Friday, May 11, 2007

Two Cheers for a Lower Divorce Rate

The divorce rate in the United States is at its lowest point since 1970, when the current divorce boom began with the passage of no-fault laws. The annual rate dropped from 5.1 per 1000 people in the worst year, 1981, to 3.6 last year.

Why only two cheers? The good news is that the marriage success rate is rising among college-educated couples. They really are learning how to hold it together better. Likewise, there has been some revulsion at easy divorce, especially among young people, who are "being the change they wish to see in the world" by staying married.

On the other hand, one reason the divorce rate is down is because the marriage rate is down in the first place. The proportion of couples who just cohabit, even after they have children, has been rising. Many children of the '70s divorces are so afraid of making the same mistake that they don’t marry at all. I predict that the cohabitation rate will start to go down among college educated people as more people learn that cohabiters who marry are more likely to divorce than are couples who don't live together before marriage.

The other not-so-good fact is that the divorce rate has not fallen among the least educated. The growing marriage divide is becoming a class divide. This divide cuts both ways: poor people are more likely to divorce (or have children without marrying), but also people who divorce are more likely to end up poor.

So let's build on the positive. And educate the poor and the cohabiters about what their real odds of happiness are.


Unknown said...

I'm no expert, but from what I have read it sounds like although studies have shown that cohabiting couples have higher divorce rates, nobody has proven that they have higher divorce rates BECAUSE they cohabited. (Correlation does not imply causation, and all that.) It may be that the type of people who consider cohabitation as an option are also just more likely to consider divorce as an option. If that is true, then telling would-be cohabiters not to cohabit doesn't seem like it would go very far towards lowering the divorce rate.

Instead of "educating cohabiters about what their real odds of happiness are" (which sounds awfully smug and judgmental), maybe educating ALL couples about careful partner selection, effective communication, relationship skills, etc. is more in order.

Also in order: looking at happiness rates, not divorce rates, as a measure of marriage success.

If anybody really has convincingly shown that cohabiters have a higher divorce rate specifically because they lived together, I would be interested to know about it.

Anonymous said...

This sounds like sophistry.
Taking your argument no one could really prove anything. If a person ran up and stabbed someone in the heart multiple times would you argue that just because he died just after being stabbed it doesn't follow that the stabber killed him?(Correlation does not imply causation, and all that.)

Gruntled said...

The research that Waite and Gallagher report in The Case for Marriage does include a number of controls to see if the higher cohabiters' divorce rate is due to cohabitation or selection effects of the kind of people who cohabit. They are convinced that the effect comes mostly from the cohabitation. This makes sense to me, because much of the power of marriage comes from the permanent public commitment, which leads married people to invest in the relationship more than cohabiters do.