Let’s Stop Treating the Divorce Rate Like the Crime Rate

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In honor of Valentine’s Day, Science of Us is spending this week talking about love — specifically, what happens when it goes wrong. If you ever wondered about the psychology of breakups, we’ve got you covered.

Certain statistics are treated as assurances that America is getting more civilized, like the crime rate (mostly) going down, infant mortality decreasing, and life expectancy (mostly) going up. Then there’s divorce: The topic is hotly debated, and so is the rate itself.

Over the past couple years, there’s been a flurry of takes about how the “myth” of a 50 percent divorce rate is now debunked, though the American Psychological Association maintains that it’s between 40 and 50 percent. Drawing on the latest American Community Survey data, University of Maryland sociologist Philip Cohen has declared that, “If current divorce and widowhood rates remain unchanged, 52.7% of today’s marriages would end in divorce before widowhood.”

This is a demographic number that is, appropriately enough, complicated by demographics. Millennials — with their propensity for co-habitating before tying the knot — are getting divorced less (so far), while olds split up more. Conversely, as Ben Steverman reported for Bloomberg, the divorce rate for 55- to 64-year-olds more than doubled from 1990 to 2012, while the rate for those 65 and above tripled. Underscoring that is the fact that people have more time in which to divorce: American life expectancy was 54 years in 1916, and it was nearly 79 in 2016.

But to speak of a “divorce epidemic” — or to adopt what’s been called a “deficit view” of divorce, which argues that more is inherently bad — may be misguided. As Cohen tells Science of Us, one should not be so quick to make value judgments regarding whether a divorce number is optimistic or pessimistic.“You don’t want to look at the trend and say marriage is doing well or doing bad,” he says. “We don’t know … if we’re measuring a problem, or some kind of healthy churning.”

Indeed, if you follow the curve of the divorce rate — like in the chart below — a story about the changing nature of American relationships reveals itself. For one, couples rushed to the altar before World War II, and the short spike afterward reflects their reconsidering.

Moving forward, what’s being reflected are changing norms around family and gender.

In 1950s and 1960s, the age of first marriage was around 21 for women and 24 for men, and getting hitched was a sign that you’d become an adult — unlike today where psychologists say the most significant markers of adulthood are independent judgment, individual responsibility, and financial self-sustainability. Then the women’s liberation movement started catching on. In 1969, California adopted the first no-fault divorce law, allowing people to seek divorce without having to prove that their spouse did something wrong. In 1972, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of unmarried couples being able to use birth control. Starting in the 1970s and continuing into the 1980s, the divorce rate surged.

“The highest divorce rate you should expect is when marriage is socially mandatory — you have to be married to be a competent adult — but divorce is allowed,” Cohen says, explaining the ‘70s. “It turns out when you have universal marriage, there’s a lot of bad marriage,” he adds. (To again quote Louis C.K., “No good marriage has ever ended in divorce.”) But, Cohen says, if you cut out those bad marriages, and the covenant becomes “truly voluntary,” you can expect both the marriages and divorce rates to be lower — which is what, depending on the cohort, is happening today.

What further complicates all this is the fact that the data collection regarding divorce is imperfect, Cohen says: For a long time, divorce was tracked as a vital statistic, like birth or death. Then, in 1998, a handful of states stopped counting it, so through 2007, there wasn’t nationally representative data. (Other scholars have even more beef with how divorce is counted.) Then, in 2008, the American Community Survey started asking people if they’d gotten divorced in the previous year. It’s functional, but imperfect, since people can say “yes” when they were never legally married or had simply separated rather than going through the courts.

All this suggests that you can’t assume a declining divorce rate is an unequivocal social good the way that, say, a declining murder rate would be. For as lovely as relationships can be, they have the capacity for horror: The CDC reports that one in three women and one in four men in the U.S. will experience “rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime.” Under that light, the spike in divorces from the ‘60s and ‘70s reflects a newly acquired right of self-determination. And so does the more recent decline in divorces, as relationships as a whole have become more truly voluntary. “When dependency isn’t built into family relationships as much, and relationships are freely chosen, they’re higher quality,” Cohen says. “If people don’t need to stay in their marriages for survival, it changes the whole quality of the relationship, in my opinion, for the better.”

Let’s Stop Treating the Divorce Rate Like the Crime Rate