One widely held view, and oft cited statistic in our country, is that one-half of all marriages end in divorce. While there is some debate about the origin of this statistics, it is generally true, and a swing of 2-3 percent in either direction does not mitigate the overwhelming impact divorce has had on our nation and our children. In order to set the record straight and present a clear picture of divorce in the United States, I have gathered some often cited measures of divorce (we will look at divorce as it affects children in a later article). Have a look at these statistics and consider what they mean for our nation and for the children of our nation.
A complete listing of the data comprising the following charts is included in the pdf file accompanying this article (see link below).
This chart summarizes the total raw number of divorces in the United States from 1887 through 2006. In 1887, there were a total of 28,000 divorces in the entire country. Prior to the boom in divorces in the 1960’s and 1970’s the historical high point was in 1946 following World War 2 with 610,000 divorces. The number of divorces decreased, and at the beginning of the 1960’s was at 414,000. In the next twenty years it grew 387% to 1,189,000 divorces. The raw number of divorces has leveled off and decreased since 1980 and stood at 1,087,000 by 2006.
It should be noted that through 1996, total divorces were reported by the Federal Government. After that time, they ceased to publish those numbers. We have estimated the number of divorces based on the ratio of marriages to divorces. You will note that the calculation never deviates significantly from the actual reported amounts evidenced by the fact that you can barely notice the dotted line in the graph.
Crude Divorce Rates (per 1,000 total population)
The total number of divorces gives us a good raw number, but it is important to look at rates because the raw numbers are also influenced by increases in population as a whole.
This chart presents what is called the crude rate of marriages and divorces (number per 1,000 total population). You will note that for divorces, the chart roughly equates to the first chart. In 1867, there were 0.3 divorces for every 1,000 people in the country. In 1932, the rate was still only 1.3 per thousand. The rate spiked at 4.3 following World War II then dropped to 2.1 just prior to the 1960’s in 1958. The highest rates were recorded in 1979 and 1981 when the level reached 5.3 per thousand people. That rate has actually fallen, due primarily to changes in marital patterns like waiting longer to marry and cohabitation, and stood at 3.6 in 2007.
Divorces per 1,000 Married Women 15 Years of Age and Older
The crude divorce rate is a good measure, and allows the statistics to be easily compared to other nations (see the last chart below), but it does not represent the ideal divorce rate. In this chart, we look at the rate of divorces amongst those people who are actually married (women age 15 or older).
The rate stood at 8.0 in 1920 and rose after World War II to 17.9 divorces per 1,000 married women. The rate was only 8.9 prior to the 1960’s. By 1979, the rate has soared to 22.8 divorces per one thousand married women. Like the crude divorce rate, this measure has decreased by 20.8% to 16.4 in 2009.
Like the other decreases, the decrease in recent years is related to changes in marital habits including cohabitation. Dissolution of cohabiting relationships is not included in these statistics.
Percentage of Population Currently Divorced
Another measure used to quantify the extent of divorce in our country is the percentage of men and women who are currently divorced. Like the last chart this is a measure of men or women 15 years of age and older.
In 1950, only 2.40% of women and 1.96% of men were divorced. By 1990, those figures were up to 8.86% for women and 6.83% for men. That is an increase of 269% for women and 248% for men.
In 1993 the rates were up slightly to 9.65% for women and 7.15% for men. By 2010, the rates were 11.06% for women and 8.48% for men. That means the proportion of divorced women to total women has increased 361% in the 60 years from 1950 to 2010. The ratio for men has increased at a similar rate of 333% during the same time period.
Comparison of U.S. Divorce Rate to Other Countries
As a nation, we pride ourselves on leading the world in many regards. This chart reveals one area where we should not be so proud. Although the data is limited in time (only since 1980), this chart shows that the United States has consistently led the world when it comes to the divorce rate measured as number of divorces per 1,000 people aged 15-64.
In 1980, the United States led the pack with a rate of 7.9 followed by both Denmark and the United Kingdom who both had a rate of 4.1. Lowest that year was Italy with a rate of 0.3 per thousand people.
By 2008, the U.S. rate had dropped to 5.2 but still led this list of countries. Second was Denmark at 4.1. The lowest rate was still Italy, but their rate had increased to 1.3.
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