The U.S. Divorce Rate Has Reached a 50-Year Low
November 30, 2020 by Justin Lehmiller
A lot of people seem to be under the impression that divorce is on the rise—and that a larger and larger proportion of marriages dissolve each year. This is why you’ll often hear people casually say things like “half of all marriages today end in divorce” (which, incidentally, has never been the case). The truth is that the divorce rate has actually been falling for a while, and it recently reached a 50-year low.
According to the latest U.S. census data, for every 1,000 marriages in 2019, there were 14.9 divorces. Divorce has returned to roughly the same level it was in 1970, and it’s off significantly from its high point in 1980, when there were 22.6 divorces per 1,000 marriages that year.
Many have argued that this trend will reverse in 2020 with a COVID-19 “divorce boom.” However, it’s actually unclear whether that will come to pass. Data from several states actually indicate that divorce filings decreased dramatically early on in the pandemic and, while they have started to return to pre-pandemic levels, they would have to rise substantially by the end of the year in order to offset the initial decline.
It’s certainly possible that there will be a big wave of divorces once a vaccine is widely available and the pandemic is under control; however, it’s important to note that Kinsey Institute research has found that the vast majority of married couples say that the pandemic has actually strengthened their marriages. For the 1 in 6 married adults who said that they were contemplating divorce or separation in this study, it’s not a foregone conclusion that all or most will ultimately end their relationships.
Some may find ways to cope with the stress the pandemic has had on their marriages or will find solid footing once the pandemic has passed, and others may opt to stay because divorce is not financially feasible, especially during a recession (supporting this idea is the fact that divorces decreased during the Great Recession from 2008-2011).
Coinciding with the decline in divorces is a decline in new marriages. For every 1,000 unmarried adults in 2019, just 33.2 of them got married. By contrast, the number was 85.9 in 1970. That’s a massive decrease in the number of people getting married each year over the last half-century.
The marriage rate may end up being even lower in 2020, in part, due to the fact that many couples have postponed their weddings due to the pandemic, and some have simply put their dating lives on hold.
That said, those who are married today have longer-lasting marriages than they did in the past, which is consistent with the drop in the divorce rate. So while marriage rates are down, the length of current marriages is increasing.
In short, despite what you might have heard to the contrary, divorces are down—but marriages are, too. There are certainly a lot of potential reasons why fewer people are divorcing, but part of it has to do with the fact that people have felt less pressure and urgency to marry in recent years, so it might be that only those who really want to get married and feel that it is the right thing for them are doing so.
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Dr. Justin LehmillerFounder & Owner of Sex and Psychology
Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.Read full bio >