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What to do about divorce’s unromantic statistic?

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50% of marriages end in divorce.

You might see this statistic on the flap of a book about divorce. Or in a Facebook discussion about the fragility of marriage. Or on a flier for an infidelity support group.

That statement is one of the most pervasive statistics of our time. It is bandied about casually without thought or substantiation because, DUH, everybody knows it’s true.

But it’s the type of statement that is true only because everyone says it is.

One problem with the statement is that it treats a 1-day and a 65-year marriage are as if they were the same. Kim Kardashian+Kris Whatshisname are no different from Joanne Woodward+Paul Newman. Such a comparison equates 72 days with 18,072 days, which gives the former the heft to bring down the latter. If n = 2, and the two are Mr & Mrs Kardashian and Mr and & Mrs Newman, then yes, 50% of marriages end in divorce, even though there are eighteen thousand married days difference between them.

Truth or Fiction investigated the claim, reporting that the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics says “the rumor appears to have originated from a misreading of the facts. It was true…if you looked at all the marriages and divorces within a single year, you’d find that there were twice as many marriages as divorces. In 1981, for example, there were 2.4 million marriages and 1.2 million divorces. At first glance, that would seem like a 50-percent divorce rate. Virtually none of those divorces were among the people who had married during that year, however, and the statistic failed to take into account the 54 million marriages that already existed, the majority of which would not see divorce.”

As you’re beginning to see, it’s not a good idea to mix apples and oranges in a statistical blender (though they would make a yummy smoothie in a blender-blender). A wedding or elopement is a discrete event. It starts the marriage process, and divorce ends it. It’s not statistically sound to compare a discrete event to a process that can be of varying lengths. Not if you want to come up with a meaningful number, anyway.

Let me put it this way: 100% of births end in death.

Which is actually true. But do you see how misleading it is to mix the event of a birth and the process of a life? Even when you can come up with a number, it’s meaningless.

So what are the odds of success of a marriage? That’s what people are really trying to get at when they cite the 50% statistic. The New York Times said about a 2001 study that although divorce rates did rise in the 1970s, “The highest rate of divorce…was 41 percent for men who were then between the ages of 50 to 59, and 39 percent for women in the same age group.” It reported that there was a “divorce divide” along the lines of college degrees: “Women without undergraduate degrees have remained at about the same rate, their risk of divorce or separation within the first 10 years of marriage hovering at around 35 percent. But for college graduates, the divorce rate in the first 10 years of marriage has plummeted to just over 16 percent of those married between 1990 and 1994 from 27 percent of those married between 1975 and 1979. ”

Yeah, these statistics are now old — many of you reading this were probably married in the years after 1990-1994.

A more recent article in PsychCentral by Kalman Heller, PhD, has some salient points:

  • the divorce rate in first marriages has been declining since the 1980s to about 30 percent in the early 2000s. Therefore, rather than viewing marriage as a 50-50 shot in the dark it can be viewed as having a 70 percent likelihood of succeeding.
  • For college educated women who marry after age 25 and have established an independent source of income, the divorce rate is only 20 percent.
  • 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.

All of that is much more encouraging — or at least much less discouraging — than the pat 50% statistic.

So to answer the oroginal question, what to do about the unromantic statistic? Debunk it, every chance you get.

More reading:

  • Truth or Fiction: Fifty Percent of American Marriages Are Ending in Divorce — Fiction!
  • Time magazine: Are Marriage Statistics Divorced from Reality?
  • New York Times: Divorce Rate: It’s Not as High as You Think
  • PsychCentral: The Myth of the High Rate of Divorce

Originally appeared on

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Lori blogs from metro-Denver at Her book, The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption: Helping Your Child Grow Up Whole, written with her daughter’s birth mom, will be published by Rowman & Littlefield next month. Lori is celebrating her 18th Valentine’s Day with her husband.

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  • comment avatar Amber Johnson February 5, 2013

    So tweeting this out. Fascinating to find out what’s really going on!!!

    • comment avatar Lori Lavender Luz February 5, 2013

      It’s fun to debunk what “everyone knows — duh”.

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