Your Chances of Divorce May Be Much Lower Than You Think

June 13, 2012

One of the most frequently cited reasons for the development and persistence of hookup culture is that young people do not trust the institution of marriage. During the 90s, when hookup culture took hold, many Gen X’ers had experienced divorce in their own families, and expressed distrust of relationships in general. So far, Millennials voice more favorable attitudes about marriage, despite a constant drumbeat of gloomy news about marriage from the media. The common myth that the overall national divorce rate is 50% is just one example. (It’s 40%, and has been declining steadily since 1980. That’s bad enough – why exaggerate?)  Additionally, the politically correct bias so prevalent in the media renders much of the coverage deceptive at best.

Though the mainstream media often covers trends in marriage and divorce as a national aggregate (see above), examining the data through a variety of lenses often yields interesting and surprising results. Due to the extreme heterogeneity of the American population, I believe that the national marriage rate, divorce rate, and first age at marriage are almost meaningless for individuals (though they may be very meaningful for economists and other folks concerned about national welfare). The real insights are revealed in looking at the data according to various subgroups, including age, race, geographic location, level of education, income and religiosity. In addition, I think it’s worthwhile to discuss trends as they pertain to my audience here at HUS. 

Regular readers know I’m kind of a data junkie, and on this rainy day I was in the mood for a bit of statistics, so I’ve taken a look at some of the data around education and geographic location. Here’s the scoop:

1. Rising age and education levels in marriage have led to a steady decrease in the divorce rate.  

The national divorce rate has dropped 27% in the last 30 years:

1980: 22.6

2009: 16.4

(Rate per 1,000 married females, aged 15+)

From The State of Our Unions, 2010:

Two probable reasons for this are an increase in the age at which people marry for the first time, and the fact that marriage is increasingly becoming the preserve of the well-educated—both situations are associated with greater marital stability.

2.  The Northeast has the lowest divorce rate in the country, while the South has the highest.



Source: CDC Martial Events of America, 2009.

(Rate per 1,000 population aged 15+)

Deborah Carr, a professor of sociology at Rutgers, cites three primary reasons for the high divorce rate in the South:

  • First, Southerners tend to marry young, partly due to a lower rate of college attendance.
  • Second, couples don’t usually move in together while unwed, a trend tied to religious beliefs. They often frown upon birth control, and are “more likely to have nonmarital pregnancies, which… then trigger ‘shotgun’ marriages.”
  • Third, there are simply more marriages in the South. New Jersey had the second-lowest marriage rates, just above Maine. The Census survey reported while New Jersey’s marriage rate is 14.8 for men and 13.3 for women, Georgia’s is 22.1 and 20.4, respectively.

Conversely, the higher age at marriage in the Northeast and higher college enrollment produces the opposite result. 

Higher than average divorce rates for men occurred mostly in Southern states, including Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas.
In contrast, nine states had divorce rates for men significantly below the U.S. average, ranging from 6.1 to 8.5. Of these states five were in the Northeast: Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania.

Higher than average divorce rates for women included Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia.

Meanwhile, 10 states had divorce rates for women below the U.S. average, ranging from 6.0 to 8.9. Four states with below-average divorce rates for women were in the Northeast: Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania.

3. Average age at first marriage varies dramatically by state.






New York

Rhode Island




4. Education has a strong impact on attitudes about marriage.


% AgreeingHS DropoutsHS DiplomaBachelor’s Degree

“Divorce should be more difficult

to obtain.”

“My marriage is very happy.”525769
“I have had 3 or more sex partners.”647057
“I have cheated on my spouse.”211913

Source: CDC General Social Surveys and National Surveys of Family Growth.

5. According to the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia: 


“Your Chances of Divorce May Be Much Lower Than You Think”

The background characteristics of the people entering a marriage have major implications for their risk of divorce. Here are
some percentage point decreases in the risk of divorce or separation during the first ten years of marriage, according to various
personal and social factors:


Factors% Decrease in Risk of Divorce

Making over $50,000 annually
(vs. under $25,000)


Having graduated college
(vs. not completed high school)


Having a baby seven months or more
after marriage (vs. before marriage)

Marrying over 25 years of age (vs. under 18)24%

Coming from an intact family of origin
(vs. divorced parents)

Religious affiliation (vs. none)14%


Life offers no guarantees, and the marriage rate in the U.S. is declining overall. The risk of divorce is daunting to many, for good reasons. When it comes time for you to chart your own course of action, you owe it to yourself to know the facts, straight up, with no political chaser.