A new study has found that, while the divorce rate remains historically high, it has steadily declined over the past two decades. The now famous “half of all marriages end in divorce,” remains technically true but it does not paint an accurate picture. In absolute numbers, between 4 and 5 million marriages occur every year and about 1.5 to 2 million ends in divorce. Technically, that is 50 percent but the Pew Research Center found that not all marriages divorce in equal rates.
The Pew Research Center (Pew) found that while total number of divorces is high, the likelihood that any one marriage will divorce is relatively low.
Pew delved into these numbers using statistical data collected by the Census Bureau as part of the American Community Survey. They analyzed the rate of divorce for milestone anniversaries, i.e. how many people are divorced by their 5th, 10th, 15th, and 20th anniversaries. They also reviewed the demographics of divorced and married couples, such as: marriage age, education levels, income and more. Pew used this data to breakdown those numbers to get a more accurate picture of who was getting divorced.
The researchers found that while the likelihood of a long-term marriage ending in divorce is annually low, the total number of long-duration marriages decreases slightly every year. For example, Pew found that 89 percent of couples were still married by their 5th anniversary. Those numbers dropped to 74 percent by the 10th anniversary and 65 percent on their 15th anniversary. By the 20th anniversary only 58 percent of marriages were still intact. Without context it may appear that a greater number of older marriages end in divorce than younger. Thus, at any given time, a greater proportion of younger marriages will remain together.
Lifetime Risk of Divorce
Pew found that the longer a marriage lasts, the higher the likelihood that it will end in divorce at any one time. Essentially, the year-to-year rate of divorce is low but the overall likelihood of divorce is high.
Pew measures this long-term decline using the “lifetime risk of divorce” metric. This tool assesses the likelihood of a particular person getting divorced by compiling a variety of data points. This helps explain why the total number of divorces remains high but the individual rates of divorce for each marriage category are low.
For instance, depending upon the demographics of the married couple, their lifetime risk of divorce could be more than 50 percent (for a 25 year old adult) or 45 percent for 50 year-old men. But age is only a single data point; there are many factors that contribute to a divorce, such as: education, income and children. For example, couples who married young are more likely to divorce than couples who married older. The annual chance that any one marriage will end is relatively low however the lifetime chance that they will divorce is high.
People in their 20th or 25th year of marriage will only ever constitute a small proportion of annual divorces but their cumulative likelihood of divorce is higher than many other adults.
Median Age for Divorce
According to data collected during the 2004 Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP), the median age for divorce among men was 31.8 for men and 29.4 for women. In 2003, only 11 percent of men ages 55 to 64 obtained a separation and only 10 percent of those obtained a divorce. So in 2003, only about 1.5 percent of divorces were initiated by older couples. Similarly, only 4 percent of women ages 55 to 64 got separated and of those, 8 percent ended in divorce. Put in context, the annual divorce rates are low, however that 0.5 to 1.5 percent applies every year, so the total number of longer duration marriages is always reducing.
The divorce rate for marriages when measured based upon duration and likelihood of divorce starts high and curves low. Most divorces skew young then they level off after their 15th anniversary. The cumulated risk of divorce remains high for each individual however the annual expression of that number is lowered the longer a marriage lasts.
The Larger Pattern
The national total divorce rate is significantly higher now than it was a century ago but it has declined over the past two decades. Pew found that there were 3.5 divorces per 1,000 people in 2008 compared against 4 per 1,000 people in 2000. This is likely due to a number of factors. Americans are getting married later. More men and women are obtaining college degrees. The changing demographics of marriage have likely resulted in the steady decline of divorce.