Divorce rates are lower, but so are the number of people getting married

Anyone who has been divorced probably had a well-meaning friend comfort them by saying, “Well, 50 percent of all marriages do end in divorce.” Turns out that hasn’t been true of the divorce rate for years.

“It’s an easy thing to throw around,” says Christine Whelan, director of MORE: Money, Relationships and Equality, and a faculty associate in the School of Human Ecology at University of Wisconsin, Madison, told TODAY. “The divorce statistics are very complicated.”

The New York Times looked closely at those numbers and reported: “Those who married in the 2000s are so far divorcing at even lower rates. If current trends continue, nearly two-thirds of marriages will never involve a divorce, according to data from Justin Wolfers, a University of Michigan economist (who also contributes to The Upshot).”

This means we need to update how we think of marriage. It’s no longer accurate to casually proclaim that 50 percent of marriages end in divorce. 

Whelan says there are many factors contributing to lower divorce rates. People are getting married later in life, which often means they are more financially stable. Birth control reduces the chance of surprise babies. But there is also a diverging trend in marriage, she says.

“It turns into the marriage ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’,” she says. “On the one hand we have educated people who are marrying at [high rates].”

But, on the other hand: “If you are less educated and affluent you are more likely to cohabitate," says Whelan. Not that this means an end to marriage.

“Fewer lower-income folks, I believe, are getting married now than in the past,” she says. Marriage used to be something everyone did regardless of class. Now that living together seems less shocking, some people have less incentive to tie the knot. And some women don’t see the economic advantage to marrying and simply don’t.   

When cohabitating couples break up, which can be just as disruptive as divorce, these numbers don’t make it into the divorce rates.

On the flip side, people with more education are more likely to marry now than ever before and often these marriages last longer.

The Times story also notes another interesting statistic: Women file for the majority of divorces (about two-thirds). Economic independence makes it easier for women to leave a marriage. But there might be another, simpler reason: "Married men are happier than married women,” Whelan says.

While divorce certainly has become more acceptable, Whelan says it is important to remember that doesn’t mean every marriage in the past was successful.

“We say how low the divorce rates were back in the good old days. That does not mean that everyone was happily married and living together. They just didn’t file for divorce,” she says.