A few years ago, my wife and I celebrated our 25th anniversary. It is the second marriage for both of us and the relationship has only grown stronger over the years, teaching me more about love and trust and dependence then I ever imagined.
Reaching this special “silver moment” spurred me to look around and think about the number of friends we have who also have great second marriages and led me to question the alleged statistic that more than 60 percent of second marriages end in divorce. I also thought about how many friends we have who are still in their original marriages and appear to be very happy. Thus, I decided it was time to do some research on divorce rates.
In the process of preparing for this article, I learned what I had long suspected. The commonly quoted numbers are overstated myths, the more accurate numbers reflect complex factors, and that our society really has two very separate divorce rates, a lower rate (by half) for college-educated women who marry after the age of 25 and a much higher rate for poor, primarily minority women who marry before the age of 25 and do not have a college degree. (Most of the research focused on women; the little I read about men suggested similar outcomes.)
A false conclusion in the 1970s that half of all first marriages ended in divorce was based on the simple but completely wrong analysis of the marriage and divorce rates per 1,000 people in the United States. A similar abuse of statistical analysis led to the conclusion that 60 percent of all second marriages ended in divorce.
These errors have had a profound impact on attitudes about marriage in our society and it is a terrible injustice that there wasn’t more of an effort to get accurate data (essentially only obtainable by following a significant number of couples over time and measuring the outcomes) or that newer, more accurate and optimistic data isn’t being heavily reported in the media.
It is now clear that the divorce rate in first marriages probably peaked at about 40 percent for first marriages around 1980 and has been declining since to about 30 percent in the early 2000s. This is a dramatic difference. Rather than viewing marriage as a 50-50 shot in the dark it can be viewed as having a 70 percent likelihood of succeeding. But even to use that kind of generalization, i.e., one simple statistic for all marriages, grossly distorts what is actually going on.
The key is that the research shows that starting in the 1980s education, specifically a college degree for women, began to create a substantial divergence in marital outcomes, with the divorce rate for college-educated women dropping to about 20 percent, half the rate for non-college educated women. Even this is more complex, since the non-college educated women marry younger and are poorer than their college grad peers. These two factors, age at marriage and income level, have strong relationships to divorce rates; the older the partners and the higher the income, the more likely the couple stays married. Obviously, getting a college degree is reflected in both these factors.
Thus, we reach an even more dramatic conclusion: That for college educated women who marry after the age of 25 and have established an independent source of income, the divorce rate is only 20 percent!
Of course, this has its flip side, that the women who marry younger and divorce more frequently are predominately black and Hispanic women from poorer environments. The highest divorce rate, exceeding 50 percent, is for black women in high-poverty areas. These women clearly face extraordinary challenges and society would do well to find ways to reduce not just teen pregnancies but early marriages among the poor and develop programs that train and educate the poor. Those will not only delay marriage but provide the educational and financial foundation required to increase the probability of a marriage being successful. Early marriage, early pregnancy, early divorce is a cycle of broken families that contributes significantly to maintaining poverty. The cost to our society is enormous.