Commentary

Divorce in Decline, But Marriage on the Rocks with Cohabitation on the Rise

Rachel Sheffield
By Rachel Sheffield | December 15, 2014 | 2:39 PM EST

This photo taken Dec. 20, 2013 shows Amanda Leigh Pulte, left, and Matthew Gage, right, posing with their daughter Zoey at their home in Austin. No longer taboo, living together has become a more common arrangement for America's dating couples who unexpectedly become parents. It’s a major cultural shift since the days of "shotgun weddings" to avoid family embarrassment over an unplanned pregnancy. Soon-to-be-released government research and analyses of marriage data provided to The Associated Press portray an ever-changing American family. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

“Divorce is on the rise.” At least, that’s the story Americans often hear, as New York Times reporter Claire Cain Miller explained earlier this month. But what does the data say?

While divorce rate data is far from perfect, the general consensus among researchers is that divorce has actually declined since the 1980s, as this chart from Heritage’s 2014 Index of Culture and Opportunity shows. Divorce rates peaked in the early 1980s, after which they began trending downward. And researchers suggest that the lifetime probability of divorce is somewhere between 40 and 50 percent.

It’s also important to remember that many factors decrease the likelihood of divorce significantly. For example, couples who attended religious services frequently are about 2.5 times less likely to divorce compared to couples who never attended church. Having a college education decreases the likelihood of divorce by 25 percent, and waiting to have children until after marriage drops the likelihood of divorce by about the same amount.

Children today are more likely to spend time in a cohabiting household than they are to experience the divorce of their parents.

While an increase in marital stability among younger Americans is good news, part of the reason for greater stability is no doubt due to shifts in marriage trends that might not be so positive. Today, fewer people are getting married, and marriage seems to be turning into an elite institution for the highly educated, with those in lower-income and working-class communities less likely to marry or remain married.

This doesn’t mean that people aren’t forming relationships though. They are, but more often than in the past they are forming cohabitation relationships. Cohabitation, however, does not provide the same benefits as marriage. This becomes particularly problematic when children are involved. The problem is, cohabiting relationships are much more likely to dissolve than are marriages, leaving children open to family instability and the risks that go along with it. Children today are more likely to spend time in a cohabiting household than they are to experience the divorce of their parents.

The good news is that there is much that individuals and couples can do to avoid divorce and prepare for and build healthy marriages, and most young people want a good marriage and a happy family life. Stable marriages are good not only for men and women, but also for their children. Fewer divorces and more healthy marriages, along with more children born to their married mother and father would help build a stronger society. Greater effort is needed at every level to strengthen and rebuild a culture of marriage.

Rachel Sheffield focuses on welfare, marriage and family, and education as policy analyst in the DeVos Center for Religion & Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation.

Editor's Note: This piece was originally published by The Heritage Foundation.

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