July 28, 2008

Is Marriage Under Siege?

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

You know it’s summer when celebrity divorces become the biggest news stories of the day…they are easy to digest, gossip about, and there is always at least one happening at any given time. You can probably name at least two couples who have been in the news lately. Are they symbolic of the declining state of marriage?

In 1996, Congress overwhelmingly passed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). From the name of the legislation, it sounds like it might support marriage counseling, provide encouragement for staying together, or even make it harder for couples to divorce. Instead, this bill ensures that no state need recognize same-sex marriage, not exactly something that will “save” individual marriages. But its name, and those of many laws passed by states in recent years with similar intent, suggests that marriage needs defending.

The idea of “marriage in decline” has become a cliché. Let’s see what the data tell us about marriage in the United States, past and present.

divorces and divorce rates 

As you can see from the data collected by Administration of Children and Families, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), divorce rates jumped significantly between 1960 and 1980. Also notice that divorce rates spiked in the 1940s before falling after 1945. What’s likely behind these changes?

The obvious answer to the 1940s increase is World War II—separation, coupled with women’s increased participation in the labor force meant that more couples were no longer financially interdependent. Women’s earnings gave them greater ability to financially survive outside of marriage. Prior to the 1940s, it was common for couples to live separately but not divorce due to the costs going to court (there was no such thing as no-fault divorce yet) and have a judge grant the divorce. 

California became the first state to offer no-fault divorce in 1970, and other states followed suit. This meant that couples did not need to sue the other for divorce or prove any reason to a judge; if one spouse wanted out, that was enough. And clearly many did; rates tripled between 1960 and 1980, peaking in 1979 with nearly 23 divorces per thousand married women.

According to the U.S. Census, 5.3 per thousand Americans eighteen and over were divorced in 1979, roughly double the 1950 rate. But since that time, the rate has been declining: to 4.7 per thousand in 1990, 4.1 per thousand in 2000, and 3.6 per thousand in 2005, a rate similar to early 1970s levels.

Let’s also be clear on another point: the lack of divorce does not mean that a marriage was happy or even functional. My grandmother once told me a story of a friend of hers from early adulthood. The woman was married to a man who threatened to break her hands if she ever touched his money, which he kept in a box in their home. Apparently this was just one example of his cruelty and controlling personality, and she tried to obtain a divorce. But the judge ruled that this did not meet the legal definition of cruelty since she had no evidence he actually had struck her. So many marriages that ended by death instead of divorce were not necessarily success stories.

There are also several important predictors of divorce. The Department of Health and Human Services issued a comprehensive report in 2002 that examines who is more likely to get married and divorced. 

One key factor is age. Teens who marry are most likely to divorce within ten years (48 percent of those who marry before eighteen, and 40 percent of those who marry at eighteen or nineteen divorce) compared with 29 percent of those 20 to 24 and just 24 percent of those who marry after the age of 25. If couples grew up with parents who remained married, the likelihood of divorce is also lower (29 percent versus 43 percent). Also, the timing of children matters. Couples clip_image005who have a child before they are married or within seven months of marriage are less likely to remain married after ten years than those who have children at least seven months after their wedding. 

One of the report’s findings is that race is also a significant factor. As the graph on the left details, African Americans are the most likely to divorce, and Asian Americans are the least likely to divorce after fifteen years. 

It’s hard to know exactly why this is the case, but it might have something to do with the fact that on average, Asian Americans have higher incomes and perhaps less money-related stress than other groups. While the graph below excludes Asian Americans, we can see that income level is related to divorce, and divorce levels are particularly high for African Americans. 


These racial disparities are very visible if we look at long-term trends, where African Americans were much more likely to experience divorce within ten years than whites.

So why the major disparity between African Americans and other groups? The authors of the report draw a very important conclusion—it is likely not race alone that matters. They note that “these differences may be related to higher rates of unemployment, incarceration, and mortality among the black population, their lower levels of educational attainment and earnings.” In other words, marriage may not bring 


economic stability to many African American women. 

This finding suggests that the federal government’s Healthy Marriage Initiative might be missing some of the key reasons marriages end. It’s not that people don’t value marriage, but the factors that contribute to stable family life are harder to come by in persistently poor communities. The biggest threat to marriage is probably unemployment or underemployment, experiences felt disproportionately by African Americans.

The prevalence of celebrity divorces may make it seem like every marriage is at risk for divorce, that marriage is just a fifty-fifty crapshoot. But as a 2005 New York Times article detailed, the percentage of marriages that end in divorce is actually lower than we have been told. The fifty percent divorce rate is based on a faulty calculation: there are about twice as many marriages in the U.S. as divorces each year, and that number was misinterpreted to mean that half of all marriages end in divorce. Most people don’t divorce in the same year as their marriage though. It’s like comparing births to deaths in any given year and presuming those that die are the same ones just born. The reality is, as usual, far more complex than we are often led to believe.


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I found this article very appeasing.To find out about the divorce rates during the countries timeline really amazed me, specially when it brokedown the stats on the different races and how income, and the community can affect marriage,this article had very amazing facts to me and explainded a lot about the reason most marriages fail.

Family life is very complex. There are many factors that come into play that help make a happy family. The divorce rate is high. It is true that those whom do not divorce does not mean that they are happy or functional. Many families live in fear of abuse or even death. There many factors that much come into play to truely find the cause of divorce. Race very easily is a factor. Inner city marriages would be tough. From the lack of opportunities to a feeling of looking out for ones own well being. This article did a great job of explaining and supplying facts about divorce in todays society.

Great post! (and a great blog) I found it particularly useful where you stated ' the lack of divorce does not mean that a marriage was happy or even functional' and fully agree.

My experience, and I think it's fair to say the experience of the majority of my How To Get Your Ex Back blog readers, points to two aggravating factors confusing divorce trends...

1) The 24/7 fracture working schedules of both partners adding further stains on the marriage.

2) Many couples in less than satisfactory marriages remained trapped in them for financial reasons

3) And, sadly, instead of taking advantage of the supportive communities, advice and other resources that can be found on many good relationship blogs and websites, many troubled partners simply remain inactive and hope the problem sorts itself out.

It won't of course and the end result is divorce rates drop or remain stable but dysfunctional marriages increase.

Sociology and marriage counselling go hand in hand. I am still looking for research about how the current economical situation affects marriage in a broader sense. The amount of people seeking counseling because of financial problems are increasing .

Marriage is taking the heat while gender roles are reassigned. As we change our ideas on leadership, power, and a woman's role in society, something must suffer. Marriage is the unlucky target. It is really disappointing that the divorce rate is high and that families are tearing apart.

When I first heard the claim that for every two couples, one will get divorced, I was somewhat worried. Seeing that I come from a divorced family myself, I understand that the chances of keeping a lasting marriage is lower. Though from my current sociology course, I've learned that high divorce rates may suggest something positive. As more women become financially independent, they are more likely to leave unhealthy marriages, or abusive husbands. Also, less women are pressured to keep a marriage going if they don't want to, and many less are being blamed for the divorce. This may also account for high divorce rates. Finally, I learned from my course that the quality and nature of a relationship can determine it's stability. When these aspects are out of balance, it is likely that a marriage will not survive.

The trouble with people nowadays is they are too quick to turn to divorce when there is trouble. Financial or whatever people fell in love and when you marry it really is for better and for worse.

There are so many divorces these days for several reasons. The first being that people are not waiting long enough to get married. When you marry someone right out of high school your chance of divorce is much higher than someone who waits until they are 30. Also you must respect your partner and sadly, I believe people just get married to be married; not because they are truly in love.

It's interesting how the rate of divorce has changed over the years. I think that a lot of it has to do with the courts making it so easy to get a divorce. It wouldn't surprise me if most marriages were saved through counseling, because it seems like there's a large portion of divorce that is caused by one partner giving up, even if the other wants to try to mend things.

I found this article very interesting. I never knew that African Americans were the most likely candidate of divorce while Asian Americans are the least likely. Also, I liked the way you discussed how divorce rates have changed over the course of our country and why that is so. For example, you discussed how divorce rates increased during World War II because of separation and being able to be financially independent.

I found this to be a interesting article. To see how our country has changed in divorce rates over the years and all the different reasons why its really interesting. How strict the laws used to be to get a divorce is really what got me. To have someone threaten you and for you not to be let out of the marriage is really horrible.

This article showed me the different reasons that may cuase divorce that I didn't know before. For example how unemployment is a huge stress factor on marriage and how the differnt ages that you marry at may effect how long you are married. This also gives me hope for marriages. I feel that the family life that once was sacred will still be kept alive through the changing values of America.

"The lack of divorce does not mean that a marriage was happy or even functional." This sticks out to me because you are most definitely right. Teens, for example, who marry at a young age don't know exactly what they're getting into, so they are rushing into marriage and cohabitation. However, once cohabitation begins, so might abuse. While teens may struggle to get out of such a situation, it is still true that their marriage was never happy or functional.

It’s helpful to view a marriage as a system – where there’s a certain homeostasis or balance occurring between the two elements of the system. The two parts can’t help but impact and interrelate with each other.

This article was quite interesting. Everything was very well stated. It showed me many different reasons people got divorced rather than just being unhappy. Comparing races was something I'd never thought about either. I also feel as if today, divorce rates have spiked once again. I will have to check it out, great article!

There is no real reason to believe that same-sex marriage will cause a decline in the integrity of marriage. It will not be a counterattack to divorce rates and is therefore irrelevant to the integrity of marriage. Same-sex marriages, or as I like to call them, marriages, are no different in the eyes of today's ignoramuses than were interracial marriages back in the day.

A friend of mine mentioned about marriage counseling. Those who are planning to divorce should not do decide instantly as if they were married in an instant moment as well. It takes time to decide.

Divorce is up today. In other traditional countries many married couples wish that divorce be approved. Others specially the church don't want this. But for me, I go for divorce bill. How about for battered wives? They deserve to be free also and live life according to what they deserve.

I go for divorce bill, couples who are not anymore happy with each other can no longer stay together forever. So why not let them set free, I think their children will understand the situation if it is well explain to them.

This post is very revealing. I mean, it really states the fact about marriage. Somehow, it is destructive but I think people must be aware of what's happening in most marriage now.

How does summer affect the marriage of the many couples in the showbiz industry? Maybe we are just too judgmental towards them.

hi here you looking good

Hey Karen Sternheimer,
People resort to divorce real quick rather than working on the issues, if the issue can be sorted with discussions. People should go for it and thus workout the issues . This way the cases can be reduced further. The Matrimonial lawyers can help the clients.
I just the love the way you stated the facts and thus gave better insights .

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