Half of All Marriages Do NOT End In Divorce

IMG_9474Recently I heard it again, “Half of all marriages end in divorce.”

I wanted to take my laptop and hurl it through a window. It’s hard to be sure what the divorce rate in America is, but it’s not 50%.

Here’s how the misleading notion came about: one year someone noticed that there had been 1,200,000 divorces and 2,400,000 marriages. Not thinking clearly, this person concluded that 50% of all marriages end in divorce. And not thinking clearly, our whole culture agreed.

The error is hard to see, so perhaps an example will help. Imagine that there were 100,000 births and 50,000 deaths in one year. Would you conclude that half of all people die?

Clearly not. And that highlights the problem: although it seems like you’re comparing apples and apples, you’re really comparing apples and apple wedges. The real question is: if 10,000 people get married in 2010, how many will remain married until parted by death? And the answer is: we won’t know until 5,000 people are dead.

For a better perspective on this, see the 2005 NY Times article Divorce Rate: It’s Not As High As You Think. For a contrary view, see the normally reliable Straight Dope which maintains that the 50% figure is reasonable.

I’ll give you a thought experiment just to mess with your mind: suppose I pull in $10,000 a month and that my expenses are $5,000 a month. Half of all my income ends up divorced from my wallet. Am I in good financial shape or bad financial shape? Why is your reaction to this story different than your reaction to a story claiming there are 100,000 marriages in a month and 50,000 divorces in a month? And why do we prefer to say that half of all marriages end in divorce rather than observing that twice as many people are getting married as are getting divorced?

Anyway, that’s what I have to say about that. I have little doubt that American marriages are facing great pressure and that for a number of reasons the divorce rate is disturbingly high — but it’s not 50%.

2 thoughts on “Half of All Marriages Do NOT End In Divorce”

  1. My question is what percentage of married people actually get divorced, aka what is an individual’s chance of getting divorced when adjusted for outliers who get divorced multiple times? Are we calculating the divorce rates of all marriages all in the same batch, even though second marriages perform statistically worse than first marriages?

  2. Yet another confounding variable.

    And you are correct, the stats that people ususally use do not take that into account.

    Using that as the inspiration for another thought experiment, I can envision a stable solution where nearly everyone in society is happily and stably married and yet 50% of all marriages end in divorce. Everyone simply divorces their first spouse and then remarries and stays in that marriage.

    Knowing in that scenario that 50% of all marriages have ended in divorce tells you practically nothing about the true state of marriage in that culture.

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