Why are less people getting a divorce?

Figures lie, and liars figure

Anyway, a tweet caught my eye that showed that the rate of divorce is declining. So I posted it as “good news.” I subsequently caused a small kerfuffle, as a faithful friend told me, on my Facebook wall. I suppose I don’t mind that sort of thing, though. Why post on Facebook if you don’t want people to talk?

In general, people thought it was good news. And I admit my main reason for sharing it was to encourage those of us who are despondent about marriage or discouraged that our friends are divorcing. But the data tells many stories, and perhaps we favor the ones that resonates with our experiences or desires.

In this chart, the divorce rate in the United Kingdom divided by “whether they are attributable to the husband or the wife” shows an interesting pattern:

The same trend is true in the United States, where divorce rates are down to 1968 levels:

The original author of the Tweets argues that men are behaving better in marriage, women are seeing the benefits of long-term marriage more readily, and also, women are selecting “better mates” to be married to because societal pressure doesn’t compel them to be married otherwise.

He argues that there is an ethical change in how we see marriage, rather than finding our so-called “soul mate,” we are more “all-in” in marriage. That sort of assertion is a positive spin on the numbers, but people on my post and in this man’s mentions had a few other thoughts. I thought it was good to bring them further into light lest we celebrate too quickly.

There could be a variety of factors for this trend, not all of them good

My purpose for sharing it, I admit, was to encourage people, especially those who have been impacted by the divorce of their friends and, thus, were disillusioned at the prospect of marriage. We’re at least seeing less people get divorced and apparently more agency for women in choosing their partners. That seems like good news to me.

A published friend, specializing in feminism and Christian sexual trauma, said that some of the spike of divorce happened when “no-fault divorce laws” came in and people could get out of a marriage without proving that there husband was an abuser.

Many people suggested that the result of the decline was the fact that less people were getting married (a favorite columnist of mine, Nick Kristof, of the New York Times, precisely asked that question, in fact)—one can’t get divorced, if one never gets married. In general, that was a common understanding, getting affirmation from another author popular marriage books. But that the divorce rate is down because the marriage rate is down isn’t the full story.

The marriage rate is down, but it seems like people are marrying also when they are older and more affluent, which lends itself to more stable marriages as well. Among, women, you can see the rate is down to about what it was in 1968, which is a positive sign in terms of selectivity. It seems that women got out of marriages that were bad for them when they could, and now couples are entering marriages that are better bets for them and perhaps working harder at them.

It’s hard to surmise, just from the data, that people are more “all-in” than they were before, though. But a therapist on my wall, optimistically suggested that the rise of premarital counseling as normal as well as the normalization of marriage counseling in general. I hope that’s true too, but it’s just a single factor. Another one might be that children of divorced parents may be learning not to repeat the mistakes of their parents (though we would need another set of data to track divorces among children of divorced marriage, which we don’t have here).

Additionally, some suggested that the data may change shortly. According to one source, the divorce rate increased after Trump was elected.

Of course, another factor may be cost of living and the cost of divorce. One friend suggested that the millennials can’t go it alone. Although, on Twitter, a few joked that the trend started with Gen Xers who were too lazy to get divorced (double-downing on that old stereotype). But they may be on to something, the cost of a divorce and a divorce lawyer makes a legal divorce quite expensive, which is why we’re seeing the rate go down. As it turns out that marriage/divorce rate in 1990 was .48 and in 2017 it fell to .42. What does that mean? That the rate of divorces relative to marriage is down. So it’s not just the result of less marriages, there are also relatively less people getting divorced.

Despite marrying and divorcing less, our heartache can’t be tracked on a chart

Some suggested that couples are simply getting separated without filing the paperwork, maybe in order to get back together later, but also because costs are high. We obviously don’t know without doing an extensive survey, and our instincts will be guided by our biases. I make mine plain: I’m looking for hope and looking on the bright side.

But I will say this: I think a significant factor in all of this is the fact that people is both that people who are legally married aren’t getting legally divorced, but also in their less stable twenties, they are partnering with people in situations that are not unlike the marriages of the 70s, 80s, and 90s, but rather are not legally defined.

The spirit of Circle of Hope’s teaching on marriage is that couples who cohabitate might consider themselves married. I think they essentially are in terms of emotional and physical investment. I understand the trepidation behind legally getting married, of course, because of the legal bondage, but also because of the cost and family expectations. I think that we should feel free from those things because, for Christians, both the Bible and our early tradition had none of those ramifications.

We can make a covenant to each other, obviously, without the state sanctioning our marriage. But couples are choosing not to do that either (although I know a few who have, for better or worse). I think there couples are engaging in intimate, long-term relationships (what has been called “serial monogamy”) in their earlier years and settling down later in life. I think that probably explains the stabilization of later marriages later on in their life.

My concern with that theory, is that I’m unsure that relationships are lasting longer, necessarily, they are just being codified legally later. So I’m not sure the net emotional toll or heartache of break-ups is necessarily down. And that’s my dog in the fight; I don’t care much about the institution of marriage, but I do care about love and intimacy happening in healthy containers. My friends go through things that seem like divorces to them but aren’t legally defined, and won’t be found on a study, and so this is hardly a cause for celebration for them. I think we are learning though that care, and seriousness, and intention matter a lot in our relational choices. And does love, grace, and freedom when we do make a misstep. Condemnation and shame for entering into a relationship that turns out painful is not ideal for us either. Relationships, and even marriages, sometimes do need to come to an end; coming down too fundamentalistically on that point has proven to be damaging—keeping people in abusive marriages, in particular.

Take heart, with or without stats, you have what it takes

But I think when we see these statistics, when we see our friends get divorced, we might think we don’t have what it takes for a long-term commitment. But I think you do. You shouldn’t get married because you think you have to or are pressured to. Be intentional and serious, but also don’t overanalyze your motives. We will also have various motives for the things we do, some good and some not as good. That’s normal too. As I told my friend, “The answer to a healthy marriage isn’t necessarily your reasoning before you get into it, but your commitment and seriousness throughout it. People sometimes have buyers’ remorse, leave their partner, and decide they never loved them. It’s easy to revise your emotions and motives at the outset of your marriage in the middle of your strife, or allow your anxiety to inform them.” My friend added, “Things happen in marriages that we never expect or anticipate. We handle those things poorly, or our partner does. Forgiveness, intention, love, doing your own work, allowing the person to be who they are. All of that influences an ability to be married. It has to be flexible.”

My main encouragement to you is that that you can have a meaningful, long-lasting relationship. People are, evidently. I think the above statistics are a move in a positive direction, though there are varying reasons for why we might have them, as I outlined above. The sum of that reasoning resulting in less divorces seems like a good thing, in my opinion. That might just be the result of my general optimism, but I think the future bright. Take your time, discern well in community, commit yourself to truth and love, not rigid rules and expectations, and not fear, but trust in God and in other another.

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