NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


April 28, 2005

How many American marriages end in divorce? One in two, if you believe the statistic endlessly repeated in news media reports, academic papers and campaign speeches.

Researchers say the figure is misleading and based on a flawed calculation where the annual marriage rate is compared with the annual divorce rate. Instead, the method preferred by social scientists in determining the divorce rate is to calculate how many people who have ever married subsequently divorce. They found that the divorce rate in the United States has never reached one in every two marriages, and new research suggests that, with rates now declining, it probably never will.

Using the social scientists' method, researchers at the Fertility and Family Statistics Branch of the Census Bureau studied data from 2001 and found:

  • For people born in 1955 or later, "the proportion ever divorced had actually declined," compared with those among people born earlier.
  • Compared with women married before 1975, those married since 1975 had slightly better odds of reaching their 10th and 15th wedding anniversaries with their marriages still intact.
  • The highest rate of divorce in the 2001 survey was 41 percent for men who were then between the ages of 50 to 59, and 39 percent for women in the same age group.

In an unpublished but widely discussed paper, Steven P. Martin, associate professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, found that since 1980, the two groups have taken diverging paths. If current trends continue, the divorce rate for college graduates who married between 1990 and 1994 would end up at only about 25 percent, compared to well over 50 percent for those without a four-year college degree, says Martin.

Source: Dan Hurley, "Divorce Rate: It's Not as High as You Think," New York Times, April 19, 2005; and Rose M. Kreider, "Number, Timing, and Duration of Marriages and Divorces: 2001," U.S. Census Bureau, February 2005.

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