About That 50% Divorce Rate – It Simply Isn’t True. It Never Was

Everybody knows that half of all marriages end in divorce. It must be true, because we’ve been told that all or most of our lives. The thing is – it’s not true. It is just an urban legend that we have swallowed, hook, line, and sinker.

This changes everything.

For pretty much anyone born after the Baby Boomers, generations have been told that it is wishful thinking to believe that “our” true love will be the one that makes it, because 50% of marriages inevitably end in divorce. And the majority of those that don’t are not truly happy. We were told that our dreams of true love that lasts forever were naïve fairy tales, as silly as believing that we could ride off into the sunset on a white horse. Hope was stolen from several generations.

Every couple planning their nuptials are warned of the treacherous journey they are embarking upon. It’s not like it was in the old days, when people stayed married (but most of those who did, it was whispered, were not happy.) So why bother? Why not just move in together and enjoy the ride as long as it lasts? When trouble hits, why not just give up and move on? That has been the common thinking in recent decades.

It turns out that it was all based on a lie – one told often enough that nobody questioned it. Nobody stopped to ask WHO said that, or where all the data is to back up that claim. Just like the unquestioned belief in times past of a flat earth or a three-chambered heart, the underlying cultural assumption has been that a lasting marriage is a long-shot at best. To think that we could rise above that was foolish, magical thinking.

Divorce Rate Dashes Dreams

But “they” were wrong.

Did you ever stop to question why the numbers never changed? I remember hearing this as a schoolgirl in the ’70s. When I got married in 1990, the numbers were the same. And today, we still hear the same statistics. Why haven’t the rates changed, even a little bit? Everything else trends higher or lower; why not the divorce rate?

About eight years ago, researcher and speaker Shaunti Feldhahn found that neither she nor her assistant Tally Whitehead could find any actual numbers to support the 50% divorce rate for an article she was writing. It happens sometimes where a writer is attempting to track down a primary source or the original data, and is only able to come up with a bunch of people quoting each other, without an actual source. The deeper Feldhahn and Whitehead dug, the more they came up empty, according to CBN.

Feldhahn is no amateur. She was trained in research at Harvard. She and her husband Jeff write books and speak at conferences on the subject of marriage. She tells CBN that they have both quoted that statistic in the past about the 50% divorce rate, along with other “well-known facts” such as that there are just as many divorces among church people as those who do not attend services, and that the majority of marriages aren’t happy.

What she found was that the divorce rate was NEVER 50%. Not even close. That number actually comes from a projection in the 1970s that the divorce rate would likely get that high, after no-fault divorces became the law of the land beginning in California on the first day of 1970. Predictably, divorce rates sky-rocketed after that time, and continued to soar through the 70s. The researchers of the day predicted that, if the trend continued, the divorce rate could reach up to 50%. It was a projection of what COULD happen. But it never did.

Divorce Rate Urban Legend

Feldhahn writes in Christianity Today that the divorce rate hit its peak around 1980, and has declined ever since then. Even at its highest, it never got close to that 50% mark. Yet, even today, most demographers still predict rates of 40 to 50%. But that does not square with the numbers.

Based upon data from a 2009 study from the Census Bureau, and factoring in widowhood and other factors, Shaunti Feldhahn estimates that between 20 and 25% of first marriages end in divorce. The rate for second marriages is around 30%.

“Now, okay, that’s still too high, but it’s a whole lot better than what people think it is,” she tells CBN. That being said, Feldhahn writes: “knowing that the overwhelming majority of marriages last a lifetime is great news that needs to be a part of our conventional understanding and everyday conversation around marriage.”

Regarding the conventional wisdom that says, “the rate of divorce is the same in the church,” she says that it’s just not so. “When I looked at a host of studies, and partnered with Barna to re-run their numbers to include church attendance, it is clear that people who actually attend church have a drastically lower divorce rate – about 25-50 percent lower! – compared to those who don’t.”

Another surprising statistic she discovered was that it is also a myth that the majority of marriages are unhappy. The numbers thrown around have said that only about 25 to 30% of marriages were happy. Not so, says Feldhahn. According to her research in Charisma News, it’s closer to about 80%. That is happy, not unhappy. She also says, “The studies show that if they stay married for five years, that almost 80 percent of those will be happy five years later.”

Divorce Rate Is Not Half

The idea that half of all marriages ends in divorce is such an ingrained myth in the American culture that several researchers discouraged her from publishing her true findings in her book, The Good News about Marriage: Debunking Discouraging Myths about Marriage and Divorce. Her discoveries sharply contradict the “consensus range of the research community.” Feldhahn was even told that “speculating about a projected divorce rate lower than that barrier of 40 percent would risk the credibility of the book because it would fall outside the perceived norm.”

Apparently the numbers by the majority of researchers were never based upon reality, but upon “the perceived norm,” a fiction, pulled out of the collective pessimism of a generation of statisticians. But not reality. And to think that we thought the researchers were scientists, based in facts. Based upon that lie, generations have believed that it was abnormal to have a happy marriage any more, so that when trouble arose, it was easier to throw away the marriage than to stick with it.

Divorce is such a commonly accepted practice that a new trend is for couples to take a smiling “divorce selfie” when the divorce is finalized, as reported recently by The Inquisitr.

One of the takeaways from all this data that Shaunti and Jeff hope that people will get is that there is hope. They say that one of the biggest threats to marriage is discouragement. When things get rough or the feelings start to fade, people tend to think that it will never get better. The statistics we have been told since the 1970s lead to losing hope that things can work out.

Feldhahn hopes that knowing that the actual numbers are much better than we have believed “will give people hope, which is often a key ingredient to making marriage last. She said hopelessness itself can actually lead to divorce.”

“That sense of futility itself pulls down marriages,” Feldhahn said. “And the problem is we have this culture-wide feeling of futility about marriage. It’s based on all these discouraging beliefs and many of them just aren’t true.”

The real numbers are that about 75% of marriages make it, and of those that do, about 80% of them are happy. So even if a marriage is in a tough spot, the odds are good that the difficulties can be overcome. Because 50% of marriages do NOT end in divorce. They never have.

[images via The Bridgemaker, Disney, Mike Patz, and Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock]