The 50% divorce myth

Everyone “knows” half of all American marriages end in divorce, and that was indeed the case in the 1970s and 1980s.  But it isn’t true today:

Despite hand-wringing about the institution of marriage, marriages in this country are stronger today than they have been in a long time. The divorce rate peaked in the 1970s and early 1980s and has been declining for the three decades since.

About 70 percent of marriages that began in the 1990s reached their 15th anniversary (excluding those in which a spouse died), up from about 65 percent of those that began in the 1970s and 1980s. Those who married in the 2000s are so far divorcing at even lower rates. If current trends continue, nearly two-thirds of marriages will never involve a divorce, according to data from Justin Wolfers, a University of Michigan economist (who also contributes to The Upshot).

There are many reasons for the drop in divorce, including later marriages, birth control and the rise of so-called love marriages. These same forces have helped reduce the divorce rate in parts of Europe, too. Much of the trend has to do with changing gender roles — whom the feminist revolution helped and whom it left behind.

“Two-thirds of divorces are initiated by women,” said William Doherty, a marriage therapist and professor of family social science at University of Minnesota, “so when you’re talking about changes in divorce rates, in many ways you’re talking about changes in women’s expectations.”

[…]

The delay in marriage is part of the story, allowing people more time to understand what they want in a partner and to find one. The median age for marriage in 1890 was 26 for men and 22 for women. By the 1950s, it had dropped to 23 for men and 20 for women. In 2004, it climbed to 27 for men and 26 for women.

Perhaps surprisingly, more permissive attitudes may also play a role. The fact that most people live together before marrying means that more ill-fated relationships end in breakups instead of divorce. And the growing acceptance of single-parent families has reduced the number of shotgun marriages, which were never the most stable of unions, notes Stephanie Coontz, a professor at Evergreen State College and author of “Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage.”

The rise of “gray divorce”

Sociologist Susan L. Brown, in the L.A. Times, examines the reasons for the increasing number of older Americans (and Canadians, if my practice is representative) choosing to end their marriages:

Until recently, it would have been fair to say that older people simply did not get divorced. Fewer than 10% of those who got divorced in 1990 were ages 50 or older. Today, 1 in 4 people getting divorced is in this age group.

It turns out that those high-profile breakups of Tipper and Al Gore, and Maria Shriver and Arnold Schwarzenegger, were part of a trend. Baby boomers, who drove the huge increase in divorce that began during the 1970s and persisted through the early 1980s, are at it again. Just as they have transformed other arenas of U.S. social life, boomers are now reshaping the contours of divorce.

The rise in “gray divorce” is a product of dramatic changes in the meaning of marriage in America over the last half-century. Today, we live in an era of individualized marriage, in which those who wed have high expectations for marital success. Americans expect marriage to provide them not simply with stability and security but also with self-fulfillment and personal satisfaction. Roles are flexible; the traditional breadwinner-homemaker model is no longer the status quo. Good spouses engage in open communication and are best friends. This is a high bar for many to achieve, let alone maintain over decades while juggling work and child-rearing.

If a marriage is not achieving these goals, then divorce is an acceptable solution, according to most Americans. As Ann Landers famously advised those considering divorce, simply answer the question, “Are you better off with or without your spouse?”

[…]

The more complex marital biographies of many boomers thus have enduring consequences, potentially placing them at heightened risk of a later-life divorce. Another factor in the growing rate of late-life divorces includes an increased tendency of couples to reassess their unions at life turning points, such as an empty nest or retirement. Lengthening life expectancies can play a role too. Men and women who are 65 can expect to live 20 more years, a long time to spend with someone you may not like so much anymore.

The consequences of this gray divorce revolution are largely unknown. Because relatively few older adults divorced in the past, there is little research on the implications of later-life divorce for the well-being of individuals, their families and society at large.

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Here comes the single bride. Last week, Nadine Schweigert married herself in a symbolicwedding ceremony. The 36-year-old divorced mom of three wore blue satin and clutched a bouquet of white roses as she walked down the aisle before a gathering of 45 friends and family members in Fargo, North Dakota. 

She vowed to “to enjoy inhabiting my own life and to relish a lifelong love affair with my beautiful self,” reports Fargo’s InForum newspaper . After the ring was exchanged with the bride and her inner-groom, guests were encouraged to “blow kisses at the world,” and later, eat cake. 

Schweigert, who followed the ceremony with a solo honeymoon in New Orleans, claims the wedding was her way of showing the world she’s learned to love and accept herself as a woman flying solo. 

“I was waiting for someone to come along and make me happy,” she told reporter Tammy Swift . “At some point, a friend said, ‘Why do you need someone to marry you to be happy? Marry yourself.'” 

Not everyone was in agreement. Some of Schweigert’s friends, who’d undoubtedly seen Carrie Bradshaw register for a pair of Manolos on season 6 of Sex and the City, thought she was going a little far with the single pride thing. Schweigert’s 11-year-old son was her biggest critic: “He said, ‘I love you, but I’m embarrassed for you right now.'”