Are Divorce Statistics All Wrong?

It is a common belief, in today’s society, that half of all marriages end in divorce.  Lately, however, this statistic has come under fire.  Where does this widely publicized 50% divorce rate come from?  Is it really accurate?  Jennifer Baker, director of the Marriage and Family Therapy programs at Forest Institute, says “It’s a very murky statistic.” Two major complications that may result in misleading divorce rates are:

  • not all states collect marital data; and
  • the methods and sources used for gathering the raw data vary widely.

Both of these issues have the potential to drastically impact the numbers, therefore producing an inaccurate divorce rate.

Tara Parker-Pope, a New York Times reporter and author of For Better, sets out to debunk the 50% divorce statistic.  One statistical problem, pointed out by Ms. Parker-Pope, is that the “divorce count” is often based on the total population (per capita) as the base number.  However, this completely distorts the divorce rate since the number of married people is not the same as the total population (it is, of course, less since many people are simply not married nor have they ever been married).   Sadly, too, Parker-Pope argues that “all the talk about grim marriage stats becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy” (quote from the Times Magazine article “Are Marriage Statistics Divorced from Reality” (5/24/10)) and, when everyone else is doing it (or, at least, it appears that everyone else is doing it based on the statistics provided) it seems like a normal life passage, when it is actually a very, very big deal and not, according to many people, “normal” at all.

Because of the often inaccurate and misleading divorce statistics provided by various government and private entities, some divorce professionals advocate for researchers to try to identify trends, versus trying to pinpoint actual percentages. Just as the traditional views of marriage and relationships are continually shifting, due to changes in society, culture, and economics, discernable trends in marriage, cohabitation, families, and divorce may very well be a closer depiction of reality than the 50% divorce statistic.

divorce-statsFor example, many young people today do not find marriage to be the prerequisite to having a family as did proceeding generations. How is it, one can wonder, that the divorce statistic stay at the same, steady 50%, when so many people are opting out of marriage altogether?  Further, Ms. Parker-Pope, upon scholarly observation trends in American family life, believes that “marital stability appears to be improving each decade.” (quote from the Times Magazine interview of Tara Parker-Pope “Are Marriage Statistics Divorced from Reality” (5/24/10)) Instead, she believes that “the 50% stat is a myth that persists because it’s something of a political Swiss Army knife, handy for any number of agendas.” (quote from the Times Magazine article “Are Marriage Statistics Divorced from Reality” (5/24/10))

Posted by Shelly Barry, Mediation Intern (George Mason University, Spring 2012)

This blog and its materials have been prepared by Graine Mediation for informational purposes only and are not intended to be, are not, and should not be regarded as, legal advice.  This information is not intended to create, and receipt of it does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship.  Internet subscribers and online readers should not act upon this information without seeking professional counsel.


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