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50% of X ends in Y

Do 50% of Marriages End in Divorce?

You might see this proclamation on the flap of a book about divorce. Or in a Facebook discussion about the fragility of marriage. Or on a flier for an infidelity support group.

That statement is one of the most pervasive statistics of our time. It is bandied about casually without thought or substantiation because, DUH, everybody knows it’s true.

But it’s the type of statement that is true only because everyone says it is.

A Process vs an Event

One problem with the statement is that it treats a 1-day and a 65-year marriage are as if they were the same. Kim Kardashian + Husband #2 are no different than Joanne Woodward + Paul Newman. Such a comparison equates 72 days to 18,072 days, which gives the former the heft to bring down the latter. If n = 2, and the two are Mr & Mrs Kardashian and Mr and & Mrs Newman, then yes, 50% of marriages end in divorce, even though there are eighteen thousand married days difference between them.

Truth or Fiction investigated the claim, reporting that the  U.S. National Center for Health Statistics says “the rumor appears to have originated from a misreading of the facts. It was true…if you looked at all the marriages and divorces within a single year, you’d find that there were twice as many marriages as divorces. In 1981, for example, there were 2.4 million marriages and 1.2 million divorces. At first glance, that would seem like a 50-percent divorce rate. Virtually none of those divorces were among the people who had married during that year, however, and the statistic failed to take into account the 54 million marriages that already existed, the majority of which would not see divorce.”

As you’re beginning to see, it’s not a good idea to mix apples and oranges in a statistical blender (though they would make a yummy smoothie in a blender-blender). A wedding or elopement is a discrete event. It starts the marriage process, and divorce ends it. It’s not statistically sound to compare a discrete event to a process that can be of varying lengths. Not if you want to come up with a meaningful number, anyway.

Let me put it this way:

100% of Births End in Death

Which is actually true. But do you see how misleading it is to mix the event of a birth and the process of a life? Even when you can come up with a number, it’s meaningless.

So what are the odds of success of a marriage? That’s what people are really trying to get at when they cite the 50% statistic. The New York Times said about a 2001 study that although divorce rates did rise in the 1970s, “The highest rate of divorce…was 41 percent for men who were then between the ages of 50 to 59, and 39 percent for women in the same age group.” It reported that there was a “divorce divide” along the lines of college degrees: “Women without undergraduate degrees have remained at about the same rate, their risk of divorce or separation within the first 10 years of marriage hovering at around 35 percent. But for college graduates, the divorce rate in the first 10 years of marriage has plummeted to just over 16 percent of those married between 1990 and 1994 from 27 percent of those married between 1975 and 1979. “

Yeah, these statistics are now old — most of you reading this were probably married in the years after 1990-1994.

How About Instead: Marriage has a 70% Success Rate or Better

A more recent article in PsychCentral by Kalman Heller, PhD, has some salient points:

  • the divorce rate in first marriages has been declining since the 1980s to about 30 percent in the early 2000s. Therefore, rather than viewing marriage as a 50-50 shot in the dark it can be viewed as having a 70 percent likelihood of succeeding.
  • For college educated women who marry after age 25 and have established an independent source of income, the divorce rate is only 20 percent.
  • About 10 percent of all marriages end in divorce during the first five years and another 10 percent by the tenth year. Thus, half of all divorces are within the first ten years.

All of that is much more encouraging — or at least much less discouraging — than the pat 50% statistic.

The 50% statement, thrown about without thinking by otherwise thinking folks, has long been a pet peeve of mine. My plea is that you cease quoting it yourself (if you have been wont to do) and that you call people out on it when you see it. I’ve begun asking people (on Facebook, for example) where they get the statistic. They are usually shocked that I’d ask because, DUH.

Most importantly, always remember this:

98% of all statistics are made up.

— Author Unknown

Image photo credit: By 20th Century Fox, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

More on the Topic

Lori Holden, mom of a young adult daughter and a young adult son, writes from Denver. She was honored as an Angel in Adoption® by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute.

Find Lori’s books on her Amazon Author page, and catch episodes of Adoption: The Long View wherever you get your podcasts.

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28 Responses

  1. I love that you’ve brought like to that horrible statistic. It’s the statistic that those who say “why do I need a piece of paper to prove my love to someone” quotes to justify that they don’t believe there is any sanctity in marriage. It bums me out that people see no value in it. But it makes me completely happy to see you bring the truth to that statistic. Thank you 🙂

  2. Lori, this is a fascinating article. It’s of particular interest to me because I wrote an article about online dating in which I interviewed a respected expert and contributing editor of Scientific American Mind. He shared with me (just checked my notes) the same 50% divorce rate for first-time couples; that qualifier might (or might not) be an important distinction. The Kardashian marriage (Who can up with them? I can’t.) was not her first. And the marvelous Paul Newman was married prior to marrying the love of his life, the equally marvelous Joanne Woodward. My point here, however, is to agree with you: there does seem to be an awful lot of nebulous clouding of divorce statistics. As Rosie O’Donnell said in ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ of the statistic claiming a woman over 40 has as much chance of being killed by a terrorist as she does in getting married—prefaced by Meg Ryan saying that the statistic had been disproven: “It’s not true. But it feels true.” Great food for thought here, Lori. Thanks!

  3. I just had a thought. Even if we pretend the 50/50 stat is correct (which you just eloquently proved it isn’t) celebs are doing the rest of us a favor! Britney, the Kardasians, etc are racking up their divorce numbers so we have a greater chance of being one of those marriages that survives. We should *thank* them…

    Snark aside. Thanks for this post, I kinda needed it right now.

  4. Statistics can say anything you want them to say. That’s why people like to use them.

    Certainly, marriage is hard. But so is cohabitation without marriage. The only true way to avoid the unfortunate situations a divorce may bring is to never involve yourself in a relationship.

    Also, I like your style! When the rest of the world live under the “baffle them with bull****” we need more people to question!

  5. And really, statistics have no bearing on individual marriages. It’s not a lottery; no two marriages are identical. I had that 50% thrown in my face so many times when people found out we were staying married. Thank you for this!

  6. Those statics are much less disheartening! I will definitely be sharing those with people. Thanks for helping to bring attention to such insidious misinformation.

  7. I appreciate your insights into the topic of marriage and divorce and on the topic of understanding how statistics are used. It’s easy to hear a statistic and quote it as though it is fact. Well it may be a fact, but what does it really say?

    The political ads that are all over the media these days rely on the fact that people are lazy with their statistics or too busy to look deeper into the facts. This doesn’t mean statistics are bad. It doesn’t mean that people are bad. I think the underlying meaning I got from your article is to dig deeper than the headline statistics if you truly want to know and understand.

    Thank you, Lori, for another thought-provoking post. 🙂

  8. Thanks for focusing on this. Very enlightening! I wish statistics were handled more carefully, especially when most people won’t dig digger to get at the truth.

  9. Ah, yes, the intricacies of “stats.” Great post! What’s interesting is to look at a tiny pool and come up with stats of our own. For example, we went out to eat with a friend who does photography on the side. We were her first “project” when we had her do our Engagement Photos back in 2000. She’s done many in that span of time.

    “Wow,” she said. “You know what? Of all the photos I’ve done, you guys are the only ones still married. Everyone else is divorced.”

    So, for her pool of numbers, the stats far exceed 50%.

    We all agreed that she shouldn’t use that stat in her marketing info…

  10. Wow! I always thought that statistic was true but never really understood how it could be since no where near 50% of the weddings I’ve been to have ended in divorce. I love the way you broke it down and yes – will never site that statistic again unless it’s to debunk it.

  11. I, too have always wondered why, out of all the weddings I’ve attended, there hasn’t been more divorce. Because the stat is wrong! Especially in my circle of peeps getting married after 25. What a great example of someone just running off with a poorly calculated stat and making it sound correct.

  12. I hear you when it comes to asking questions about sources, Lori. Especially in this political time people seem to throw around “facts” without wondering if they are throwing around “true facts.” It is much easier and quicker to believe than to research.

    But, on the topic of marriage, my concern is not so much the divorce rate but rather the “happiness” rate. I can count on my fingers right now the number of friends of mine right now that consider themselves “happy” in their marriages. And I’m not talking about fairy tales. Marriages have their share of conflict and they are hard work. Those are the normal struggles. I’m talking about friends who don’t know if they love their husbands, that feel they are ships passing in the night, that feel lonely in their marriage, you know? Much more serious stuff. So even if they don’t divorce for the kids, for their moral values, for whatever reason, can a miserable marriage count in the “stay together” statistics? For the sake of numbers I guess it could. But just like we have to take into account apples and oranges in divorced versus married stats, we should also take a look at married versus happily married stats. Does that make any sense? The divorce versus married stats are reactive. Finding the marital satisfaction ones may help us be more proactive so we don’t even have to look at the other set of numbers.

  13. I’m going to do it… I’m going to do it… I’m going to be the one who brings up Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed 🙂

    She unpacks this statistic and even looks at what you can do — statistically — to divorce-proof your marriage. Meaning, factors that help lower the chance of divorce (much in the same way a burglar alarm lowers the chance of robbery while not actually preventing robberies).

    And she also looks at happiness in marriage. Or myths about happiness in marriage. It actually is an interesting read.

  14. You had to throw that algebra equation example in there didn’t you? I may have just perspired enough to notice. Whew, that stuff makes me nervous. I married twice and divorced once. You do the math. In spite of the math involved, I enjoyed your perspective. Did I mention husband number one was a mathematician/statistician? Ick. Sweaty palms.

  15. I hate that statistic and I’m with you in ceasing it’s ubiquity. Statistics of all kinds are rhetorical and can be manipulated. They also don’t paint a complete picture of any issue. Great post!

  16. This is such a fabulous post! I wonder … maybe the Huffington Post needs to syndicate it? 🙂 Much-needed clarity to a much-manipulated statistic.

  17. I really like how you brought out ‘hope’ in an otherwise very grim topic. Plus, I had never considered how vulgar it is to equate Kimstyle marriages with those that have lasted way longer, and bringing them under the same umbrella head of a single account.

    Plus, I know statistics is funny. Numbers can be made to appear grosser or lighter than they actually are.

  18. Great post Lori! I always thought that was such a depressing stat, but as MHM said 50% of the people I know who have been married at one time are not divorced. That said, I know most of my friends/family fit into some of the lower percentage categories that you shared related to education and such. I am also curious about the book Mel referenced. Anyway, very interesting stuff. Thanks for doing the research and sharing your results! I agree with Justine that is syndication worthy whether it be on HuffPost, BlogHer, as an essay in a magazine or somewhere else.

  19. Excellent post, Lori — so true and so enlightening. Very insightful… I had no idea on the stats – the recent ones anyway. And yet people keep throwing around 50%. 🙂

  20. My mom got married at 20 and she’s celebrating her 43rd anniv. this year. She was getting an assoc degree and had an independent source of income. They waited 5 years before TTC.

    I got married at 20, had not quite finished my degree and 8 years later was divorced. My ex got remarried and is now divorced again. I got remarried and it’s working out so far.

    I think one thing those statistics don’t put into perspective is not just the demographics but the culture. Back when my mom was married, it was unheard of to get counseling but it was also a “sin” to get divorced. Those statistics don’t factor in those people who have been married and divorced several times. I went to my in-laws reunion and although there were 8 adults in the house, between all of the people there were 18 divorces in that room. So it’s a little unfair to say that 50% of all marriages end in divorce when it’s almost a known factor in your own family that marriage can end if you don’t work on it.

    Just remember, 100% of all divorces started with marriage…

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