Divorce is too common in America and that should not
be taken lightly, but those who are committed to a lifetime of
marriage don't need the discouragement accompanying the notion that
half the marriages are going to self-destruct anyway.
I was once told by a young bride-to-be that she
and her fiancé had decided not to say "Till death do us
part" in their wedding vows because the odds of it really
happening were only 50-50.
Let me say it straightforwardly: Fifty percent of
American marriages are not ending in divorce. It's fiction. A
myth. A tragically discouraging urban legend.
If there's no credible evidence that half of
American marriages will end up in divorce court, where did that
Demographers say there was increased focus on
divorce rates during the 1970s when the number of divorces rose,
partly as a result of no-fault divorce. Divorces peaked in 1979 and
articles started appearing that claimed 50 percent of American
marriages were ending in divorce.
A spokesperson for the U.S. National Center for
Health Statistics told me that the rumor appears to have originated
from a misreading of the facts. It was true, he said, if you looked
at all the marriages and divorces within a single year, you'd find
that there were twice as many marriages as divorces. In 1981, for
example, there were 2.4 million marriages and 1.2 million divorces.
At first glance, that would seem like a 50-percent divorce rate.
Virtually none of those divorces were among the
people who had married during that year, however, and the statistic
failed to take into account the 54 million marriages that already
existed, the majority of which would not see divorce.
Another source for the 50-percent figure could be
those who were trying to predict the future of divorce. Based on
known divorce records, they projected that 50 percent of newly
married young people would divorce. University of Chicago
sociologist and researcher Linda Waite told USA Today that
the 50-percent divorce stats were based more on assumptions than
So what is the divorce picture in America?
Surprisingly, it's not easy to get precise figures because some
states don't report divorces to the National Center for Health
Statistics, including one of the largest: California.
Some researchers have relied on surveys rather
than government statistics. In his book Inside America in 1984,
pollster Louis Harris said that only about 11 or 12 percent of
people who had ever been married had ever been divorced. Researcher
George Barna's most recent survey of Americans in 2001 estimates
that 34 percent of those who have ever been married have ever been
One of the latest reports about divorce was
released this year by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS).
It is based on a 1995 federal study of nearly 11,000 women ages
15-44. It predicted that one-third of new marriages among younger
people will end in divorce within 10 years and 43 percent within 15
years. That is not a death sentence, however; it's a forecast.
Martha Farnsworth Riche, former head of the Census Bureau, told USA
Today, "This is what is going to happen unless we want to
Most important, the statistics and predictions
about Americans in general don't tell the whole story about the
future. There are other factors that affect a person's chances for a
long marriage. The NCHS study of women, for example, shows that age
makes a difference. Women marrying before age 20 face a higher risk
for divorce. Marriages that have already lasted for a number of
years are less likely to end in divorce. If your parents did not
divorce, your chances are better than if you came from a broken
home. Couples who live together before marriage are more likely to
The bottom line is that marriage is still what
it's always been: a commitment between two people who choose to
remain faithful to each other. And they don't need to feel doomed
because of scary statistics — least of all ones that are urban