Explaining the High Divorce Rate
A number of investigators have speculated on the causes of the high divorce rate in the United States. One cause is the comparative ease of obtaining no-fault divorces since the liberalization of divorce laws in the 1970s. Obtaining a divorce has become a simpler, less expensive legal process, and as divorces have occurred more often, the social stigma of divorce has lessened. A frequently mentioned cause is increased expectations for marital and sexual fulfillment, which have caused people to be less willing to persist in unsatisfying marriages.
The increased economic independence of women (one third of married women earn more than their husbands) increases the importance of relationship satisfaction over financial dependence in women’s decisions to divorce (Goad, 2006). There also appears to be an inverse relationship between level of education and divorce rate; that is, the lower the educational level, the higher the divorce rate (Schoen & Cheng, 2006). The one exception is a disproportionately high divorce rate among women who have achieved graduate degrees. Perhaps the increased economic and social independence of professional women with advanced degrees contributes to this exception in divorce rate patterns (Amato & Previti, 2003).
Research has revealed another variable associated with marriages ending in divorce: age at marriage. People who marry in their teen years are more than twice as likely to divorce as those who wed in their 20s. Individuals who marry after age 30 have even lower divorce rates. The correlation between age at marriage and divorce rate is of particular interest in light of a clear upward trend in the median age at first marriage. Before 1900 most couples in the United States married while they were still in their teens. In 1950 the median marriage age was 22 for men and 20 for women (Bergman, 2006). The median age at first marriage has continued to rise, to age 28 for men and age 26 for women (Wolfers, 2010). Later age at marriage may contribute positively to the stability of marriage: The likelihood of divorce is reduced for every year older a person is when she or he marries (Bennett & Ellison, 2010). The leveling off and even slight decline in the U. S. divorce rate reflects, in part, the influence of older age at first marriage.
Because divorce has become more common, more children have been raised by divorced parents. Research shows that people raised by divorced parents have more negative attitudes about marriage and are themselves more likely to divorce than are people raised by parents who remained married (Amato, 2001; Riggio & Weiser, 2008). However, parents who stay together in unhappy marriages may not help prevent their children from divorcing a future spouse. Young adults who believe that their parents should end their marriage are more likely to have positive views of divorce, even when their parents have negative views (Kapinus, 2005).