Is the Divorce Rate Really 50%? Or Is That a Myth?

By Brett Snider, Esq. on December 03, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

At least 50 percent of marriages end in divorce -- or at least, that's what most Americans still think.

But according to data from University of Michigan economist Justin Wolfers, more than half of marriages that began in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s are still going strong. The New York Times' Claire Cain Miller urges the uninformed to realize that divorce rates have been dropping over the last few decades.

Is the 50 percent divorce rate a myth, and even if it is, does it matter for your marriage or divorce?

Half of All Marriages End in Divorce?

Writers and politicians will tell you: Never let the facts get in the way of a good story. And the American legal zeitgeist is full of myths and legends that may have at one time been based in truth but continue to persist despite contradictory facts. Former President Ronald Reagan's "Welfare Queen" continues to inform American perceptions about government assistance, when anyone with a brain can tell you that those on welfare do not pull down six-figure incomes.

Maybe that's the situation with the divorce rate in America. According to the Times, the rate did spike in the late 1970s and early 80s, but they've been on a steady decline ever since. In fact, 70 percent of those married in the 1990s are still going strong (excluding those marriages which ended in death), and 65 percent of those married in the 70s and 80s are still married.

So if the myth doesn't reflect reality, what's changed?

No-Fault and 'Gray' Divorce

Many peg the peak in divorce rates, especially in elderly couples ("gray divorce"), to the change in social attitudes toward divorce and the advent of no-fault divorce. While legal considerations aren't the only pressure keeping unhappy marriages together, allowing couples to divorce without showing "fault" (infidelity, abandonment, cruelty, etc.) has made the prospect of divorce much less daunting.

Yet with no-fault divorce available in all states, the divorce rate appears to be decreasing. The Times posits that marriages later in life, availability of birth control, and the rise in "love marriages" are likely culprits for this trend, which Wolfers' data indicates will mean two-thirds of marriages may never involve divorce.

Even if you're among the statistically shrinking population of divorcing spouses, your divorce doesn't have to be unhappy. But you still might hear someone offer up, "you know, half of all marriages end in divorce."

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