Divorce Rate Down, But What Does It Mean?

generic divorce wedding marriage court CBS/iStockphoto

By the numbers, divorce just isn't what it used to be.

Despite the common notion that America remains plagued by a divorce epidemic, the national per capita divorce rate has declined steadily since its peak in 1981 and is now at its lowest level since 1970.

Yet Americans aren't necessarily making better choices about their long-term relationships. Even those who study marriage and work to make it more successful can't decide whether the trend is grounds for celebration or cynicism.

Some experts say relationships are as unstable as ever — and divorces are down primarily because more couples live together without marrying. Other researchers have documented what they call "the divorce divide," contending that divorce rates are indeed falling substantively among college-educated couples but not among less-affluent, less-educated couples.

"Families with two earners with good jobs have seen an improvement in their standard of living, which leads to less tension at home and lower probability of divorce," said Andrew Cherlin, a professor of public policy at Johns Hopkins University.

America's divorce rate began climbing in the late 1960s and skyrocketed during the '70s and early '80s, as virtually every state adopted no-fault divorce laws. The rate peaked at 5.3 divorces per 1,000 people in 1981.

But since then it's dropped by one-third, to 3.6. That's the lowest rate since 1970.

What's fueling that decline? According to 20 scholars, marriage-promotion experts and divorce lawyers consulted by The Associated Press, a lot of things.

The number of couples who live together without marrying has increased tenfold since 1960; the marriage rate has dropped by nearly 30 percent in past 25 years; and Americans are waiting about five years longer to marry than they did in 1970.

Adding such factors together, Patrick Fagan of the conservative Heritage Foundation sees a bad situation.

"Cohabitation is very fragile, and when unmarried parents split, for the child it might as well be a divorce," Fagan said. "Among those who are marrying there's increased stability, but overall the children of the nation are getting a rawer and rawer deal from their parents."

Other experts, however, are heartened by what they view as the increased determination of many couples to make marriage work. Among them is Bill Chausee of Child and Family Services of New Hampshire, which offers marriage-strengthening programs in a state where divorces dropped more than 25 percent between 2000 and 2005.

"People don't see marriage problems as some sort of stigma any more," said Chausee. "They're really interested in learning how to stay married; a lot of them are realizing they need more skill."

Some states have made concerted efforts to combat divorce with publicly-funded marriage education campaigns, although their effectiveness remains in question. In Oklahoma, 100,000 people have attended workshops since a marriage initiative began in 2001, but the latest divorce figures showed no drop, and the campaign's backers no longer stress their original goal of cutting divorce by one-third by 2010.

Wayne and Carol Sutton are among the couples who've gone to Oklahoma's marriage workshops; they attended a half-dozen sessions earlier this year in their hometown of Tulsa.

"This was a way to gain some insight," said Wayne Sutton, a longtime petroleum engineer whose wife also works in the energy industry. "They tell you to regenerate the closeness you had when you got married."
  • Sean Alfano

Comments