The Divorce Rate Debate

There’s a lot of material written about the divorce rate these days. It’s possible to find articles from as recently as a week ago that bemoan the rise of the divorce rate to 52.5%, and other articles from the same day celebrating the reduction of the divorce rate to 38%. What’s the truth? What is the divorce rate? And does it even matter?

It Matters
Let’s get one simple thing out of the way quickly: the divorce rate matters. It matters because when the divorce rate is in the news (and high), people tend to get married less often. If it’s  in the news (and low), people tend to get married more often. It’s simple psychology: people in general don’t want to invest in a huge rearrangement of their lives if there’s a 50% chance their investment will ‘fail.’

What Is the Divorce Rate?
The unfortunate truth about the divorce rate is that, like most statistics, it’s easy to skew in a few different directions. There is no single easy number to call “the divorce rate.” Are we talking the total number of marriages divided by the total number of divorces? How does that account for the fact that more people get married and divorced every day? Maybe since time-married is obviously a relevant factor, it’s easier to talk about the average length of a marriage — but “12.6 years” isn’t really a meaningful ‘rate’ of anything, is it?

And that’s not even getting into the fact that marriages as a whole are less common than they were a generation ago, while cohabitation is much more common — so couples are uniting and breaking up entirely “off screen” as far as the official marriage/divorce numbers are concerned.

The Truth
The truth about the divorce rate is that it’s a number that isn’t terribly useful when you take it as a big-picture measurement, because any individual marriage has a number of factors that can be used to get you a much more relevant number. For example, if you’re a baby boomer, you are more than three times more likely to get divorced than a Gen-Xer or a Millennial.

…and in fact, that example is very nearly everything we need to explain the entire phenomenon of divorce rates we’ve seen in our lifetimes. It turns out that the surge in divorce rates started around the 1980s, and it started with baby boomers, who were just getting into the ‘divorcing age’ at the time. It continued to grow through the ’90s as more and more boomers called it quits. And today, boomers are more than twice as likely to be divorced as the previous generation was at their age.

The Why
There’s a lot of experts who have a lot of opinions on why boomers are so divorce-prone, but let’s instead focus for a moment on why the younger generation is so divorce-shy. Because the reason might not be that they’re more traditional or wait longer to get married at all — it might simply be that many of them can’t afford it. If that is the case, it’s a tragedy, because it means that even after all of the math and insights, the improvement we’ve seen in the divorce rate might be nothing more than marriages that simply can’t be ended as they should. And that’s a really bad reason to stay with someone.

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