Good News and Bad News in Marriage and Divorce Statistics

Good News and Bad News in Marriage and Divorce Statistics May 14, 2012

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.

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  • buddyglass

    “First, the sheer number of new marriages (i.e., weddings) has generally been decreasing, even while the population of the US continues to increase. […] Ergo, marriage is in retreat…”

    Does the latter (marriage in retreat) necessarily follow from the former (fewer marriages + increasing population) when the population’s age demographics have changed over the same period of time? The “graying of America” and all that jazz?

    How has the size of the “marriageable” population changed over that same period? (Yes, I know people can get married at any age.)

    • buddyglass

      I’d also be curious to see which states over/under perform in terms of marriage/divorce rates when racial and poverty demographics are taken into account. Maybe Iowa comes out on top mainly because it has a low poverty rate and is overwhelmingly white. If I get inspired today I’ll try to find poverty & race stats for the 50 states and do a linear fit, then report on which states over/under perform the trend line.

      • Mark Regnerus

        Have at it. I welcome the contributions. When I say “marriage is in retreat,” I tend to suggest it’s under duress, becoming less common and somewhat less normative, etc. Not as in the “turned tail and heading straight for the exit.” As Andy Cherlin would say, deinstitutionalization. Others disagree.

    • idea1013

      That’s a great point. Another part of the equation missing from this article is the economic effect; in short, many people are holding off from getting divorced because they simply cannot afford to do it right now.

      • Fortuna Veritas

        And many people are holding off on getting married until later, but cohabitating before marriage has lost a lot of its stigma…

        And of course, the poor economy also leads to divorces in and of itself…

  • Miller

    Agree with buddyglass, you need more data to conclude ‘marriage is in retreat’. Baby boomers and Gen Y info for the same periods might lead to a different conclusion.

  • D. Lowrey

    Everything I’ve read says with the more trouble men have finding decent jobs…the more cohabitation increases. If “christians” feel like this is wrong…something better change and fast in their definition of what they claim is pro-family. Things don’t…Christianity is going to be bred out of existence in the US.

    • Mark Regnerus

      While the link with jobs is certainly true, I doubt that Christianity’s at risk of being bred out of existence.

    • Fortuna Veritas

      Or at least pray for some discernment in just what to work for if they’re going to be throwing their weight into politics rather than preaching and teaching the gospel.

  • Fortuna Veritas

    Mississippi is known for poor education, poverty, and a bad economy, right?

    And aren’t most divorces things that can be backtracked to fiscal issues?

    Makes sense. It’s not the gays wanting to get married, it’s the economy that fear-mongering is distracting us from that’s what should be of concern.

  • JimBeam

    “Get married where you live.”

    But if his family is from the Northeast, and hers are from the Midwest, his parents are in the sunny South and they both currently live on the West Coast, destination weddings have a greater appeal.

  • dwhitney

    Thank you, Tony, for the post script. It is the most important point of the article in my jaded opinion. I admit to being the father of daughters by avow my opinion in this regard has nothing to do with the cost of paying for a wedding. When a couple goes to a wedding, if their focus is on how to build their marriage from the foundation up to endure the test of time and external attack, the wow factor should not even occupy a space in the line of priorities. By tolerating this we surrender our sons and daughters to the likelihood of allowing their marriage to participate in the cited statistics rather than in the process of building an unbreakable bond founded in strong principles of marriage sited (sorry) on the Rock that as endured from age to age.
    I am uninterested in the statistics. Once they are tabulated by any given organization under the hue of said organizations institutional or advocacy bias, any source colored by any blendable bias can do whatever they want with ’em.
    God willing and if my participation can remain genuine, my bias strongly focuses on my children, my dear wife, and how He leads us in the husbandry of our sacred reverse order. A pox, in fact, infects your statistics ! It draws the attention of the destination conscious posers to the mold which culture indicates as the dumping ground for conditional promises and narcissistic participants….if I had an opinion worth mentioning on the subject.

  • Here’s what I find interesting about it: The correlation and even predictability between marriage and church attendance is very strong (due to several factors but I’ll leave that alone). If marriage is in decline can we predict a fall in church attendance? The whole increase in co-habitation over marriage related to religious trends is a trend that many will be writing a lot on in the next few years adding to the already growing pile.

  • Is there data which shows where the couple lived at the time of their marriage, rather than where the marriage occurred? (I admit this wouldn’t work for my great-uncle, who lives in London and frequently flies to the south of France to visit his wife, but that’s an exceptional case. They’re both English, but married in France. As far as I know, they’ve never lived together. And they seem perfectly happy like that.)


  • alex123

    The problem is that it is considered regressive to talk about men’s issues for men – they fear ridicule/ostracism among both men and women if they claim openly the issues they face – women are given all the “rights” which really have become “right” to loot men without contributing both during marriage or years after – in today’s society men have become slaves to women and not all of it is because of women; it is a significant portion to support of feminist thinking among men – see it is both traditional and fashionable or progressive to support women correct ? it is too unmanly to support men, complain and think regressive or think for your own good. Remember feminist groups are the most selfish class of people -sometimes they dont realize that the grass is no longer greener on the other side -but even if they do they would not care, they would continue to complain and complain until you have nothing left. Some men laugh at the insinuation of being slaves in marriage – but that is true – some realize it seriously and others laugh as the havent got their heads around it.
    A good definition of slave is somebody who is either forced to work against his will OR the benefits of his/her labor is forcefully taken away by someone OR in many cases both. Remember the key element to slavery is “force”. But isnt this exactly what happens in a divorce – you will be “forced” to work AND “forced” to pay alimony and child support for very large durations, which is of such magnitude that you WILL be enslaved. You WILL feel considerable “force” in a divorce if you dont feel it during marriage – the “force” will be a relentless woman and the entire power of the state with her. In some cases, this is even so if you do not have the ability left to pay. In some cases even when you are not even the father of the child – it is mind – boggling what I see happen in family courts. And yes I am an attorney in family law and a male.

    You just watch after marriage there will be a demand for similar laws on cohabitation from feminist groups – these demands have already begun . Women have united largely against men in huge numbers and waged a political war and the most stupid are the men who still do not realize that, feel great and big and progressive or even traditional like knights in shining armor saving damsels in distress, meanwhile putting entire generations of men in jeopardy by supporting such vicious feminist groups. MEN WAKE UP AND GET UP and support YOUR OWN ISSUES and ostracize these vicious feminists and these stupid men who support them knowingly or unknowingly for gain or for no gain.

    Most men laugh, it is not manly to complain right? and dont do anything about it and suffer when it happens to them, they think that they somehow will escape and it wont happen to them – guess what the likelihood is stronger than not that it will happen to you.

    I am an attorney in family law, my job gives me jitters as to this could happen to me. Well guess what I am 43 and am never marrying until something is done about this – which I realize maybe not in my lifetime. Remember marriage has very artfully carved laws that have been designed to become a license to steal for women – community property, alimony, child support (wherein the biggest issue is that it really implies ex-wife support again, the money is hardly spent on the child it is on the ex-wife again) and to top it all domestic violence acts. If you ever end up hitting your wife even in self defense or highly provoked- you could lose all your money and may end up in jail and will face hell in jail, nobody will come to your rescue – but if she hits you almost can never prove it. Remember if you do adultery, you will be punished with maximum force of attorneys/courts/state used against you with laws already not in your favor – but if she commits adultery, except in a few states, she hardly suffers – it is a no-fault divorce in most, if not all, states and nobody would support you, as you must have done something to have her seek love outside marriage.

    Remember you WILL lose up-to all, if there is a vindictive woman you are dealing with and you will lose significant if you are dealing with a nice woman – so forget that nice woman would spare you – their attorneys in divorce wont !
    At least do a iron clad prenuptials/postnuptial – that will protect against community property and alimony partly- you can avoid losing all but you could still lose substantial.. shouldnt be embarassed to raise that as remember what contract does marriage imply by default has nothing in it for you.
    The best is DONT marry, and be vocal to fight the system, support men’s issues without being embarassed or fearing ridicule about the same, as very few men do. If you have the urge to give away your money and feel great – open a charity for poor hungry children of 3rd world, far more deserving than women and a system that you will hate for life.

  • T

    I’m a lifelong bachelor. This is all about people who feel they need to be married to someone. Think again!!! Oh, I need to father a child. I need, if I am man, to have sex with someone other than my wife. Look at this cute thing, it looks like me. Think children, before you commit! And then don’t!!!