The happy couple, about to exchange vows, nervously contemplates their future together. With the refrain "one out of two marriages ends in divorce" rattling around in their consciousness, they worry that their life together is doomed even before it begins. However, they should rest assured and enjoy this pivotal moment in their lives. Throw the bouquet, revel in the confetti, and snuggle during the first dance. Depending on which demographic criteria you meet, the chances are good that you'll come out on the positive side of the statistical equation.
The number one problem with the 50% divorce statistic is that it is based on an inaccurate way of calculating the divorce odds in the population. If you count the number of divorces in a given year, it's about half of the number of marriages. For example, as reported in the 2011 Statistical Abstract of the United States, there were 7.3 marriages and 3.6 divorces per 1,000 adults in the population. Roughly 50%, give or take, correct? Wrong! The same people getting married in a given year are highly unlikely to be the same people getting divorced. So you have two almost entirely different groups of people making up the divorce to marriage ratio. I suppose it's possible that some people do marry and divorce in the same year, but not only is that unlikely, it's probably not even legally feasible.
This is the primary reason that our happy couple should feel optimistic. However, there are other factors that will reduce their odds of divorce, contributing further to the invalidity of the 50% statistic. Age is perhaps the most important. The probability of divorce for women decreases progressively across older age at first marriage. Brides under 18 years of age are twice as likely to divorce (through 15 years of marriage, at least) than brides who are 25 and older. As reported by the U.S. Census Bureau in late 2010, the median age of first marriage is 28.2 for men and 26.1 for women. These older ages of both partners should go a long way toward preserving young marriages.
Let's move on to the next demographic factor: Number of prior marriages. All divorce statistics are inflated by the presence in the population of the so-called "divorce-prone." These are the people who were previously divorced. They are likely to seek an end to the marriage when things aren't going well, and so when they enter into their second marriage or beyond, they will seek to end the union rather than try to preserve it. If these couples are added into the total batch of people seeking divorces, they will artificially boost the rate.
These demographic considerations aside, what are some of the other contributors to the higher odds of divorce? Surprisingly, one is the "cohabitation effect." People who live together before deciding to get married (i.e. before they get engaged) are more likely to divorce should they eventually marry. This probably flies in the face of all that seems logical. Wouldn't a couple who live together before marriage know each other the best and therefore be least likely to divorce? There certainly can be exceptions to this general rule, but the reason for the cohabitation effect is that couples enter into these marriages more out of inertia than out of romantic love. Therefore, they lack the "sparkle" (as Carrie Bradshaw would call it) that can keep them going throughout the vicissitudes of married life.
Why is the one-out-of-two rule so commonly believed? In part, this is because most people are truly unaware of the actual statistics. They believe what they read or hear, and rarely have the resources or incentive to check the facts. It's also true that people make their judgments on the basis of what psychologists call the "availability heuristic." They hear about people, especially celebrities, whose marriages crash and burn, and use those instances as proof of the faulty statistical data they've heard. They don't think about the people, celebrity or otherwise, who enjoy long and even passionate lives together that last for decades and decades. When these marriages are advertised in the media (such as the long-standing marriage of Mary Steenburgen and Ted Danson), people categorize them as the exception, not the rule.
The irony is that there is shame surrounding the experience of divorce. People don't like admitting they've been through one (or more) marriages because it makes them feel that they've failed at an important life task. Yet, if they believed the 50% percent, they should rationally see the experience as close to the norm, not the exception. But it is perhaps because of the shame that divorced people feel that they seek to validate their experiences by accepting the 50% as fact.
What about the still-married set? Why do they adhere to the 50% figure? The reverse logic would apply. If you're able to buck this "norm," then it proves your relationship is definitely extra-special and you are a definite life success. These are the people who make their divorcing friends probably feel even more defensive, ashamed, and embarrassed.
The divorce rate issue isn't likely to go away soon. We'll be hearing the 50% number for a long time to come, unless people come to their senses and take a good look at the data. There will also invariably be social trends that will bring down the actual, if not perceived, divorce rate: later age of marriage, a poor economy (which forces couples to stay together), and shifts in gender roles, all of which should benefit the longevity of the average marriage.
We can all benefit from learning how to decipher divorce statistics. As is true for understanding science news in general, keep a skeptical eye open when you hear any kind of data, even if it seems to fit the considered wisdom of the ages. Specifically, with regard to divorce, here are four tips to consider:
1.Recognize the pitfalls of poorly considered marriages. People who slide into marriage from cohabitation, people who wed at a particularly young age, and people who jump from one marriage to another all place themselves at risk.
2. Look at example of the good, not just the bad, relationships. Though everyone is drawn to scandalous celebrity headlines, don't preoccupy yourself with the failures. Though you can learn from marriages that don't work, you can learn a lot more from those that do.
3. Remember that marriages look different from the inside than the outside. You may not have a clue to understanding why two of your co-workers or pals decided to get married, but remember that there's a lot that you don't see (nor should you try).
4. Recognize the political biases inherent in some "expert" websites. Marriage and family websites occasionally have their own agendas- whether they are pro-marriage or pro-divorce. Be sure to check the validity of statistics before you accept conclusions.
With some of this advice in mind, you'll be less likely to cry out of sadness and more out of joy at the next wedding you attend.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2011