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You Do Not Have a “50/50 Shot” at a Successful Marriage

Well-educated couples are much less likely to divorce.

Dr. Phil (McGraw) once commented during a relationship-advice episode: “We got a 50 percent divorce rate in America. I mean, you got about a one in two chance of marriage working. And that is when both people are running towards each other as fast as they can get there. They want to get married. They are excited about it. They are coming together, and they crash instead of mesh. So you got a one-in-two shot if both of you are really leaning forward and excited about it.” i

Despite what Dr. Phil may believe, the fact that half of all marriages end in divorce does not mean that for any given wedding, there is a 50/50 chance that the marriage will be successful. Overlooking the fact that the 50 percent divorce rate is based on all couples, not just those who are “really leaning forward and excited about it,” the general logic of the 50 percent divorce probability myth is like saying:

Marriage is a gamble, not unlike a game of roulette. Half the numbers are black, and half are red. You drop your ball in the circle and watch it spin around and around. There is a 50 percent chance that it will land on a red number, and if it does land on red, your relationship will end in divorce.

The truth is both undeniable and uncomfortable to proclaim: Well-educated couples are much less likely to divorce relative to less well-educated couples. In 2008, I collected data on a targeted sample of more than 1,200 of the most intelligent, well-resourced women of my generation (the Lifestyle Poll Project). The vast majority of the respondents in my sample (98 percent) are college graduates, and more than half of the sample graduated from Harvard University.

In the married portion of this sample (just over 600 in total), fewer than 6 percent had divorced, despite the fact that the average length of marriage was 4.3 years (the third year of marriage is generally associated with the highest risk of divorce). ii The vast majority (86 percent) described their marriages as either “very happy” (24 percent), “extremely happy” (51 percent), or “perfect” (11 percent). An additional 8 percent said that they are “happy,” leaving only 6 percent that reported feeling “a little unhappy” (4 percent), “fairly unhappy” (2 percent), or “extremely unhappy” (<1 percent). The overwhelming majority (91 percent) would marry their current husband again, and nearly the same proportion (89 percent) “rarely” or “never” wish that they had not married their husbands.

In addition to asking about their own marriages, I also asked my respondents how their parents’ marriages have fared. In this relatively privileged sample, nearly 80 percent reported that their parents’ marriages were still intact—nowhere near the widely cited 50 percent divorce rate for the population at large.

The purpose of this blog, The Joint (Ad)Ventures of Well-Educated Couples, will be to drill down and discuss the factors that explain why this particular set of people—and those like them—have incredibly successful relationships relative to the general population. The reasons for such different outcomes are complex and range from contextual factors, such as the ability to afford luxury vacations and “rooms of their own” in their sprawling homes, to a number of specific personality traits and life-building strategies of those in the marriages.

In addition to analyzing these very successful marriages, the blog will cover topics related to living a thoughtful life, including posts on topics like the psychology of winning your dream home (when competing with cash buyers with less insight), conversations to have before deciding whether or not to have children, why some of the wealthiest people feel the most financially insecure, and strategies for avoiding resentment when splitting up chores at home. My goal is that readers will gain insights that directly improve the quality of their lives and marriages. I hope you join me in this series of blog posts!


i. "Dr. Phil Show," aired on Thursday, March 19, 2008.

ii.“By the numbers: the State of Divorce," Time Magazine, Sept. 2000, p. 74.