The Debunker: Do Half of All Marriages End in Divorce?

by Ken Jennings

“Oh, my Luve’s like a red, red, rose / That’s newly sprung in June,” wrote Robert Burns, and while it’s always sad when a poet doesn’t know how to spell an easy word like “love,” it’s undeniably true that June is the most romantic month of the year. To this day, it’s the most popular month for Americans to get married, just ahead of August and May. We’ve asked Ken Jennings, the famous Jeopardy! champion and relationship guru, to puncture four matrimonial myths that have stuck around for years, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health. If you’re not ready to have all your marital misconceptions shattered, speak now or forever hold your peace.

The Debunker: Do Half of All Marriages End in Divorce?

This gloomy prediction, always a hit at wedding toasts, has been in currency for almost forty years, ever since the advent of no-fault divorce in the United States led to a boom in both divorces and scare numbers like this one. It’s true that the trends of the 1970s, if extrapolated, once had experts worrying that the likelihood of divorce could one day hit even odds. But that never happened. Instead the divorce rate leveled out, then declined. In the early 2000s, divorce hit its lowest level since 1970, and has hovered there pretty consistently ever since: about 3.5 divorces per every thousand Americans per year.

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That doesn’t seem nightmarishly high, right? If you know 300 people, only about one of them will get a divorce this year. The confusion probably comes with the way marriages and divorces are usually counted. According to the CDC’s National Survey of Family Growth, in 2013 there were 6.8 marriages for every 1,000 people and 3.4 divorces. Simple division, right? Half of all marriages end in divorce.

Well, no. The vast majority of those 1.04 million divorces in 2013 were not people who got married in 2013, so you can’t read the numbers that way. It’s a lot harder to turn those numbers into a set of odds, but the best research suggest that the number has never risen above 41 percent. “I wouldn’t expect any cohort to reach 50 percent,” a Census Bureau researcher told The New York Times in 2005. The trend is particularly positive today among college graduates, with a divorce rate plummeting so low that it may stabilize around 25 percent. Tara Parker-Pope, in her book For Better, suggests that the “half of all marriages” canard sticks around because it’s politically useful: conservatives use it to decry the breakdown of traditional families, while liberals use it to support safety nets for single moms. But it was never true, and today it isn’t even close.

Quick Quiz: Ronald Reagan was the only divorced U.S. president. Can you name the only divorced vice president, who separated from his first wife Tod in 1962?

Ken Jennings is the author of six books, most recently his Junior Genius Guides, Because I Said So!, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.