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Divorce

Did More Couples Really Split Up Last Year?

Recent statistics don't support increased divorce rates in key U.S. states.

Key points

  • In 2020, anecdotal notes and preliminary stats suggested an increase in divorce rates seemingly caused by pandemic stressors.
  • Statistics released earlier this year based on five U.S. states suggest divorce rates have actually decreased during the pandemic.
  • The illusion of increased pandemic divorce rates may have emerged from the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, promoting thoughts of spiked divorce rates.
fizkes/Shutterstock
Source: fizkes/Shutterstock

Since the emergence of COVID-19, a colloquial term had appeared: the "quarantine breakup." The term, used to describe what seems like a disproportionate amount of relationships dissolving during COVID-19 (particularly quarantine or self-isolation), has been attached to friends, family, and high-profile couples alike who have decided to part ways. Has the breakup incidence rate truly increased during COVID-19, or is this just another psychological effect at play?

According to COVID-related anecdotal notes published by news outlets, with commentators ranging from proclaimed pundits like divorce attorneys to couples explaining their hardships themselves, the breakup rate would seem to be up. This isn't particularly recent news, as divorce attorneys in Wuhan reported seeing a rough 30% increase in divorce back in March of 2020 when their self-isolation ended, but noted that this may have been due to a backlog of divorce requests, pre-quarantine. However, according to an article published by the National Law Review in mid-October, "by April [of 2020], the interest in divorce had already increased by 34% in the U.S., with newer couples being the most likely to file for divorce," and 20% of newlywed couples married for five months or less seeking divorce compared to 11% during this time frame in 2019.

Interestingly enough, the timing here coincides with results found in research published in 2016 showing that divorce rates tend to be seasonal, peaking in mid-March and in August, completely unrelated to our current circumstances. Still, by the statistics reported in the National Law Review, a 9% increase is sizable, and it's possible that because of the stressors associated with a pandemic, including health concerns, a newly enforced working-from-home model, and little time to oneself or privacy, it may be that exasperated relationships that would have otherwise made it through the bimodal seasonal divorce peaks under normal circumstances. While a 9% is a notable jump, it would seem, with coined terms and media reports, that a much larger proportion is breaking up. If the statistics show only a 9% jump for a specific marital demographic, has the "quarantine breakup" really caught on?

According to a new study based on demographic information in five U.S. states, divorce rates have actually plummeted during the pandemic, falling below the projected divorce rates based on previous years’ data.

If this holds true, how did the “quarantine breakup” perceived phenomenon come about? The Baader-Meinhof phenomenon could be at play; a psychological effect that occurs when what we pay attention to (known as “selective attention”) and our natural tendency to look for information that confirms our already-existing beliefs (known as “confirmation bias”) combine. In other words, we have a natural inclination to believe there is a greater frequency of whatever it is we're paying attention to. To try it yourself, look for a VW beetle on the road ... suddenly, you'll see them everywhere—or so you think. So, perhaps when the seasonal spike in divorce rate occurred last March, it was misattributed to COVID, and the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon took hold, driving the term "quarantine breakup."

Facebook image: fizkes/Shutterstock

References

Manning, W. D., & Payne, K. K. (2021). Marriage and Divorce Decline During the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Case Study of Five States. Socius, 7, 23780231211006976.

Brownwell, T (2020, October 16). Divorce Rates and COVID-19. National Law Review. Volume XI, Number 178, Retrieved from: https://www.natlawreview.com/article/divorce-rates-and-covid-19.

Brines, J., & Serafini, B. (2016). Seasonal variation in divorce filings: The importance of family ritual in a postsentimental era. In 111th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association (ASA). Seattle: American Sociological Association.

Novella, S. (2018). The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe: How to Know What's Really Real in a World Increasingly Full of Fake. Grand Central Publishing.

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