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The Divorce Rate Has Declined in The Past Two Decades

The Divorce Rate Has Declined in The Past Two Decades

According to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center (Pew), the U.S. divorce rate has steadily declined over the past two decades. Around four to five million couples get married and about one and one-half to two million couples file for divorce every year.

These figures tend to suggest that roughly half of all marriages end in divorce but they do not accurately portray the true rate of divorce.

The Pew Study

While the total number of divorcing couples remains historically high, the chance that any one marriage will end in divorce is relatively low. The rate of divorce changes as marriages move through life and become older.

The researchers relied on statistical data collected by the Census Bureau. The Census Bureau collects this information as part of the American Community Survey (ACS). ACS is an ongoing statistical survey that samples a portion of the population annually.

The researchers collected and organized divorces according to milestone anniversaries, specifically the: 5th, 10th, 15th, and 20th. They also controlled for age at which the couple married, income levels, education, family size and more. The goal was to create an accurate picture of when people divorce and, more importantly, who gets divorced.

The researchers found that, individually, long-term marriages rarely end in divorce. However, when considered in the aggregate, the absolute number of long-term marriages declines every year. So that by the time the 15th or 20th anniversary arrives, it appears that half of all long-term marriages ended in divorce.

For example, 89 percent of couples are still married by their 5th anniversary but that number drops to 74 percent by the 10th and 65 percent by the 15th. By the 20th anniversary, only 58 percent of couples remain married.

Younger marriages will always constitute a larger percentage of the married population because they have not undergone the same attrition. However, as these numbers illustrate, they slowly reduce in number over time. This can create the appearance that an unusual number of long-duration marriages have ended, when in reality, it is the normal attrition rate.

Essentially, marriages move through periods of high and low risk of divorce.

Lifetime Risk of Divorce

Further, the longer a marriage lasts, the higher likelihood that it will end in divorce. Every year marriages are subject to stresses that could break them apart. The longer the marriage, the more exposed it is to these stresses.

Pew came up with the “Lifetime Risk of Divorce” metric to explore this concept. The lifetime risk measures the likelihood that a particular person will file for divorce by compiling multiple data points. The lifetime risk changes every year – based upon these data points.

For example, the Pew study found that the lifetime risk of divorce for a 25-year-old adult is a little more than 50 percent. That figure drops to 45 percent for a 50-year-old man. Those figures change as more data points, like education and income, are added to the metric. Using this tool, Pew is able to measure when and why marriages end. For example, the researcher confirmed that the younger couples are married, the more likely their marriage will end in divorce.

This tool cannot determine when an individual marriage will end, only how many similar marriages end in a given year.

Average Age at which People Divorce

The study also explored the average age at which people seek a divorce. The researchers used data collected during the 2004 Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP). They found that the average age at which women sought a divorce was 29.4 while for men it was 31.8.

In 2003, 11 percent of men between ages 55 to 64 obtained a separation however only ten percent of those finalized their divorce. That results in about 1.5 percent of divorces being initiated by older couples. The annual rate of divorce may be low for longer duration marriages but every year around 0.5 to 1.5 percent of marriages end in divorce. The total number of long-duration marriages is continually reduced resulting in the low number of couples that are still together.

The rate of divorce is steadily decreasing

The total number of divorces that are filed every year is, historically, still very high but that conclusion is misleading. Instead view divorce through a prism that looks back two or three decades, once the modern marriage began to take root. Modern marriage refers to two income households, men sharing in child-rearing and other contrasts with traditional marriages.

Divorces are not at an all-time high, they have been curving downward for the past two decades. In 2008, Pew found that there were 3.5 divorces per 1,000 people versus 4 for every 1,000 in 2000. The downward curve is likely due to multiple factors including more later-in-life marriages, higher education rates, and other demographic factors.

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