Why People Think the Divorce Rate Is Soaring Even Though It’s Going Down

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Half of all marriages end in divorce” is one of those folk statistics that everyone has heard by now — it’s batted around so frequently that it’s easy to accept it as true. But as a very interesting article on the New York Times’ Upshot blog explains, we’re in the midst of a decades-long trend of American marriages becoming less susceptible to divorce.

The divorce rate peaked in the 1970s and early 1980s and has been declining for the three decades since,” writes Claire Cain Miller. Those who got married in the 1990s had a greater chance of getting to their 15th wedding anniversary (think of it as a relationship life expectancy) than did those married in the 1970s and 1980s, and while the jury is still out on those who were married in the 2000s, they appear poised to have an even lower divorce rate.

Now, there’s a class element here — among couples with less education (who tend to be poorer), the rates are similar to what they were decades ago. Overall, though, it’s mostly good news on the marriage front. But, as Miller points out, that hasn’t quieted the kvetching: “Even though social scientists have tried to debunk those myths, somehow the conventional wisdom has held.” That is, people still point to a “soaring” or “sky-high” divorce rate that, well, isn’t.

It isn’t hard to see why. There’s a weird appeal to the idea that society is falling apart, especially among people who are convinced that things were better back in the old days, and/or that some sort of cultural rot has taken hold. Everyone has a relative (or is the relative) who is convinced that the country is more dangerous than ever, that crime rates are soaring in the cities. They aren’t — in fact, violent crime is down — but that’s not going to stop people bemoaning the perils of modern city life.

Divorce is just another version of this. If you’ve got some beef with modern life or culture, the idea that half of all marriages end in divorce is a wonderful Exhibit A — and one that’s going to be mighty resistant to debunking.

No, the Divorce Rate Isn’t Soaring