National Association of Marriage Enhancement

Are we winning the war on divorce? Is marriage more popular again?

ome have taken a recent Census Bureau report to mean just that, although the figures might be difficult to interpret for several reasons.

Census figures show that 55 percent of adults had been married once by 2009. And although the figures show that people are marrying later in life, more marriages are lasting, with 77 percent of those marrying since 1990 making it to their 10th anniversary – around three percent higher than in the early 1980s when the nation saw its highest divorce rates.

In 2009, more than half of currently married couples (55 percent) had been married for at least 15 years, while 35 percent had reached their 25th anniversary.  Six percent had even passed their golden wedding anniversary.

These percentages are around one to two percentage points higher than they were in 1996, reflecting the leveling of divorce rates and increases in life expectancy.

Divorce rates hit highs in the early 1980s after divorce was made easier by the widespread adoption of no-fault divorce laws by states, but the census finds that divorce rates across most age groups have fallen by an average of five percentage points since 1996. One of the challenges of measuring and comparison is the lack of a standard definition for divorce rates; different states measure the so-called “divorce rate” differently and some have re-defined their definition during the compared time spans.

For the purposes of this piece, the Census Bureau’s definition of divorce rate has remained constant on a national level, yet it is unclear how the data was gathered and crunched on a state-by-state basis. Only the Bureau knows!

While 18.8 percent of 25- to 29-year-olds who had been married were divorced in 1996, the percentage dropped to 13.8 percent in 2009. For 30- to 34-year-old women, the rate of divorce dropped from 25.6 to 21.3 percent. The divorce rate among older women (50 years and over), however, increased. Overall, 21 percent of men and 22 percent of women had ever been divorced.

Does this mean that marriage skills are improving? Or that marriage itself has regained an authoritative position is the leading desirable form of long-term relationship?

“Many Americans have … heard this idea that one in two marriages will fail and that marriage is on the ropes,” said Bradford Wilcox, Director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. “Marriage is actually becoming more stable in America and divorce is becoming less common.”

Despite the perception that divorce is common place, most Americans marry once and make it work, one might conclude from the Census Bureau report.

Fifty-five percent of all married couples have been married for at least 15 years, according to the census report, while 35 percent have celebrated their 25th anniversaries and a special 6 percent have made it more than 50 years.

Wilcox said one of the primary reasons marriages are lasting longer is that people are postponing marriage. “Couples that get married in their mid-twenties or later than that are more likely to avoid divorce court,” he said.

“There is sort of more of a soul mate model of marriage today. … Fifty years ago, this was one of the things you did when you became a young adult. You found a boyfriend or girlfriend and if you were pretty happy you’d go ahead and get married,” said Wilcox. “Today the bar for marriage is much higher because people want a soul mate, not just a spouse. And a soul mate should be someone who is capable of providing you with emotional fulfillment, an intense relationship—and, by the way, a decent bank account helps.”

For many the soul mate model of marriage is less accessible, and while marriages on the whole are lasting longer, in many social strata, instability is on the rise.

“Americans who don’t have a college degree and who are less affluent, working class and poor Americans. They are seeing increases in divorce, they are seeing increases in childbearing, and we’re seeing a kind of growing marriage divide in American life,” said Wilcox. “More and more couples are having kids outside of marriage in a cohabiting context, and that’s why 41 percent of kids today are born outside of marriage in large parts. … Their kids are more likely to be exposed to a carousel of romantic partners and to suffer as a consequence.”

In fact, in 2009, more American households were single head-of-household homes than married homes for the first time in United States history.  Demographically and historically, that does not bode well for the future of a civilized society.

In fact, the U.S. has nearly double the percentage of children growing up in single-parent households compared to more than 20 European nations combined. So, more and lasting marriages may be a good thing, but why are they lasting and are there really more healthy marriages? Some cite economics as a key factor.

Andrew Cherlin, a professor of public policy and sociology at Johns Hopkins University, suggests that more marriages are lasting today because couples are successfully balancing work and sharing their income.

“People seem to be finding a new marriage bargain that works for 21st-century couples,” he told The Washington Post.

“It’s based on pooling two incomes, replacing the old breadwinner-homemaker bargain that worked well in the ‘50s.”

It is our estimation that economics does play a role and that the current recession may have impact in interpreting current conditions. Historically, divorce rates slow during economic downturns as couples can neither afford two households, nor the legal costs of divorce. There is some indication that couples may be “gutting it out” together rather than incur the costs associated with a split. A certain percentage of those will go on to have successful marriages.

Even if this effects a percentage point or two (and there is no credible way of measuring who is silently determined to keep a household together for economic reasons), it may have an impact on the overall movement of divorce rates.

So let’s be cautiously optimistic about the Census Bureau report. Let’s believe for the best—but let’s not fool ourselves—there’s an awful lot of work to do to improve the overall health of the state of our unions in these United States.

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