Divorce: Setting the Record Straight

Author and social researcher Shaunti Feldhahn wants to get a few things straight about marriage and divorce in the United States. For decades, Americans have heard the divorce rate in the U.S. is around 50 percent. But Feldhahn says that while some subgroups have higher divorce rates the overall average has never hit 50 percent.

Most married people say they are happy, says Feldhahn, who debunks the divorce myth in her book The Good News about Marriage. Nearly three quarters (72 percent) of currently married people are still with their first spouse.

“Yes, there is some really bad news out there,” writes Feldhahn. “But the good news is out there too. And it can give some much needed encouragement to marriages today.”

Most of the statistics about marriage, including the idea that half of marriages fail, are based on past U.S. Census department projections, says Feldhahn. But those projections were made at a time when the divorce rate was skyrocketing. If the trend had continued we would have hit 50 percent, she explains. But the divorce rate peaked around 1980.

So what’s the exact divorce rate? Nobody knows.

One of the best sources, says Feldhahn, is a 2011 report from the Census Bureau, which surveyed more than 55,000 Americans about their marital history.

The group with the highest divorce rate, says Feldhahn, were women ages 50-59. About 4 in 10 (41 percent) of that age group had been divorced at some point, according to her analysis of the census data. Overall, 31.8 percent of ever-married women had been divorced.

That’s too high, she says, but far short of the claim that half of marriages end in divorce.

Census data shows more than half of couples (55 percent) in the U.S. have been married at least 15 years. And in most cases (72 percent), both the husband and wife are in their first marriage. Second marriages also show a fairly high success rate: two-thirds (65.3 percent) of people who’d been married twice are still married to that second spouse.

Feldhahn says this new data gives pastors and married couples the ability to set realistic expectations for their success. Most marriages will succeed, she says. And believing their marriage will succeed can actually help married couples get through the hard times.

“If a couple thinks, ‘we aren’t going to make it,’ then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” she says. “If they think, ‘we are going to make it,’ they usually do.”

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