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The Myth of the 50 Percent Divorce Rate

Is divorce rate myth accurate? If not, why does it continue to thrive?

Divorce Rate MythMost people have heard the myth that 50 percent of marriages end in divorce. Countless articles and books recall the well-worn statistic – reinforcing its status as one of the top urban myths of modern day America. There are studies to back it up. There are also plenty to debunk it. As with all statistical analyses, there are plenty of numbers to go around. Depending on the point each author is trying to make, they can draw on several marriage and divorce factors. Lately, there have been more articles indicating a brighter picture of marriage survival. Major news outlets like Time and The New York Times have reported declining divorce rates and sought to explain them. Yet the myth of the 50 percent divorce rate persists. Why?

The U.S. divorce rate dropped for the third year in a row, reaching its lowest point in nearly 40 years, according to data,” as reported in a Dec 5, 2016 Time Newsweekly article, “Divorce Rate in U.S. Drops to Nearly 40-Year Low.

A May 6, 2014 article, “The Divorce Rate Is Much Lower Than You Think” by Casey Gueren begins, “You’ve heard it a million times: Half of marriages end in divorce. But is that even true? Not even close, according to the new book The Good News About Marriage: Debunking Discouraging Myths About Marriage and Divorce by social researcher and writer Shaunti Feldhahn.

These studies look at a variety of factors including first vs. subsequent marriages; when the couple was married and how long; who filed for divorce; how old the parties were at marriage; social trends; demographics; and many more factors. What it comes down to is there are no statistics that track the longetivity of individual marriages. Until such a statistic becomes available, the studies are only going to be able to show correlation in data and not necessarily causation. “For now, we may be comparing apples to apples but they are Fujis and Red Delicious,” suggests White Lake Experienced Divorce Attorney Kathryn Wayne-Spindler. “Although it would be nice to see an accurate divorce rate statistic, I would speculate that that’s not what’s important to the average person anyway.”
The reason why divorce statistics are so interesting is the ability to apply the “whys” of a trend to our own lives. It’s why we want to know if cancer rates went down when we stopped using asbestos for insulation. It’s something we can learn from and act on to attempt to improve our odds. So why, if the statistic is important to us, does a potentially faulty number persist?

The New York Times article, “The Divorce Surge Is Over, but the Myth Lives On” asks, if the divorce rate is not as dire as often reported, why does the 50 percent statistic perpetuate?

We would argue that just like other myths, some people benefit from an artificially-inflated divorce rate. So who are those people and why hang on to an outdated myth?

Just throwing it out there

Water Cooler Banter - Divorce Rate MythsCasual conversation favors neat, round and easy-to-remember statistics. For those bantering about social trends around the proverbial water cooler, nobody cares if the statistic is actually 48.2 percent as one study quotes. We naturally round-up or down for the sake of making a point with numbers. So when a story comes along lauding decreases, we stick to the memorable quote, “one half of all marriages ends in divorce.” And we are forgiven our significant figure allowances.

If memory serves

Many people who are talking about divorce rates, may possibly have grown up in a time (1970s-80s) when divorce rates were at their peak of about 50 percent. It’s part of the Generation X cultural lexicon.

Safety Net

An elevated divorce rate myth may give couples a heightened awareness of their options. For those enduring an unsuccessful marriage, it can help to know that others in similar situations have chosen divorce. And although no one on the brink of marriage wants to assume they’ll get divorced, at least they know that they have an out if things turn bad. They don’t have to suffer abuse, addiction, or mistreatment.

Safety in numbers

Safety in Numbers - Divorce Rate MythsFor those divorced or divorcing, it may provide a sense of comfort to know that many others are going through the same experience. The commonality of divorce has, over time, eroded its societal stigma. In the past, some viewed divorce as a failure. If 50 percent of couples have gotten divorced though, just how bad can it be? The heightened divorce statistic myth may provide justification, vindication or relief.

The more the merrier

More the Merrier- divorce Rate MythsJoin the club – literally. If the myth is true, that’s a lot of single people mingling, meeting, joining support groups, dating sites, and seeking relationships. For the newly divorced, it can be comforting to know that there are a lot of available fish in the sea. By holding onto the 50 percent divorce rate myth, it reinforces that there are even more opportunities to be had for the anxious divorcee returning to the dating world.

On the flip side, if the divorce rate is indeed declining and the trend continues, it is a hopeful sign for the future of marriage. “For those cheering for marriage, the statistics are in your favor right now,” says Wayne-Spindler.

The Women’s Health article “The Divorce Rate is Much Lower Than You Think,” reads, “Feldhahn hopes this research will help alleviate some of the cynicism toward marriage that comes from these long-perpetuated myths. ‘Right now we have a culture-wide feeling of futility and discouragement about marriage, and I think it’s based largely on this conventional wisdom. And a lot of that conventional wisdom just isn’t true.’”

At the law office of Kathryn Wayne-Spindler & Associates, we can’t attest to the veracity of the myth. (AP Stats was not our collective thing.) But we can tell you we are busy. We see clients of every age, gender, income, and geographic area coming to us for relief from unsuccessful marriages. In more than 20 years of practice, we have seen ebbs and flows in the local divorce rates. As far as we can tell, (taking into account the previously mentioned advanced math thing) the factor that we see most influencing local divorce rates is economics. Interestingly enough, a strong economy may keep people some couples together and encourage divorce in others. During the good times, some couples cease fighting about money. They may have the financial capability to enjoy some of the finer things like vacations or new cars. On the flip side, it can be expensive to divorce. So when the economy is thriving, some unhappy couples take advantage of the opportunity to split while they can afford to set up two households.

If you need help with divorce or separation in Southeastern Michigan, contact the Milford law office of Kathryn Wayne-Spindler & Associates at 248-676-1000. We handle cases throughout Oakland, Wayne, Washtenaw, Livingston and Genesee counties including Milford; Highland; Hartland; White Lake; Commerce; Wixom; Walled Lake; Waterford; Holly; Grand Blanc; Linden; Howell; Ann Arbor; Brighton; New Hudson; South Lyon and many more local communities.

Written and Posted by Christine Donlon Long, Communications’ Specialist for Kathryn Wayne-Spindler & Associates