Thursday, October 20, 2011

Marriage Urban Legend Still Persists

I read Dan Savage's column at the Onion AV Club every Wednesday. I do this because I think it's funny. I overlook his complete aversion to all things illiberal and his clear disdain for traditional one-man-one-woman monogamy. He's funny and unserious in a way that someone, like, say, Slate's Dear Prudence is not. Seriously, Slate, tell that woman to stop trying to be funny.

But while I can roll my eyes at Savage's unprovoked attacks on religion, Conservatism and monogamy, I had to refrain from firing off an email when I read his column this week. I'm a bit surprised that someone who considers themself as smart and savvy as Savage is still repeating this fallacy in 2011:

Half of all opposite-sex marriages end in divorce, TSBM, which makes it pretty easy to deflect arguments about a gay divorce somehow proving that same-sexers aren’t worthy. And divorce—access to the courts to divide up joint property, work out custody arrangements, determine spousal support, etc.—is one of the important rights that comes with marriage.
Oh, I should mention that Savage's column is not for the easily offended or those who like their sex vanilla and their gays in Paree in the 1880's. I guess this paragraph should have come earlier. Oops.

Anyway, the idea that half of all marriages end in divorce is an urban legend that grew from a misinterpreted study during the "divorce boom" of the 1970's. That's the time when "no-fault" divorce came into vogue and divorces became much easier to get. The numbers did spike after the rules were eased, but nowhere near the point where "half of all marriages end in divorce".

How did it come about? Well, it turns out that it's another case of schools spending too much time teaching about recycling and self-esteem instead of something useful, like statistics or basic critical thinking.

If you look at the statistics from a given year, there are years where the number of divorces is about half of the number of marriages. That's a 50% divorce rate, right? Wrong. Put the reusable grocery bag down and pay attention for a second.

Warning: made-up statistics for illutrative purposes ahead.

Let's say that in 2010 there were two million marriages. Also in 2010 let's say there were one million divorces granted. Does this mean:

A. half of marriages ended in divorce
B. half of marriages that took place in 2010 ended in divorce
C. neither a nor b is correct, but divorce lawyers probably made out all right.

The answer is C. If you have normal levels of self esteem you probably already see why. But if your sense of self-worth has been inflated to unhealthy levels by your years in the public school system -- time that would have been better spent on math -- I will spell it out for you.

The numbers in any given year do not take into account that there are already tens of millions of married couples in the US. The only way that two million marriages in 2010 + one million divorces in 2010 equals a 50% divorce rate is if the total number of married couples before 2010 was zero.

Furthermore, the only way that two million marriages in 2010 + one million divorces in 2010 equals a 50% divorce rate for marriages that took place in 2010 is if all the divorces were filed by couples married in 2010. In other words, any married couples that existed prior to 2010 all stayed happily married while only those couples married in 2010 were represented by divorce lawyers.

Is that possible? Sure, I guess. It's possible you'll get pinned beneath a meteorite only to be saved when that meteroite gets split by a lightning strike, revealing a winning powerball ticket that was embedded in the meteorite. That's not likely.

Anyway, the next time you read that "half of all marriages end in divorce" point and laugh, but don't believe it.

Update: I got asked on Facebook what I thought the real rate was. I answered the question with some off-the-cuff research, but I thought I'd update this post as well for posterity's sake.

You'd think this would be an easy question to answer, and it sort of was. Not in the "type 'what's the real divorce rate' into a search and engine and be done" sort of way, but I was able to piece together and answer.

From this article I was able to get the latest census claims that 48% of households in the US are married couples.

From here I was able to determine that in 2010 the census says there were 114,825,428 households in the US.

Simple math tells me that ‎48% of 114,825,428 = 55,116,205 married couples.

According to the CDC (apparently taking a break from finding a cure to the zombie apocalypse), there were over 2 million marriages a year each year from 2000 to 2009 and between 800,000 and 955,000 divorces over the same period.

Since we're comparing 2010 households with 2009 (and earlier) marriage and divorce data, I'll use numbers that are both plausible and err to the side of making my case seem worse off: the low end of the marriage scale (2 million marriages) and the upper bound of the divorce scale, plus a little to make it round (1 million divorces).

55,116,205 + 2 million marriages = 57,116,205 married couples. Divide that into the 1 million divorces, and you get roughly 1.8% as a divorce rate, which is a far cry from "50% if all marriages end in divorce".

(Thanks to for some of the background information in this post.)

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