An Historic Look at Divorce Rates in the United States

Posted by Steven D. Eversole | Jun 28, 2015 | 0 Comments

People love to refer to statistical trends in marriage and divorce rates in the United States, even when those rates are not based on actual surveys and data but merely rumors and unsubstantiated hearsay. We often hear that the divorce rate in the United States is 50 percent, and the marriage rate is going down with the current “hook up generation” being more concerned with causal dating then entering into committed relationships.

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However, according to a recent news feature from the Washington Post, the marriage and divorce rates for the past 144 years may not look like what people expect them to look like. The reason for the 144 year period is because this when the Centers for Diseases Control (CDC) National Center for Health Statistics began collecting statistical records on marriage and divorce in the Untied States. However, while the agency maintained that information, it was not organized or recorded in a particular way, and researchers had to painstakingly work with the raw data to make graphical representations.

When examining the graph with this information, you can immediately see that marriage rates have, in fact, declined since the 1980s, and the decline has been occurring steadily. The current marriage rate is lower than it has been at any other time in American history since around 1870, and this covers the period during the Great Depression. On the other hand, when looking at the divorce rates during the same period of time, we can see that divorce rates are also down (slightly) as compared to the 1980s and 1990s.

As our Birmingham divorce attorneys understand, major events in our history, such as the Great Depression and both World War I and World War II, had major effects on the marriage and divorce rates during the pendency of those events. With respect to the major wars, we saw an increase at in the number of marriages at the very beginning of the war and at the end. This is attributed to couples deciding to get marriage before the soldiers were sent off to war, or couples who had been dating prior to the war were so happy to be reunited they quickly got married. We also saw a large increase in the number of divorces following the war. Researchers attribute this to the fact that many of these prewar rushed marriages did not work as well as they young couples had hoped when they got married just prior to deployment.

The drop in marriage rates during the Great Depression and other periods of economic uncertainty show that people are less likely to get married when they do not have a job or a stable future. There was also an increase in divorce rates when previously wealthy people no longer had any money following the stock market crash. This trend was also evident during what has been called the Great Recession beginning around 2008.

Another interesting trend in the graph was the decrease in both the numbers of marriages and divorces in the 1960s. The reason for this was not really due to a change in the actual numbers but in the per capita numbers due to the population explosion caused by all the Baby Boomers following World War II.

Additional Resources:

144 years of marriage and divorce in the United States, in one chart, June 24, Washington Post

About the Author

Steven D. Eversole

J.D., Samford University's Cumberland School of Law, Birmingham, Alabama B.A., University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, Alabama


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