By Patrick Heuveline
Population Research Center
University of Chicago
In a research brief from the Council on Contemporary Families, University of Chicago’s Patrick Heuveline explains how divorce rates get calculated. If you ever report on divorce rates, this article will give you confidence in how you interpret them, and will show you the key questions to ask your sources when they are reporting on divorce statistics. The full brief appears below, but first Dr. Heuveline, a fellow of the Council on Contemporary Families, answers two common questions.
Q. What is the overall divorce rate?
A. Divorce rates have come down slightly since 1981, but part of the decline is accounted for by a drop in the number of marriages. Nowadays, the idea of marriage is less popular amongst couples and so they just decide to continue cohabitating. The drop of divorce may also be down to the fact that more couples are now considering couples therapy to be an option if they run into marital issues, instead of just going straight into divorce proceedings. The proportion of first marriages that will eventually end in divorce still appears to be very close to one-half, while it is slightly higher for second and other marriages, and slightly lower for marriages with children. The divorce process can be complicated when there are children involved. Fortunately, a child custody lawyer lincoln can make it as smooth as possible. For people in their first marriages, in 1995 1 out of 5 married women divorced within the first five years of their marriage. Studies of marriages over that past few decades show that one out of 3 married women divorced within the first 10 years of their marriage. And 2 out of 5 had exited by year 15 of their marriage.
Q. Does that mean that every married couple has a 50 percent chance of ending up in divorce court?
A: No, because the chance of divorce varies by how long you’ve married, and also by region and education. The risk of divorce gets less the longer a marriage has survived. College-educated individuals have lower divorce rates than people with a high school education or less. People who marry young also have a higher risk of divorce. But divorce seems to be a very prevalent, and probably permanent, part of our family landscape. If you are going through a divorce, then you should probably get a lawyer involved (such as prime lawyers Sydney) to help make the divorce go smoothly.
One of the most frequently cited statistics about divorce in the United States is that half of all marriages end in divorce. Often this proportion is then used to predict the chance that any given (“average”) marriage will end in divorce.
At first glance it may seem easy to measure the proportion of marriages that will end in divorce. After all, all marriages must eventually end, either in death or divorce. So the proportion of marriages that end in divorce is simply the ratio of divorces to the total number of marriages that have ended. But the problem arises when you try to determine what will happen to people marrying today by using a measure derived from the past, from marriages that have all already ended, especially when the phenomenon you are trying to measure is changing over time. And as regards divorce, times have been changing.
Take the following assertion from the March 5, 2005 issue of The Economist: “Unlike marriage, divorce shows no sign of going out of style” in England and Wales. The article goes on to state that “for every 100 weddings [in 2003] there were 57 divorces.” Many observers yield to the same temptation to compute the ratio of divorces in a given year to weddings in that year because it is easy to access from vital statistics and can be based on marriages and divorces in a recent year, which skirts all the problems of having to examine marital events from the past. But this ratio is not very useful because it divides apples by oranges. Except perhaps in Hollywood, the people who divorce in a given year are rarely the same people who married that year. Even if the risk of divorce were constant, and a doubling in the number of marriages one year would result in a doubling of the number of divorces, the rise in divorces would not take place in the same year as the rise in marriages.
For example, if there is a big rise in marriages in a given year, that will make the ratio of divorces to marriages for that year drop significantly. Similarly, if the annual rate of marriages is dropping, as it has been in England and Wales, then the ratio of divorces per weddings in a given year is going to rise and will overestimate the chance that any particular marriage will end in divorce.
Demographers use a very different measure to determine from recent marital data the chance that any given marriage will end in divorce. That tool is the life table. The likelihood of divorce using the life table is more difficult to compute than simply dividing divorces in a given year by marriages that same year, but the underlying idea is relatively simple. The life table builds on the observation that the risk of divorce varies strongly by marriage duration. The divorce rate typically increases after marriage to a high about three years later, and then decreases with the duration of the marriage. So we begin by examining the data on marriages and divorces by duration. We can calculate the proportions of marriages that ended in divorce in a given year for marriages contracted that same year, the year before, two years before, ten years before, and so on. The life table then splices together all these proportions to represent how many marriages are still likely to remain intact after “n” years of marriage. In practice, life table estimates are most often based on sample surveys with the respondents reporting on their own experiences.
A survey-based life table study of the net risk of divorce for 15- to 44-year-old women in 1995 found that the proportion of first marriages having ended in divorce was 20 percent five years after marriage, 33 percent after ten years, and 43 percent after fifteen years. Since the risk of divorce in the next year gets less the longer a marriage has survived, the fact that the rate was 43 percent within 15 years suggests that the 50 percent figure is roughly correct for the total life span of recent cohorts. For second marriages the likelihood of divorce was higher, already reaching 39 percent after ten years of marriage.
The life table is the widely accepted approach to estimating the proportion of marriages that end in divorce. But when we project into the future we have to bear in mind that the table only tells us the proportion of marriages that will end in divorce if marriages were subjected throughout their duration to the risk of divorce observed during the most recent year for which there is data. In that sense it functions like a car speedometer. It only indicates how many miles will be driven in the next hour if a constant miles-per-hour speed is maintained. An experienced driver knows she must wait until her speed has stabilized before making any mileage inferences from her speedometer. So too demographers know that estimations can be greatly distorted when conditions are rapidly changing.
For instance, the introduction of laws making divorce easier to obtain may result in people getting divorced earlier than they otherwise would have, even if it doesn’t affect the total proportion getting divorced. We must take this “timing” bias into account or we may misread the life table estimates computed just after the change takes effect. Just after divorce becomes easier to obtain, we are likely to see a greater incidence of divorce among long-married people who were previously forced to stay together. So there will be a temporary spike in the divorce rate among people married for longer durations. But people married more recently won’t face the same obstacles to divorce in the future and are therefore less likely to be divorcing after a long period of marriage.
In retrospect, life table estimates of the proportion of marriages ending in divorce based on data from the 1970s and early 1980s seem to have slightly overestimated the divorce rate to be expected. But the life table estimates were still more useful than the alternatives discussed at the outset of this paper. Moreover, in the 1990s the proportion of a marriage cohort getting a divorce and the timing of that divorce appear to have stabilized, correcting that earlier slight overestimation of the divorce rate. Today, the proportion of first marriages that will eventually end in divorce appears to be very close to one-half, while it is slightly higher for second and other marriages, and slightly lower for marriages with children.
For Further Information
For more information on recent divorce and remarriage rates and trends, contact Andrew Cherlin, Griswold Professor of Sociology and Public Policy at Johns Hopkins University: email@example.com;
Frank Furstenberg, Jr., Zellerbach Family Professor of Sociology, University of Pennsylvania: firstname.lastname@example.org;
or Paula England, Professor of Sociology, Stanford University: email@example.com.
Also, if you’re in a troubled divorce situation it is absolutely critical you use a trusted divorce solicitor, not a cheap one. As they can miss important parts which could come at a cost to both parties.
On historical trends in divorce and remarriage, contact Stephanie Coontz, Professor of History and Family Studies, The Evergreen State College: firstname.lastname@example.org.
For Further Reading
“Cohabitation, marriage, divorce, and remarriage in the United States.” Vital and health statistics, Series 23, Data from the National Survey of Family Growth, No. 22.
On children’s experience of divorce in the United States: Bumpass, Larry L. 1984. “Children and Marital Disruption: A Replication and Update.” Demography 21(1):71-82.
On children’s family situations in the United States: Bumpass, Larry L. and Hsien-Hen Lu. 2000. “Trends in Cohabitation and Implications for Children’s Family Contexts in the United States.” Population Studies 54(1):29-41.
On comparing children’s experience in the United States and other Western countries: Heuveline, P., Timberlake, J.M., & Furstenberg, F. F., Jr. 2003. “Shifting Childrearing to Single Mothers: Results From 17 Western Countries.” Population and Development Review 29(1):47 -71.
The Council on Contemporary Families is a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to providing the press and public with the latest research and best-practice findings about American families. Our members include demographers, economists, family therapists, historians, political scientists, psychologists, social workers, sociologists, as well as other family social scientists and practitioners. Founded in 1996 and based at the University of Miami, the Council’s mission is to enhance the national understanding of how and why contemporary families are changing, what needs and challenges they face, and how these needs can best be met.
To learn more about other briefing papers and about our annual April conferences, including complimentary press passes for journalists, contact Stephanie Coontz, CCF’s Director of Research and Public Education: email@example.com.