Divorce Rate Myths & More: 5 Key Findings From the Statistics

Statistics about divorce in the U.S. can be confusing if not contradictory, but you can begin to make sense of them here.

By , Legal Editor
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You might run across some divorce statistics that seem worrying, hopeful, or just plain confusing. That could be because the numbers often tell contradictory or incomplete stories about the current state of marriage and divorce.

To make sense of this baffling picture, we pored over government reports, research studies, and expert analysis of the data (all listed below). Here are the highlights of what we learned about the rates and consequences of divorce. (See our separate article for what we learned about the most common reasons people get divorced.)

1. Divorce Rates Are Not Plummeting

Spend any time looking at divorce statistics online, and you're likely to read that divorce rates have been falling every year since a peak in the early 1980s. But the real picture is more complicated than that.

Fewer Couples Are Getting Married in the First Place

Data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that the proportion of adults who are married is at an all-time low. Fewer marriages mean fewer divorces—not necessarily that fewer marriages are ending in divorce.

Divorce Rates for Older Couples Are Still Climbing

In a trend known as "gray divorce," the divorce rates for people over age 50 have roughly doubled since the 1990s, according to several studies based on Census Bureau data. And at least one study found a similar increase for couples over 35—but steady or decreasing rates of divorce for younger couples.

Divorce Rates Are Affected by Age at Marriage, Education, and Class

One reason for lower divorce rates among younger couples is that people are waiting longer to get married than they used to do. (The median, or midpoint, age at which people marry for the first time has gone up seven years in the past 50 years.) And research consistently shows that delaying your first marriage lowers your risk of divorce.

Education levels also affect the likelihood of divorce: Divorce rates are lowest among college graduates and highest for those who didn't finish high school.

Finally, poor and working-class adults are both more likely to have experienced divorce and less likely to get married than those in the middle and upper classes

All of this points to a widening (and worrying) divide between people with the resources to get a degree and raise their earnings before they marry—which leads to longer marriages—and people who can't afford those options.

Regional Differences in Divorce Rates Mostly Track Marriage Trends

States across the U.S. have different rates of divorce, but those variations generally follow the observation that fewer marriages and delayed marriage lead to fewer divorces. Based on population, divorce rates in the Northeast, Upper Midwest, and California tend to be lower than the national rate. At the same time, those states also tend to have lower marriage rates and a higher median age at first marriage.

Of the five states with the most divorces per person in 2019, four (Missouri, Oklahoma, Nevada, and Kentucky) had higher-than-average marriage rates. Arkansas—with the highest divorce rate in the country—had a marriage rate close to the national level, but it ranked near the bottom of the states in terms of the median age at first marriage.

2. The Kids Might Be All Right

If you have children and are wondering whether to put an end to a troubled marriage, one of your biggest worries is likely to be whether—and how much and for how long—a divorce will hurt the kids. Unfortunately, this is an area where it's especially hard to find solid answers based on reliable statistics.

For one thing, it's difficult (and expensive) to carry out longitudinal studies in which researchers follow the same families for years to see how children adjust after their parents get divorced. Instead, most studies simply compare the children of recently divorced couples with kids from intact families. But that's like comparing apples and oranges.

Divorced couples are more likely to have experienced high levels of conflict and stress when they were still married, and that conflict and stress would have affected their children long before the breakup. So it's not surprising that much of the older research shows higher rates of academic, emotional, and behavioral problems among children of divorce, with too little attention paid to the negative effects of troubled marriages on kids.

Also, some of kids' post-divorce trauma could be due to events around the divorce—like moving, changing schools, or new financial constraints—rather than the divorce itself.

Most parents who've been through a divorce will confirm that it can be stressful on the entire family, especially in the short term. But some research has picked away at the doomsday portrayal of the effect of divorce on children. Among the insights from these studies:

  • Time to heal. While the run-up to divorce and its immediate aftermath can be traumatic, most children seem to adjust well within two years after their parents get divorced.
  • High vs. low conflict. Several studies have shown that children from high-conflict families actually do better after divorce than before. And while children from low-conflict marriages tend to be more negatively affected in the immediate aftermath of divorce, that pattern could, at least partly, be a result of the surprise factor if their parents haven't prepared them for the change.
  • Co-parenting time. Children tend to adjust better to divorce when they continue to have close relationships with noncustodial parents. That doesn't simply mean weekly pizza nights. It means time with normal parent-child interactions like helping with homework, assigning chores, and talking over problems.
  • Resilience. Some studies point to the special strengths shown by children living in single-parent households, such as self-reliance, self-confidence, and maturity.

3. How You Approach Divorce Matters

Statistics on the consequences of divorce often miss one important principle: The way you approach divorce—with cooperation and compromise or with legal fights over every detail—can make a big difference in how it affects both you and your children.

Reaching a Settlement Agreement Reduces Dissatisfaction With Divorce

Bitter, contested divorces not only lead to higher divorce costs, but they make it more likely that recently divorced people will be left frustrated and unhappy about the process. For example, in a survey we conducted of people who had recently ended a marriage, over 60% of those who went to trial were dissatisfied with the outcome of their divorce cases. On the flip side, just under 40% of the couples who resolved their disputes through a settlement agreement were dissatisfied.

The Effect of Mediation on Parents and Children

Many couples turn to divorce mediation for help reaching a settlement. Research has shown that those who went to mediation to resolve child custody issues were more likely to believe that their parenting arrangements were fair and would be good for the whole family, compared to those who had a litigated divorce (meaning they fought out those issues through the traditional legal process for a contested divorce).

And a study that followed up with families for 12 years after divorce found that when couples used mediation for custody disputes, the "nonresident" parents (who didn't live with their children) had more contact with their kids than nonresident parents who had litigated custody issues. In fact, compared to the litigating group, the nonresident parents who had used mediation were:

  • more than three times as likely to see their children weekly (28% versus 9%), and
  • more than four times as likely to speak with their kids every week (59% versus 14%).

The nonresident parents who used mediation were also less likely to skip out on paying child support and, as reported by the resident parents, were more involved in co-parenting activities like discipline, talking about problems, and attending school functions.

4. Divorce Effects on Men vs. Women Are Mixed

Conventional wisdom is that men suffer more from divorce in terms of their health and emotional well-being, while women suffer more economically. Data from the Census Bureau and multiple studies do show that women experience greater financial losses after divorce than men; the post-divorce drop in their standard of living or household income is about twice that of men's. Given the persistent wage gap between men and women, this isn't terribly surprising.

However, the results are inconsistent when it comes to gender differences in the other consequences of divorce, and some studies suggest that the longer-term health and psychological effects of divorce are pretty much the same for men and women.

5. It Gets Better

As the number of divorces in the U.S. spiked in the 1970s, the stigma around ending a marriage started to fall. Still, the subtle persistence of that stigma shows up in studies appearing to prove that people are unhappier after they get divorced. Here again, many of these studies don't follow the same people at regular intervals over time.

But one large study, based on detailed annual surveys of psychological well-being, showed that people were better off two years after divorce than they were two years before their marriage ended. (The study measured specifics on sleep, concentration, decision-making, confidence, and happiness). For those who were stressed and unhappy as their marriages were falling apart, getting divorce apparently "worked"—at least in terms of improving their psychological well-being.

Divorce Statistics and You

Of course, the decision whether to get divorced or to stay in your marriage is deeply personal, and it depends on your unique circumstances. In other words, statistics showing general trends of other people's experiences can tell you only so much when it comes to deciding what you think will be best for you. Still, we hope that the information we've gathered here can help frame some of the issues you might be thinking about as you consider the future of your family.

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