Scholars at the Institute for Family Studies are reporting that even while the U.S. divorce rate has been steadily declining over the last few decades, that decline has picked up speed recently. New data out last week shows it has finally hit its lowest point in 50 years. In the world of family studies, this is absolutely stunning news.
Wendy Wang, the director of research at the Institute for Family Studies, explains, “For every 1,000 marriages in the last year, only 14.9 ended in divorce.” This comes from the newly released American Community Survey data conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau. In 1970, 15 out of every 1,000 marriages ended in divorce, meaning fewer couples in the United States are divorcing today than did 50 years ago.
Even more remarkably, Wang says that “the drop in the divorce rate is likely to continue in 2020, despite the pandemic.” The big question, of course, is why?
Wang told me the “main cause of this decline is the selection effect.” While fewer couples are marrying today, as shown in the graph below, these couples who are marrying are doing so later in life. They are more affluent, more selective in choosing a mate, and more likely to be religious than the general population. “These are all factors that reduce the risk of divorce,” Wang explained.
These data recognize completed divorces as of 2019, not those filed this year and possibly held up due to local government lockdowns. The trend, however, is for divorce rates to decline in socially troubling years, so it is unlikely there are as many of those in-process divorces as might be expected. As leading sociologist of marriage W. Bradford Wilcox recently explained in an interview for the University of Virginia:
You know, the divorce rate has fallen by 20% since the Great Recession, in part, I think, because people have become more cautious about leaving their marriage in a world that seems increasingly insecure. I think the propensity to see marriage as safe harbor in tumultuous times will only increase — for those who tie the knot or are already married.
Wang and her colleagues at the Institute for Family Studies are not the only ones noting this divorce decline. Professor Philip Cohen, a noted sociologist of the family at the University of Maryland, explains in “The Coming Divorce Decline” that the risk of divorce is decreasing even for younger couples, and projections show this continuing into the future.
Cohen explains that while fewer people are marrying, the “United States is progressing toward a system in which marriage is … more stable than it was in the past.” This is demonstrated by the fact that “the odds of divorce in the first decade or two of marriage fell” for those marrying from 1980 to 2010.
It is critical to note that the divorce rate is growing only among greying baby-boom couples as they enter their twilight years, which some surmise is a function of this demographic simply bringing the values of their younger days into their twilight years.
Scholars at Bowling Green State University’s National Center for Family & Marriage Research report that among women aged 55-64, their divorce rate nearly tripled between 1990 to 2017, (from 4 to 11 per 1,000), while it doubled for their male peers (from 6 to 12 per 1,000). This is only increasing with age. The divorce rate among women aged 65 and older increased six-fold (1 to 6 per 1,000) from 1990 to 2017, whereas it nearly tripled for men (2 to 5 per 1,000).
Cohen is fascinated with the lowering divorce rate for younger marrieds and believes this is likely to continue, saying that “lower divorce rates for young adults now may portend lower divorce rates for their children.” Cohen largely agrees with Wang on the causes of divorce declines among young couples: They are choosing mates more wisely, giving them time to become more suited for marriage.
Further, faith makes a significant difference. As Wang explained to me, “People who are frequent churchgoers are more likely to be married, even after controlling for education and income,” and “the marital commitment among these couples are high.”
Could Coronavirus Be Strengthening Marriages?
While marriages that have been forming over the last decade in the United States seem to be stronger and more enduring, how are marriages faring in the year of the Wuhan virus? Some interesting data is getting scholars’ attention, and it tells a very counterintuitive story. Specifically, the number of married couples age 18-55 who said their marriage was in trouble declined markedly, from 40 percent in 2019 down to 29 percent in 2020, according to Brigham Young University’s American Family Survey.
Wilcox and Lyman Stone, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, add to this encouraging news, saying, “While there is no question that some couples are struggling [under COVID], the evidence generally points in the opposite direction.” They recently wrote in the Washington Post that “58 percent of married men and women 18 to 55 said the pandemic has made them appreciate their spouse more, while 51 percent said their commitment to marriage had deepened.” They add, “Only 8 percent said that the pandemic had weakened their commitment to one another.”
In another survey conducted in September of American women ages 18 to 44, they found that 45 percent of married women said the pandemic had made them less likely to break up with their husband, while only 5 percent said it had made a breakup more likely.
COVID-19 Infects Couples with Greater Appreciation
Some of the brightest news Wilcox and Stone uncovered is that husbands and wives are expressing increased appreciation for each other in these distinctly troubling times. A notable majority of Americans, 58 percent of both men and women, said the pandemic has brought an increased appreciation for their spouse. Additionally, just over half report that the pandemic experience has increased their commitment to marriage itself.
Remarkably, this increase in appreciation was richer for those couples who experienced greater financial struggles over the last six to eight months. As Wilcox and Stone explain, “Some 65% of married adults whose financial situation got worse said the pandemic has made them appreciate their spouse more, and 60% said it has also deepened their commitment to their marriage.” As the ancient wisdom of Ecclesiastes tells us even today, two are much better than one in the toughest of times. They lift each other up in many unimaginable ways.
This is especially true for marriage. As Wilcox and Stone explain, “One silver lining in an otherwise dark year is that most couples seem to be emerging from the crucible of COVID-19 not with weaker unions but stronger ones — and dreams for a stronger family future in the undoubtedly difficult days ahead.”
Declining divorce rates and stronger marriages are good news indeed and well worth celebrating.