SAN DIEGO, February 2, 2015 – Since the 1970s, we have been informed by academics and researchers half of all marriages in the United States end in divorce. This causes much concern, hand wringing, and speculation about the reasons behind this phenomenon, followed by suggestions on how we can fix this problem and lower the number.
Most people assume this to be conventional wisdom after hearing report after report about it. But when the U.S. Census Bureau started adding divorce-related statistics to its surveys in 2008, news media reports surfaced on the work of researchers finding the divorce rate was dropping. So this is good news, right?
Not so fast. Last year, researchers at the Minnesota Population Center at the University of Minnesota said the divorce rate isn’t dropping; instead, it has been steadily rising for 30 years. Studies continue to contradict each other. Who do we believe?
Divorce rates do not exist in a vacuum. Changing social norms and changing demographics have a lot to do with divorce, and the rate of divorce can be wildly different depending on a few key variables.
First of all, Americans are waiting until they are older to get married. The average age of a first marriage is 27 for women and 29 for men, up from 23 for women and 26 for men in 1990 and 20 and 22 in 1960. We know that people who marry at a young age tend to get divorced at a much higher rate. So the rate of divorce is relatively high for people who get married under 25.
People are also choosing not to marry at all, some for decades. This doesn’t mean people are writing off relationships. They are cohabitating, having children, and buying property, but they are doing it without a marriage license. They also break up, but when two 30-something adults with two kids and a house part ways who haven’t ever been married, this isn’t counted as a “divorce.” But believe me, it is just as difficult from a legal, financial, and especially an emotional standpoint.
Members of these groups are frequently the children of divorce themselves. Their parents got divorced in the 1970s and 1980s. They grew up with the turmoil of the situation and want to avoid the mistakes of their parents. They share a similar personal history, but they come to different conclusions as to how best to avoid the same fate. Some wait longer to get married, and work harder to stay married; others have turned their back on marriage entirely.
One group has sustained a much larger divorce rate verified by nearly every bit of research: the so-called “gray divorce” phenomenon. People who have been married for decades in their 50s, 60s, and even 70s are more willing than ever to get divorced. This has become possible for two reasons. First, people are living longer and living healthier overall. Someone 60 years old could easily live for 20 or 30 more years. Second, a gray divorce is only possible when a marriage has survived to that point in the first place. These are two demographic trends combining to create a brand new trend.
So we have the younger generation getting married much later in life, if at all. You have the older generation getting divorced after being married 30 years. Let’s now add the reality that the Great Recession caused many people to put off getting married because they couldn’t afford it. Recent college graduates have a huge amount of debt along with their diploma, and they struggle to find a job paying enough for them to support themselves. Thirty one percent of adults between 18 and 34 year old live with their parents. This isn’t always conducive to dating and getting married.
So whether or not the rate of divorce is dropping, growing, or staying steady, we know for certain fewer people overall are getting married. From my perspective as a family law attorney, what matters about all of this is the false belief that dissolving a household and a family group is ‘easier’ when you aren’t married. This isn’t always true, especially when you have children or shared assets.
Marriage provides a series of legal protections in the event of divorce. Unmarried couples need to realize when their relationship breaks down, they can be left floundering without some sort of written agreement, forced into court and paying attorneys to help sort things out. It isn’t easier, and it’s often a lot more expensive.
Married or not, the sadness, anger and loss that comes with a separation can’t be made better by any legal process. Breaking up is always hard to do, and this won’t ever change.