Divorce Facts
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Divorce Facts

David Popenoe, PhD, the founder and codirector of The National Marriage Project and professor of sociology at Rutgers University, speaks about divorce in today's modern marriage.

Divorce in a Modern World

Q. Why is divorce so prevalent in this country?
Marriages used to be held together by many different bonds, including economic dependency, pressure from families, societal taboos, strong religious ties, and strict divorce laws. These have all weakened in modern times. Today, marriages are based almost entirely on love, an emotion. People's emotions are notoriously changeable. When love is lost, there often seems little reason to continue to hold the marriage together. Looked at slightly differently, the standard of a good marriage today is personal fulfillment -- a historically high standard. If one feels that is not being achieved, there are few disincentives for, and relatively little stigma against, moving on. Moreover, with the high divorce risk (nearly 50 percent of first marriages can be expected to end in divorce), there are many post-divorce opportunities for remarriage or re-partnering.

Q. That 50 percent divorce risk figure surprises me. How can that be true when most of my friends are still married?
The 50 percent figure is a national average. For many readers of this magazine, the actual risk of divorce is far lower than that. For example, people whose average income is over $50,000 have a 30 percent lower divorce risk than people who make under $25,000. People who married after 25 years of age have a 25 percent lower divorce rate than those who marry under age 18. For a college graduate with a decent income who married around the average age of first marriage (25 for women and 27 for men), the risk of divorce is probably below 25 percent.

Q. I have heard that the divorce rate has been dropping in recent decades. Is that true?
Yes, the rate has been gradually dropping since 1980, and the main reason seems to be that fewer people are marrying while they are still teenagers. Marrying as a teenager, which used to be common, carries a particularly high risk of divorce. It may also be that -- to a moderate extent -- people are working harder to save their marriages than they did 30 years ago.

Divorce and How to Avoid It

Q. What things can I do to avoid a divorce?
If you are not yet married, don't have a baby out-of-wedlock, finish high school, don't marry until your 20s, know your partner for at least a year, don't live with too many partners outside of marriage, and get a decent job. All of those things are associated with a relatively low risk of divorce. If you already are married, think about and work hard on two things: commitment and companionship. The happiest couples are friends who share lives and are compatible in interests and values. A number of good marriage education programs, which teach communication and conflict resolution skills, are now available, and many people have found them useful in preparing for or strengthening their marriages.

Q. Does living together before marriage really lead to a higher risk of divorce?
There is no evidence that if you are already engaged or committed to the relationship, and live with your partner before marriage, your risk of divorce increases. But in circumstances other than that, living together before marriage does increase your divorce risk considerably. This is especially true if you live together outside of marriage with many partners for long periods of time. The reasons for this are not well understood, but one might be the attitudes about relationships that are generated through cohabitation. Typically, cohabitation takes place because people are not yet ready to commit to the long term, and the purpose of the relationship is to test things out. If things don't work out, you leave. If you want a long-lasting marriage, however, you have to have exactly the opposite attitude -- you are going to keep the relationship going no matter what problems arise.

Q. I have read that, while divorce may cause problems to many of the children who are affected by it, by and large these problems are not long lasting and the children recover rather quickly. Is that true?
According to the research, children are negatively affected by divorce much more than most adults are willing to admit. First, about 25 percent of children who grow up in divorced homes have serious problems in life, for example delinquency, drug abuse, unwed teen pregnancy, or dropping out of high school, compared to only 10 percent of children who grow up in non-divorced, intact homes. Second, recent research suggests that, among those children from divorced homes who don't have serious problems, many nevertheless have more difficulties and anxieties in life than do other children. A big problem is in interpersonal relationships. One research study found, for example, that a child of divorce has a 50 percent higher divorce risk than a child from a married home. And if two children from broken homes marry each other, their risk of divorce is 150 percent higher.

Originally published on LHJ.com, February 2006.