Is it true half of all marriages end in divorce?

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Dear Cecil: Cecil, is it true that half (or one-third, depending on whom you talk to) of marriages in the U.S. end in divorce? I’ve heard various numbers on the subject, none citing a source, and I’d like the straight dope. Tim, Nashville, TN


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Cecil replies:

One wants to put an optimistic spin on things, so here’s the best I can do: Half of U.S. marriages haven’t ended in divorce yet. But we’re definitely headed in that direction.

Some people are in denial about this. They say the apparently high marriage failure rate is based on a misinterpretation of statistics. Here’s a quote I found on several Christian Web sites, attributed to J. Allan Petersen, who publishes a newsletter called “Better Families”:

Pollster Louis Harris has written, The idea that half of American marriages are doomed is one of the most specious pieces of statistical nonsense ever perpetuated in modern times. It all began when the Census Bureau noted that during one year, there were 2.4 million marriages and 1.2 million divorces. Someone did the math without calculating the 54 million marriages already in existence, and presto, a ridiculous but quotable statistic was born. Harris concludes, Only one out of eight marriages will end in divorce. In any single year, only about 2 percent of existing marriages will break up.

Louis Harris did say something along these lines in 1987 in his book Inside America. Whether the part about only one in eight marriages ending in divorce was true then I won’t get into — but it’s not true now. We learn this from a recent document released by the U.S. Census Bureau, “Number, Timing, and Duration of Marriages and Divorces: 1996” (Current Population Reports, February 2002), available at

Based on a nationally representative survey of about 37,000 households (69,571 individuals), the report shows that, as of 1996, in every age group except 25 and under the proportion of divorced people exceeded one in eight, and for those 40 and older it exceeded one in three. The highest incidence of divorce occurred among 50-year-old women, 42 percent of whom had already divorced at least once. Eventually, the report predicts, 46 percent of these women will divorce. Even higher rates of divorce are projected for most younger age cohorts. Here are the numbers:

Age, 1996 Percent Divorced, 1996 (M/F) Percent Projected Divorced (M/F)

25 5/12 53/52

30 17/17 50/47

35 27/26 49/44

40 34/37 49/48

45 41/42 49/48

50 40/42 45/46

55 38/38 41/40

60 34/31 36/32

To put it another way, among leading-edge baby boomers — on the chart, 45- and 50-year-olds — more than 40 percent have already been divorced at least once, and close to half are expected to divorce at some point in their lives. Among those born in 1971, smack in the middle of Generation X, more than half are predicted to divorce, and God knows what those flighty slackers in Gen Y will do. Sure, such projections may not pan out. But when the Census Bureau did a similar study in 1975, it figured that only a third of leading-edge baby boomers would end up divorcing, substantially underestimating the rate at which divorce has already occurred in that group.

So, is the high divorce rate one more sign that the country going to hell in a handbasket? You be the judge:

Good news — according to the National Center for Health Statistics, the proportion of children born to single mothers leveled off at around 33 percent in 1994, after increasing steadily for over 50 years.

Bad news — in 1940 the rate was 4 percent.

Worse news — in 1999 the proportion of black children born to single moms was 69 percent. Lest you think high rates of unwed motherhood are confined to persons of color, in 1998 the proportion of births to unmarried women in Iceland was 64 percent.

Good news — last year the Centers for Disease Control reported that the teen birth rate had fallen from 62 births per 1,000 in 1991 to 46 per 1,000 in 2001, a decline of 26 percent.

Bad news — in 1940 the rate was 7 per 1,000.

Not sure what kind of news — as of 2000, what had once been the nation’s most common domestic arrangement — a married couple living with their children — had declined to 24 percent of all households, according to the Census Bureau. The most common arrangement now: married couples without children, 29 percent. A national disaster? Hardly — empty nesters have been a leading factor in the revival of city centers in recent years. Better we should quit whining about the decline of traditional values and deal with the world as it is.

Cecil Adams

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