The question:

>I'm wondering if you, or anyone, has data about our current overall divorce rate today? There seems to be conflicting data -- from 30 -50%, and different surveys vary, e.g. that recent survey in MN which shows a low rate. Do you know what the overall national rate is, and what the source is? Thanks very much. Douglas LaBier (I'm a subscriber to the e-mail newsletter -- it's very informative!)

The Answers:

From: Scott Stanley, University of Denver (author: The Heart of Commitment)

1) As recently as 1992, the U.S. Bureau of Census completed a sophisticated analysis and concluded:

". . . if one assumes a continuation of recent divorce trends, about 4 out of 10 first marriages to the youngest cohort may eventually end in divorce. Alternatively, if one assumes a return to the pattern of divorce during the 1975 to 1980 period, 5 out of 10 first marriages may eventually end in divorce (Current Population Reports, P23-180, 1992, p. 5), ."

So, the 40-50% number is a projection for younger folks marrying for the first time. As comes across in this piece, conditions in society could change to affect this either way. In fact, Andrew Cherlin, one of the prominent scientists in this area, believes that these kinds of projections are very valid, but also suggests that it is particularly hard to confidently predict the future in times of great social change.

2). So, what is the divorce rate? Consider the following statements:

+ Approximately 31% of your friends and co-workers, aged 35 to 54, who are married, engaged, or cohabitating have already been previously divorced.

+ If your parents have been married many years (let's say 35+ years) and have never been divorced, the likelihood of their marriage ending in divorce is nil.

+ The rate of divorces per year per 1000 people in the U.S. has been declining since 1981.

+ A young couple marrying for the first time today has a lifetime divorce risk of 40%, unless current trends change significantly.

Each of these statements is true and defensible. They each tell you something different about divorce. On the positive side, the rate has been slowing declining. On the negative side, a young couple really does have a very high chance of not making it.

3) William Mattox, who writes for USA TODAY, has raised an excellent concern about the ways such numbers can be misunderstood. Do couples really understand that the 40-50% number is only a projection that is not written in stone? Does this projection leave couples demoralized, feeling that most couples are doomed to fail anyway? Or does it give rise to motivation to take marriage more seriously? We really do not know the answer to this question. Mattox's point is very important: couples need to know that they do not have to live out the prevailing societal trends. There's nothing wrong with the 40-50% projection, it's just that couples don't necessarily have to stand by and let it come to pass.

4) New data shows that first-born kids are now less likely to be born to a married person than an out-of-wedlock person. __________________

From Paul Amato/author Generation At Risk

Diane,

This is a response to your question about divorce rates. There are several different ways to measure the "divorce rate." A common method is to consider the number of divorces in a given year per 1,000 married couples in that year. Currently, the rate is about 20. This rate hasn't changed much since 1980, when it peaked around 22. (The Statistical Abstract of the United States, available in most libraries, has information of this sort.)

What most people want to know, however, is the percentage of marriages that will end in divorce. Unfortunately, this is a difficult statistic to calculate, and it depends on certain assumptions. Some demographers estimate that about 40% of recent first marriages will end in divorce. Other demographers put the figure higher, at around 60%. Most researchers appear to have settled for a figure of about 50%. So, we estimate that about half of all first marriages end these days, and this situation has changed little since the early 1980s. Keep in mind that divorce rates vary from state to state and from region to region. Also, the likelihood of divorce is higher in second or higher-order marriages. I hope this information is useful.

Dr. Paul Amato Department of Sociology University of Nebraska-Lincoln ________________________________