New Study: Divorce Declining, Marriage Increasing — Does It Mean What We Think It Does?

Two new studies show positive changes in marriage and divorce trends in the U.S.

By Nancy Flory Published on November 20, 2016

A new study says that divorce rates in the U.S. have plunged to a 40-year low, reaching 16.9 divorces per 1,000 married women last year. The National Center for Family & Marriage Research released the study earlier this week, which showed that the divorce rate has been steadily declining since 2012, when it was about 20 divorces per 1,000 married women.

In a separate but related study, marriage rates have seen a slight increase over last year at 32.3 marriages per 1,000 unmarried women as compared to the previous year’s 31.9. Marriage rates overall are still at a 45-year low, the study reported, as 1970 saw 76.5 marriages per 1,000 unmarried women. But the good news is that marriage rates have remained steady since 2010. “The decline has stopped,” said Dr. Wendy Manning, co-director of the National Center for Family & Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University.

It sounds as if the younger generation is taking longer to get married, then staying married when they do. Some research supports this theory.

An examination of the data reveals that while divorce rates have dropped to 16.9 per 1,000 married women, they only peaked at 22.8 per 1,000 married women in 1980 (a decrease of 26 percent). On the other hand, while marriage rates increased slightly to 32.3 marriages per 1,000 unmarried women, 61.4 marriages per 1,000 unmarried women took place in 1980 (a decrease of 47 percent). So, effectively half as many women are marrying but we’ve only seen a 25 percent reduction in divorces compared to 1980.

Since there were twice as many marriages in 1980, and only 25 percent more divorces, approximately 63 percent of couples stayed married. On the other hand, based on this research, almost half of all couples this year will eventually divorce, which we know to be a statistically sound number.

It sounds as if the younger generation is taking longer to get married, then staying married when they do. Some research supports this theory. A 2014 Gallup poll revealed that Millennials, unlike previous generations, wait longer to marry, if they marry at all. The research showed that only 27 percent of Millennials were married as compared to 36 percent of Gen Xers, 48 percent of baby boomers and 65 percent of traditionalists at the same age. Fifty-nine percent of Millennials have never married and 9 percent are in a domestic relationship.

Another NCFMR study, titled Age Variation in the Divorce Rate, 1990-2012, found that while divorce rates have remained relatively stable over the past 20 years, there has been considerable variation by age group. The divorce rate among those aged 55-64 more than doubled, while the divorce rate for those older than 65 actually tripled. Conversely, the divorce rate for those under age 35 has decreased by 32 percent over the past 20 years. So Millennials are waiting to marry and are divorcing at lower rates. 

Of note is that, while the Millennials are putting off marriage or not marrying at all, they are not putting off having children, according to the study. Almost half of unmarried Millennials in their 30s have children. This — along with Millennials’ marriage habits — is because, according to Gallup, the Millennials make up “a generation that is beginning to rethink and reconstruct social norms to better fit its wants and needs, throwing off convention when it no longer serves a compelling purpose.”

Perhaps. Or perhaps they’ve learned from watching older generations making mistakes and don’t want to repeat the cycle. Maybe they’ve discovered the value of marriage as a sacred institution to be valued and kept. Myra Fleischer, a family law attorney, said Millennials learned their lesson well from watching their parents — Baby Boomers — marry young and divorce:

The marriage rate may be at an all time low, but it is for all the right reasons. Millennials still believe in marriage; they just don’t believe it is right for them yet. Divorce rates are also at an all-time low as a result. Instead, Millennials are getting their act together, pursuing college degrees in record numbers and holding off marriage for their diplomas, careers and a solid future. We will find out whether it includes marriage in another decade. I believe it will.

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