Buy golden Anniversaries:  The Seven Secrets of Successful Marriage from



The Divorce Rate Myth Debunked

by Dr. Charles D. Schmitz and Dr. Elizabeth A. Schmitz

Let’s face it, a lot of couples contemplating marriage get discouraged by the oft-quoted statistic that 50% of marriages in America end in divorce.  Who could blame them?  Who wants to get into relationships where there is the expectation of failure half the time!  But the truth is, the suggestion that there is a 50% divorce rate in American is simply wrong, wrong, wrong!  We would like to de-bunk that myth, that fiction, that urban legend!

Where did such a notion come from?  What could be the motivation of groups and individuals that promulgate such a falsehood?  Do they want to discourage traditional marriage?   Do they have a political agenda?  Have they simply offered a conclusion based on their faulty analysis of the available data?  Or worse yet, have they intentionally misrepresented what we know about marriage and divorce in America in order to undermine this great social institution?

The answer we guess is probably all of the above to some extent.  Clearly, it is hard to get into the hearts and minds of human beings.  Without a doubt, it is difficult to determine the motivations of others.  So, we will resist the motives of folks and simply deal with the facts about divorce in America.  And here are the facts.

First of all, the divorce rate is not nearly as high it is often reported in the popular media.  We need to change that perception because it can be a discouraging message to those contemplating marriage.

The divorce rate in America is not 50% for first-time marriages, period!  For example, most experts we have talked to believe the rate is closer to 40%.  We ourselves have estimated the rate in previous writings at somewhere between 35% and 40%.  A 2001 survey by researcher George Barna estimated that 34% of American’s who have ever been married have ever been divorced.  Several studies we have reviewed actually estimated the divorce rate to be less than 20%.  It is our considered opinion that the 20% and less figures are too low, but one thing is clear – more than 60% of marriages are successful!

Pinning down the exact divorce rate in America is certainly complicated.  Many studies have been done, many numbers crunched, and many conclusions drawn.  But the truth of the matters is, the national per capita divorce rate has declined steadily since its peak in 1981 and is now at its lowest level since 1970.  The fact that the per capita divorce has declined should be cause for celebration.

Secondly, there are a number of factors that can reduce the divorce rate and rather than dwelling on the perceived chances of failure of a marriage we should be looking for reasons why most marriages do not fail – do not end in divorce.

Over the years we have seen a positive trend developing and it is highly encouraging to us.  It is clear to us that more and more couples are working harder and harder to make their marriage work.  They are investing solid efforts at strengthening their marriage.  They read books like ours on the subject (Golden Anniversaries: The Seven Secrets of Successful Marriage), they participate in marriage enrichment programs, they seek counseling from a qualified professional counselor or psychologist, and they learn to do the simple things that make marriage work each and every day of their lives together. 

The good news – more and more couples are making the commitment to making their marriage work!  In a society that is often characterized as “a disposable society,” marriage should not be one of those things we routinely dispose of!  As we have said many times before, not all marriages are worth saving, but most are and can be saved!

And thirdly, we need to debunk the many myths about how to ensure a successful relationship.  And here’s one to begin with.  Despite the belief of many, living together while not married does not necessarily promote a happy and successful relationship.  For example, the Centers for Disease Control reported that there is only a 20% chance that first marriages will end in divorce in the first five years.  On the other hand, the separation rate in the first five years for those co-habiting is a whopping 49%!  These data seem to fly in the face of those who suggest that giving a marriage a trial run or just co-habiting instead of marrying at all, is the way to go.  It seems these advice givers need to check their facts about what works.

There is a corollary to the aforementioned notion about living together.  Some researchers have reported that the highest risk factor for divorce is moving in together prior to marriage!  Couples who do this have a far greater risk of divorce.  In fact, couples who co-habitat before marriage – who give their “marriage” a trial run – have a divorce rate reported as high as 85%.  Talk about the destruction of a myth!

We know that second and third marriages have high failure rates.  Most studies report that second marriages have about a two out of three chance of failure – third marriages about a 75% chance.  These second and third marriages (as well as those married four or more times) get lumped into divorce equations that are often reported.  The simple truth is, the “impact rate” of divorce – those individuals that divorce actually impacts – is clearly much lower than the oft-reported rate of 50%.  Those married for the first time just need to learn to get it right the first time!

So what are the factors that have major implications for the risk of divorce? Barbara Whitehead and David Popenoe in their book entitled The State of Our Unions (2004) reported the following:

  1. Couples with annual incomes over $50,000 (vs. under $25,000) have a reduced risk of divorce of 30%.  The message here is that couples contemplating marriage would be well advised to have income-producing jobs with stability before they get married.

  2. Couples who have a baby seven months or more after marriage (vs. before marriage) have a reduced risk of divorce of 24%.  The message here should be clear – bring children into the world when your marriage is ready.

  3. Couples who are 25 years of age (vs. under 18) have a 24% less risk of divorce.  The American divorce rate has been going down since 1981 because people in love are waiting longer to get married.  Gaining education, experience, and the wisdom that comes with age will certainly contribute to the success of a marriage.

  4. Couples that consider themselves religious or spiritual (vs. not) are 14% less likely to get divorced.  Faith and spirituality contribute to the sense of oneness felt by successfully married couples.

  5. Couples who have some college (vs. high-school dropout) have a 13% less chance of divorce.  Education almost always leads to enlightenment and understanding, and more tolerance for the views of others.  So critically important in successful marriages.

In summary, reasonably well-educated couples with a decent income, who are religious or spiritual, who wait awhile to have children, who come from intact families, and who marry later in life (25 and beyond), have a greatly reduced chance of divorce.

The American divorce rate is much lower than often reported.  And considering that the average American has a 90% chance of being married at least once in their lifetime, it is nice to know that there is much we can do as individuals and as couples in love to make marriage work – to make marriage successful.

Additional Resources:
Marriage Advice
Marriage Help with audios, videos and articles
Marriage Quiz
Marriage Book
Love Advice
Love Experts
Marriage Experts
Love and Marriage Experts