Good News and Bad News in Marriage and Divorce Statistics

The subject of marriage is on many minds lately, not the least of which are journalists and the POTUS. I love nothing more than to sit in front of pages of population estimates by state or country, over time, and discern the stories in the numbers. Since you the reader probably aren’t likely in a position to be—or worse, have no interest in—indulging such an interest, I’ll save you the work and report some interesting factoids here. No politics from this quarter today, just numbers. Here are a few things I learned:

First, the sheer number of new marriages (i.e., weddings) has generally been decreasing, even while the population of the US continues to increase. For example, in the year 2000 there were 2.32 million new marriages in a population of 281 million persons. In 2010, however, there were 2.1 million new marriages, despite a growing population of 309 million persons.

Ergo, marriage is in retreat (and more so among the poor and working class, as data noted below will suggest), a slight uptick in 2010 notwithstanding.

Second, there has been change in the marriage-to-divorce ratio nationally. This is the statistic that most people (incorrectly) use when they state that “half of all marriages end in divorce.” The ratio has commonly hovered around 2-to-1 since no-fault divorce became a reality. (Before that, it was about 4-to-1 from 1950 to just before 1970.) In other words, this means for every two new marriages recorded in a given year, there is one divorce.

But that ratio has exhibited some change recently. In 2010, the ratio stood at 1.89-to-1, compared to 2.05-to-1 in 2000. Not a radical shift, but a notable one. The action is largely on the marriage side of the equation: the marriage rate has dropped 17 percent in 10 years, while the divorce rate has dropped 10 percent. The two tend to rise and fall together, but clearly not tightly so. People are being more selective about marrying, likely, and as a result there are fewer divorces.

Third, some states exhibit dramatically different stories here. The marriage rate in Mississippi has dropped 48 percent in 20 years (from 1990 to 2010), while their divorce rate has dropped 22 percent. Their ratio of new marriages to divorce is now 1.14-to-1, meaning that if you were going to go ahead and misinterpret that statistic the old-fashioned way, you’d say something like 88 percent of all marriages in Mississippi will end in divorce. Of course we don’t know the future, and any given year’s new marriages aren’t often also reflected as divorces that year—Hollywood goofballs notwithstanding—but the ratio tells us that there are nearly
as many divorces in Mississippi now as there are marriages. Not good.

So which state has the best ratio? Which means (to me at least) the most marriages relative to divorces…the blessed state of my birth: Iowa, where 2.9 new marriages were registered in 2010 for every one divorce. Sociologist Maria Kefalas wrote about Iowa as having many “marriage naturalists,” and it appears so. Even though I’ve been gone from the place since I was 13, cultural traces remain, no doubt.

I should admit that there is one state that artificially has a better ratio than Iowa, but let’s not be serious about counting it as best. It’s Nevada, whose whopper 38.3 marriage rate is so far out of step with the rest of the country, due to its marriage industry. But whereas many wealthy and unhappily-married Easterners used to flock to Nevada for its tolerant divorce laws, that’s no longer necessary. But it remains a marriage factory…for now. But look at this: its 38.3 rate is a fraction of what it was in 2000 (72.2) and before that, in 1990 (99.0). I’m sure that’s not lost on the wedding industry. Times are tough for Elvis impersonators, I suspect.

Indeed, only in Hawaii do we see a marriage rate that has not lost ground since 1990. (I’m not entirely sure why, but I suspect it has to do with a rise in “destination weddings,” since Hawaii’s elevated marriage rate—17.6—is second only to Nevada’s.). A few other states whose marriage rates haven’t dipped nearly so much as, say, Mississippi’s 48 percent plunge: West Virginia (7% dip, from 7.2 to 6.7), North Dakota (13% dip, from 7.5 in 1990 to 6.5 in 2010), and Vermont (15%, from 10.9 to 9.3).

And in the end, the reliable conclusion tends to remain true: states that exhibit lower divorce rates tend to exhibit lower marriage rates as well, signaling elevated inclination toward cohabitation as a longer-term relationship strategy.

p.s. Note to marrying couples: only you like the idea of a destination wedding. Seldom does anyone else in your orbit feel like spending loads of cash to fly someplace exotic to watch you tie the knot and chat for three minutes. Get married where you live.

What’s so bad about (the word) religion?

I’ve only been blogging for a few short months, and I’ve already reached a new low—responding directly to a YouTube video. What has the world come to? The video I’m referring to is the “Why I Hate Religion—But Love Jesus” clip that, as of Sunday evening, had already picked up 11.7 million viewers in a short amount of time. Since I’m a sociologist of religion, at times, I have something invested in the continued use of the term “religion.” It certainly sounds more academically acceptable than sociology of Jesus-lovers, not to mention that the term is not faith-specific.

While others have done an ample job of criticizing it where called for, here are a few tamer sociological observations about the content and claims in the video. You don’t tune in here for theological debate (although they are fun) so I won’t go there. After I watched it once, I thought the anti-Catholicism in the production was barely veiled. But since I’m all for debate, and I think far too little is had, I appreciated this fellow’s bringing it. But after watching it a second time, I suspected he has little clue about Catholicism, and isn’t actually subtly attempting to criticize it. It sounds like he’s wrestling with his former life as someone who looked good on the outside, but was inwardly wasting away. And so he turned his pen and camera—and he’s good at it—against that experience and the people in his former life that didn’t seem to call his bluff.

And in the end, I could be totally wrong. But my wife claims that I’m pretty good at psychological reads on people, so that must count for something. Given her stamp of approval, here are five observations:

1. It’s clear that such videos— [Read more...]

Beauty and the Beast

This week I find myself thinking and writing once more about my late colleague Norval Glenn, a versatile and thorough scholar whose work will long outlive his physical presence. Norval held that the family was, and remains, a cornerstone of the social order and a central element in fostering the common good. Unlike many, he felt no particular compulsion to bow down to emerging sacred cows.

In preparing remarks for his memorial service several months ago, I stumbled across an article he wrote for SmartMarriages, an organization long popular among marital and family therapists. It was the kind of piece he wouldn’t get much credit for professionally, and yet it’s one of those contributions that tend to far outweigh a dry, academic journal article in its reach, impact, and importance. It was on “exogenous match quality,” or rather finding the right match in a potential spouse.

Ever the sociologist, Norval focused on the social stuff at stake when someone looks for a mate: the shifting market dynamics, the optimal settings for circulation of possible partners (in other words, where you’re most likely to meet the widest variety of people), and the risk of premature entanglements (that is, going too far too fast). One of his conclusions made me smile: “The most stable and successful marriages are likely to be those in which the spouses are substantially more desirable to each other than they are to most other people.” That’s a nice way of saying that [Read more...]

Here’s to Bad Divorces?

Now that I have your attention (or not), this subject has been on my mind of late. If divorce is going to happen—and I’m not crazy about the passive tone but they do happen out there—just how “good” should a divorce be? Is amicable an aim? I have a friend—and no, that’s not code for me—who appears to be facing one soon, against his will and despite his willingness to work at his marriage. My late UT colleague Norval Glenn was quoted several years back as saying that “good” divorces can have surprisingly negative consequences, over and above the simple fact that divorcing can cause problems. He noted, “If the parents whose marriage failed are obviously good people who could cooperate and avoid destructive behaviors after the divorce, their offspring may be more inclined to lose confidence in the institution of marriage itself.” In other words, a good divorce can be confusing to children, who are more apt to thereafter wonder if marriage is a feasible thing at all, apart from some spectacular soul-mate connection that few ever realize. There are, of course, lots of other variables to consider when evaluating the consequences of divorce on the participants themselves and their children. This one—the children’s own perceptions about marriage and sense of the institution—is only one of them.

But it reminded me of a piece of data I share with my Intro-to-Sociology course: the probability of getting a divorce in the year after you married is already doubled for [Read more...]


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