You've heard it a million times: Half of marriages end in divorce. But is that even true? Not even close, according to the new book The Good News About Marriage: Debunking Discouraging Myths About Marriage and Divorce by Shaunti Feldhahn, out today. Feldhahn, a social researcher and writer specializing in relationships, has conducted countless studies and surveys for her previous books, but this new title might be the most interesting one yet. In it, she delves into tons of data to get a better look at divorce in our country.
The idea for the book came to be after Feldhahn couldn't locate a simple statistic: What is the actual divorce rate? "I was seeing 50 percent, but I realized it's probably not 50, it's probably 48.2 or something, and I wanted the actual divorce rate," says Feldhahn. When neither Feldhahn nor her assistant could get a straight answer, they called up a marriage expert who's been in the field for years. And the answer they received was that basically, nobody knows. But one thing was certain: when it comes to the percent of marriages that have ended in divorce, it's never gotten close to 50 percent. "I started thinking that if it's never gotten close to 50 percent, that's huge! That would be really encouraging for people to know," says Feldhahn. "So that's when I started looking into it, and this is the result of eight years of investigative research to try to dig out the truth."
The Reality Behind the 50/50 Myth
So if the 50 percent rule is just an urban legend, where did it come from? That number is actually a projection based on previous research that dates back to the 1970s, when no-fault divorce was legalized and suddenly the divorce rate started to skyrocket, Feldhahn says. If the divorce rate continued to climb, it may have reached 50 percent, but it actually hit a peak around 1980 and has slowly started to decline since then. "The divorce rates have continued to fall and it's continued to get better and better," says Feldhahn, "So why are we still projecting the same divorce rate we were in 1980?"
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So what is the actual, current divorce rate? Feldhahn classifies that as the percent of marriages that have ended in divorce, and that's the number that has never gotten anywhere close to 50 percent. According to 2009 data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the average percent of all marriages that have ever ended in divorce is 30.8 percent, says Feldhahn. "But that's all marriagesÃ¢â‚¬”the first, second, third, and tenth marriages. What most people are interested in are first marriages." According to that same data set, on average, 72 percent of people are still married to their first spouse. "And of the 28 percent who are aren't, a big chunk of that could be people who were married for 50 years and their spouses died," says Feldhahn. See why it's so complicated to get an exact number? "So no one knows what the first marriage divorce rate actually is, but we can get a lot closer," says Feldhahn. "We know it's lower than 28 percent, because 28 percent includes death and divorce. Based on the rate of widowhood and a few other factors, you can estimate somewhere around 20 and 25 percent of first marriages have ended in divorce."
That said, there are some groups who are at a higher risk of divorce than others. For instance, the Baby Boomer generation (those aged 50-59) has a 41 percent ever divorced number (on average), says Feldhahn, yet that also includes any remarriages, which tend to have a slightly higher divorce rate. But even among this high-risk group of people, 73 percent of them, on average, are still married to their first spouse, says Feldhahn. That's pretty huge!
The fact is, your rate of divorce is nowhere near 50 percent if you get married tomorrow. Plus, it's decreasing every year. When Feldhahn looked at the crude divorce rate (the number of divorces per 1,000 adults) she found that in 1981, 5.3 people got divorced per 1,000 adults. In 2011, just 3.6 people got divorced out of every 1,000 adults. Basically, the real divorce stats aren't nearly as scary as we think.
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More Marriage MythsÃ¢â‚¬”Busted
Here's another sad stat you've likely heard: Second marriages are even more doomed than first marriages. While it's true that your divorce rate is slightly higher for remarriages, it's not all bad news. According to those 2009 Census Bureau numbers, 65 percent of remarried people, on average, are still married to their second spouse. And again, Feldhahn notes that a good chunk of the 35 percent who are not still married may be due to spouses passing away. That has to be encouraging for all the people second guessing their decision to remarry.
Another myth that Feldhahn was delighted to bust: that many married people aren't all that happy. In fact, studies show that about 80 percent of married people enjoy being husband and wife, says Feldhahn. "The reality that most sociologists have found is that among all of society, people who are the happiest are those who are in long-term, committed marriages."
Of course, this doesn't mean that you can only be happy with a ring on your finger. There are plenty of people who know that marriage just isn't for them. But Feldhahn hopes this research will help alleviate some of the cynicism toward marriage that comes from these long-perpetuated myths. "Right now we have a culture-wide feeling of futility and discouragement about marriage, and I think it's based largely on this conventional wisdom. And a lot of that conventional wisdom just isn't true."
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