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Are my chances of divorce 50/50? The impact of internalizing popular interpretations of research

When I was in college I became concerned about divorce. Ironically, divorce was foreign to me. It had not occurred in my immediate or extended family. In fact, I grew up in a secure and loving home environment with parents who had been happily married for over 20 years (now 30). I belong to a church with a divorce rate that is significantly below the national average. Models of good marriages had surrounded me throughout my life. I was dating guys of great character who treated me with a respect uncommon to young twenty-something year-old men. Yet somehow, despite all of this, the slight possibility of divorce still scared me.

My (once-held) fear of divorce does not seem unique among young people today. Irrespective of age, race, or class, young people generally fear, or, perhaps worse, come to expect, the possibility of divorce.[1] In fact, this fear has been noted by some couples as the main reason for cohabiting: to “test-drive” their relationship before making any sort of marital commitment[2], to avoid the emotional pain and financial burden of divorce should it not work out. (Ironically, cohabitation—particularly prior to engagement—has been found to put couples at greater risk for marital distress and divorce).[3]

Regardless of the pervasive fear of marital dissolution and attempts to avoid it, young people’s desire for a lasting marriage has not waned.[4] Actually, there seems to be a disparity between young people’s desire for a lasting marriage and their collective confidence that they should be so lucky as to have one.[5]

How sad.

Do these young people have reason for concern? Certainly. Is their concern exaggerated? Likely (especially if they are college students), which may be augmenting the problem.

The fact of the matter is, while college students can rattle off a “current” divorce rate of 50 percent[6], their chances of divorce simply aren’t 50/50.

For one, the commonly-held “divorce rate” is not a prediction rate.[7] Beyond that, and more relevant to the college population, couples with college educations tend to have more stable marriages than do those with less education.[8] This is especially poignant given that the divorce rate for college-educated couples has been declining since the late 1970’s while remaining basically flat for couples without college degrees[9]—creating what some researchers have called the “marriage gap”[10].

Additionally, individuals who marry after 25 years of age and have their first child after marriage have also been shown to have lower rates of divorce.[11] The list of protective (and risk) factors goes on. Certainly there are more associations between divorce and life experiences and/or choices than can be enumerated here (and many are interrelated).[12]

Taken together, however, these associations demonstrate that the notion that any given individual’s chance of divorce is 50/50 is a misnomer. While it is often stated that 1 in every 2 given people who marry will divorce, the reality is that—in consideration of the cumulative choices and experiences of various populations—it is more likely that 3 in 4 will divorce in some populations and that 1 in 5 will divorce in others.

Knowing this, college students who make choices shown to act as protective factors against divorce should largely be able to bury fears about it.

They should be able to. Yet many college students are unaware that their thoughts are largely informed by a popular interpretation of research, as opposed to an understanding of the research itself.

This points to a broader problem: for as much public discourse as there is about choice, particularly for young people in an environment favorable to experimentation, little attention is given to the power of cumulative choices in creating a stable, not to mention happy, marriage and/or life.

It is no wonder, then, that misunderstandings and resistance, bred by limited understanding of development across the lifespan, can occur when attention is given to research that contradicts what is publicly known and accepted in relation to any given “choice”.

We, at the Love and Fidelity Network, were not surprised that such was the case when sharing, through our poster campaign surrounding Valentine’s Day, the overarching message that the sexual choices that college students make may have an effect on their future marriages and lives. This is not a popular message. Much like with the research on divorce, the research on sexual behavior is not publicly well known or accepted: It shows an association between sexual choices and marital outcomes, even while young people are generally told to experiment and sow their “wild oats” now, without being encouraged to consider the affect it may have upon their future.

Students at Princeton, Columbia, and Harvard—three of the twenty-one schools where posters were displayed—published written criticisms to the campaign, which we would like to address.

While the criticisms vary, and there is some validity to portions of them (which we will specifically acknowledge), together they demonstrate a couple of prevailing misunderstandings. The first is regarding human development and the overarching message we were sharing about it. The second is regarding the studies referenced as the basis for the five ads, as well as our statistical and theoretical interpretation of them.

These two prevailing misunderstandings will be addressed in the next two posts on our blog.


[1] A study showed that, among high school seniors, over a third (36.7%) of females and even more males (43.1%) thought it was uncertain or unlikely that they would stay married to the same person if they got married:

Thornton, A., & Young-DeMarco, L. (2001). Four trends of decades in attitudes towards family issues in the United States: The 1960’s through the 1990’s. Journal of Marriage and Family, 63(4), 1009-1037.

[2] Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2009). Couples’ reasons for cohabitation: Associations with individual well-being and relationship quality

Note: As cohabitation has become an increasingly common arrangement scholars have found that couples cohabit for a variety of reasons.  Couples who cohabit because they have doubts about making a marriage work may be fewer than those who cohabit out of convenience (but still demonstrate a lack of intentionality towards marriage). In the study cited here, scholars suggest that it is possible that those who “cohabit because they have they have doubts about making a marriage work may be most at risk for later divorce, should they marry” (p. 234), but that more research should be done to determine this.

[3] Cohan, C. L., & Kleinbaum, S. (2002). Toward a greater understanding of the cohabitation effect: Premarital cohabitation and marital communication. Journal of Marriage and Family, 64(1), 180-192.

Kamp Dush, C. M., Cohan, C. L., & Amato, P. R. (2003). The relationship between cohabitation and marital quality and stability: Change across cohorts? Journal of Marriage and Family, 65(3), 539-549.

Kline, G. H., Stanley, S. M., Markman, H. J., Olmos-Gallo, P. A., St. Peters, M., Whitton, S. W.,et al. (2004). Timing is everything: Pre-engagement cohabitation and increased risk for poor marital outcomes. Journal of Family Psychology, 18(2), 311-318.

Stanley, S. M., Whitton, S. W., & Markman, H. J. (2004). Maybe I do: Interpersonal commitment and premarital or nonmarital cohabitation. Journal of Family Issues, 25(4), 496-519.

[4] These studies have shown that over 90% of 18-29 year-olds desire marriage:

Thornton, A., & Young-DeMarco, L. (2001). Four trends of decades in attitudes towards family issues in the United States: The 1960’s through the 1990’s. Journal of Marriage and Family, 63(4), 1009-1037.

Whitehead, B. D., & Popenoe, D. (2001). The state of our unions: The social health of marriage in America. Retrieved April 2012 from http://www.virginia.edu/marriageproject/pdfs/SOOU2001.pdf

[5] Whitehead and Popenoe’s study also demonstrated that 88% of 20-29 year-olds agreed that the divorce rate is too high and that the nation would be better off with fewer divorces

[6] While this figure has remained fairly constant for decades, it has experienced some variation over time. One prominent scholar on divorce, Dr. Paul Amato, stated that other researchers (Schoen and Canudas-Romo) “estimated that the probability of a marriage ending in divorce for women increased linearly since 1910 and then reached a plateau between 1990 and 2000, the final year for which the authors provided estimates. At the end of the 20th century, 43% to 46% of marriages were predicted to end in dissolution. Because a small percentage of marriages end in permanent separation rather than divorce, the common belief is that about half of all marriages are voluntarily disrupted is a reasonable approximation.” (p. 651)

Amato, P. R. (2010). Research on divorce: Continuing trends and developments. Journal of Marriage and Family, 72(3), 650-666.

Schoen, R., & Canudas-Romo, V. (2006). Timing effects on divorce: 20th century experience in the United States. Journal of Marriage and Family, 68,149-158.

[7] The U.S. Census Bureau determines the annual marriage and divorce rates per 1,000 people. Clearly, there is not a lot of overlap between those who marry and divorce each year, so it is not possible to determine from this data what percentage of each marrying cohort will divorce.

Hurley, H. (2005). Divorce rate: It’s not as high as you think. Retrieved April 2012 from http://www.weddingplanningonabudget.com/Doc/NYT-DivorceRates.pdf

[8] Bramlett, M. D., & Mosher, W. D. (2002). Cohabitation, marriage, divorce, and remarriage in the United States. Vital and Health Statistics, Series 23. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

[9] McLanahan, S. (2004). Diverging destinies: How children are faring under the second demographic transition. Demography, 41, 607-627.

[10] Wilcox, W. B., & Marquardt, E. (2001). The state of our unions: The social health of marriage in America “when marriage disappears: the new middle America”. Retrieved April 2012 from http://stateofourunions.org/2010/when-marriage-disappears.php

[11] Waite,  L. J., & Gallagher, M. (2000). The Case for Marriage. New York: Doubleday.

[12] Family scholars have repeatedly documented major risk factors for divorce. These include being poor, experiencing unemployment, living with one’s future spouse or another partner prior to marriage, having a premarital birth, bringing children from a previous union into a new marriage (especially among mothers), marrying someone of a different race, being in a second- or higher order marriage, and growing up in a household without two continuously married parents.

Amato, P. R., & DeBoer, D. (2001). The intergenerational transmission of marital instability across generations: Relationship skills of commitment to marriage? Journal of Marriage and Familv, 63, 1038-1051.

Bratter, J., & King, R. B. (2008). But will it last? Marital instability among interracial and same-race couples. Family Relations, 57, 160-171.

Sweeney, M. M., & Phillips, J. A. (2004). Understanding racial differences in marital disruption: Recent trends and explanations. Journal of Marriage and Family, 66, 639-650.

Teachman, J. D. (2002). Stability across cohorts in divorce risk factors. Demography, 65, 507-524.

One Response to Are my chances of divorce 50/50? The impact of internalizing popular interpretations of research

  1. Pingback: State of Affairs » Human development’s relevance to college students’ sexual choices

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