What Is the Actual Divorce Rate in the United States?

What Is the Actual Divorce Rate in the United States?

There’s a great deal of confusion today about what the actual divorce rate is in the United States. Some say it’s around 50 percent, others say it’s nowhere close to that. Others contend this stat stems from a terrible misunderstanding of the data. In the world of sociology of the family, few things seem to have so many different competing understandings. No one but a small handful of family scholars really seems sure just what the current rate is. But it doesn’t need to be this way.

It is important that those who care about the family know the actual divorce rate so we have a sober understanding of how bad the story is regarding marital longevity. Or is there good news as well? There is actually both good and bad news regarding one’s divorce risk today. In fact, there is some remarkably good news unknown to most people. Before we examine that good news, let’s establish what the actual divorce rate is.

The four main measurements provide four different answers because they examine the elephant from different perspectives. I will start with the lesser used measures and conclude with the most popular, which then leads us into the very good news. The explanation of these four comes from Professor Paul R. Amato, the person leading sociologists go to for insight on such issues.

1. Crude Divorce Rate

This is not a rate that tells off-color jokes, but the actual number of divorces per 1,000 people in a population. The crude divorce rate is currently around 3.6 divorces for every 1,000 people in the U.S., regardless of age.

The age adjusted crude divorce rate is currently 13 divorces for every 1,000 people age 15 and older.

Pro: There is little that is useful about this measure, beyond providing the largest measurement/picture of divorce prevalence in a population.

Con: It includes all people—children, the unmarried and elderly people—who are not at risk for divorce.

2. Refined Divorce Rate

This is not a rate that knows its salad fork from the entree fork, but the actual number of divorces per 1,000 married women. Like the crude rate, it is an annual rate.

The refined divorce rate is 19 of every 1,000 marriages ended in divorce in 2011.

Paul Amato explains:

“An advantage of the refined divorce rate is that it has a clear interpretation. That is, dividing the rate by 10 yields the percentage of marriages that end in divorce every year. Currently, that number is about 2 percent.”

So, the refined annual divorce rate is currently 2 percent.

Pro: A very precise annual number that gives the rate of divorce as a subset of the actual married population, the proper comparison.

Con: Doesn’t give the bigger, longitudinal number of divorces.

3. Percent Ever Divorced—Not a Rate

A lesser-used measure is the percentage of ever-divorced adults in a population.

Currently, 22 percent of women are ever divorced, while 21 percent of men are. Of the currently divorced, 11 percent of women and 9 percent of men are.

Pro: It is what it is, straight-forward: How many people have ever been divorced at one point in time.

Con: As it includes all divorces, it includes those who married badly then divorced—perhaps when very young—and are now in a subsequent strong, enduring marriage of many decades. It also fluctuates relative to general marriage rate.

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Glenn Stanton
Glenn T. Stanton is the director of family formation studies at Focus on the Family and the author of many books, most recently, Loving My (LGBT) Neighbor (Moody) and The Family Project (Tyndale).