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The Myth of the High Rate of Divorce

Here is some additional data about divorce in first marriages before moving on to the limited data available about second marriages. Divorce rates are cumulative statistics, i.e., they don’t occur at a single moment in time but add up over the years of marriage and do so at different rates. After reviewing numerous sources, it appears that about 10 percent of all marriages end in divorce during the first five years and another 10 percent by the tenth year. Thus, half of all divorces are within the first ten years. (Keep in mind this is mixing the disparate college vs. non-college group rates.)

The 30 percent divorce rate is not reached until the 18th year of marriage and the 40 percent rate is not reached until the 50th year of marriage!

Thus, not only is the rate of divorce much lower than previously thought but at least half of all divorces occur within the first ten years and then the rate of divorce slows dramatically. Since the divorce rate for women married by 18 is 48 percent in the first ten years and that group, once again, is primarily poor, minority women, the rate for educated couples is much less during those first ten years.

No wonder the divorce rate in Massachusetts is the lowest in the country. We have the highest percentage of college graduates. That explains why I have so many first marriage friends!

Finding meaningful data about the divorce rates for second marriages was difficult. But knowing that the rate for first marriages has been grossly overstated and poorly understood for decades suggested a likely similar outcome for the data on second marriages.

One report indicated that the divorce rate for remarried, white women is 15 percent after three years and 25 percent after five years. This ongoing study indicated a definite slowing of the rate over time but did not have enough years measured to draw more long-term conclusions. However, it did indicate that the same factors with first divorces were at play here.

Age, education, and income levels were also highly correlated with the outcomes of second marriages. For example, women who remarried before the age of 25 had a very high divorce rate of 47 percent, while women who remarried over the age of 25 only had a divorce rate of 34 percent. The latter is actually about the same for first marriages and likely also would prove to be an average of different rates based socioeconomic factors.

Thus, my take on this limited amount of data is that divorce rates for second marriages may not be very different than those for first marriages. So my small sample of friends, who remarried older, had college degrees, and joint incomes, is probably not a distorted view of the success rate of second marriages.

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In the course of gathering information about divorce rates, I came across a few articles describing the growing frequency of couples choosing cohabitation over marriage. I don’t have any figures that I consider accurate enough to report on the percentage of cohabiting couples but a July 24, 2007 Boston Globe article on cohabiting parents sheds some light and raises some serious concerns about this trend.

I must admit a bias here. From my professional experience, I believe cohabiting couples are afraid of the commitment that marriage requires. Certainly a piece of this is what I stated at the beginning of this article, that the myth of the divorce rate has placed a dark cloud over the institution of marriage.

The reason for my concern is the following data reported in the Globe article. There is a marked increase in births to cohabiting couples, up from 29 percent in the early 1980s to 53 percent in the late 1990s. When you compare what has happened to those relationships when the child is 2 years old, 30 percent of the cohabiting couples are no longer together while only 6 percent of the married couples are divorced. This is another serious societal problem as it contributes to the U.S. having the lowest rate of all Western countries, 63 percent, of children being raised by both biological parents.

In addition, the general data suggests that cohabiting couples break up at twice the rate of married couples. Of course, this kind of simple statistic hides many complex factors with regard to who actually constitutes the population of cohabiting couples and the likelihood that many choose to live together with no real intention of permanence. However, my main point here is the concern that many couples may be choosing cohabition over marriage because they actually believe that the institution of marriage is unhealthy and too risky, a conclusion that my review of divorce rates strongly disputes.


The historical belief that 50 percent of all marriages end in divorce and that over 60 percent of all second marriages end in divorce appear to be grossly overstated myths. Not only is the general divorce rate most likely to have never exceeded 40 percent but the current rate is probably closer to 30 percent. A closer look at even these lower rates indicate that there are really two separate groups with very different rates: a woman who is over 25, has a college degree, and an independent income has only a 20 percent probability of her marriage ending in divorce; a woman who marries younger than 25, without a college degree and lacking an independent income has a 40 percent probability of her marriage ending in divorce.

Thus, factors of age, education, and income appear to play a significant role in influencing the outcome of marriages and that for the older, more educated woman, getting married is not a crapshoot but, in fact, it is highly likely to produce a stable, lifelong relationship.

The Myth of the High Rate of Divorce

Kalman Heller, PhD

Dr. Kalman Heller is a retired psychologist who ran a successful private practice. He previously wrote a monthly column for a local newspaper, and later took his "ParenTalk" column online. This article is reprinted from his online column with his permission.

APA Reference
Heller, K. (2018). The Myth of the High Rate of Divorce. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 21, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.