on what The Social Pathologist has shared here, here, and here, we know that the more sexual partners a woman has the less satisfied she is in marriage and the higher risk she presents for divorce. On the flip side, we know that older wives are less likely to divorce. This leaves us with a best case scenario of unhappy marriages with low rates of divorce, and a worst case scenario of unhappy marriages with high rates of divorce.
Based on the most recent available data, the risk associated with marrying a college educated woman may be much lower than the overall risk of divorce. However, if she has participated in the hookup culture or sees serial monogamy as relationships with training wheels, your risk of divorce may well be much higher after all.
Either way, the logical result of legal incentives to women to divorce, the intentional destabilization of marriages and Christians turning their backs on biblical marriage is coming to pass. If this doesn’t turn around, we may one day tell our grandchildren (if we know who they are) that we witnessed the death of marriage as an institution.