Our Most Common Belief About Divorce Is Actually Completely Wrong

July 20th 2017

Almie Rose

You've probably heard the oft-repeated statistic about marriage; that half of them end in divorce.


Well, good news, everyone: this isn't true. The truth is that it's lower — but it's a little more complicated. We'll guide you through it.

The divorce rate dropped to an all-time low in 2016.

"The U.S. divorce rate dropped for the third year in a row, reaching its lowest point in nearly 40 years, according to data released Thursday," Time reported in December 2016. The data, referenced by National Center for Family & Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University, also shows the divorce rate decreased "by 25 percent since 1980."

divorce rate graph

However, this may be because fewer people are getting married than before. Some opt to co-habitate rather than get legally married. And if you were to guess that millennials were the leaders of this change, you'd be right.

So what's the real divorce rate?

That's what researcher Shaunti Feldhahn wanted to know, too. "I was seeing 50 percent, but I realized it's probably not 50, it's probably 48.2 or something, and I wanted the actual divorce rate," she told Women's Health in 2014. This sparked an investigation.

If we know that divorce rates are at the lowest since 1980, then can we attribute the 50/50 stat to sometime before then? Most likely. As Women's Health reported, "that number is actually a projection based on previous research that dates back to the 1970s, when no-fault divorce was legalized and suddenly the divorce rate started to skyrocket, Feldhahn says."

Based on data from a more recent source — the 2009 U.S. Census Bureau — Feldhahn found a new statistic for marriages that end in divorce.

The number of "all marriages that have ever ended in divorce" is actually 30.8 percent.

But that comes with qualifiers, too, as Feldhahn noted: "[T]hat's all marriages — the first, second, third, and tenth marriages. What most people are interested in are first marriages."


The percentage of people who stay married to their first partner? A resounding 72 percent, she reported.

The New York Times reported a similar stat in 2014, in an attempt to bust the 50/50 myth: "About 70 percent of marriages that began in the 1990s reached their 15th anniversary (excluding those in which a spouse died), up from about 65 percent of those that began in the 1970s and 1980s."


Still, researchers are hesitant to put an actual figure on how many marriages end in divorce — but they're confident it's not 50 percent.

"We know it's lower than 28 percent, because 28 percent includes death and divorce. Based on the rate of widowhood and a few other factors, you can estimate somewhere around 20 and 25 percent of first marriages have ended in divorce," Feldhahn told Women's Health.

So should a smarmy friend try to dissuade you from marriage with the 50/50 stat, tell them that was an inappropriate comment and to butt out. And then you can tell them they're wrong.

[H/T Women's Health]