Divorce Rate

Divorce, the dissolution of marriage, has become commonplace and part of the culture. Children raised by divorced parents develop an expectancy of divorce in their life. Terms like “starter marriage” suggest marriage is a temporary institution. We need to ask the question why divorce is so high given all the resources and research available. In this article I offer three (3) reasons why the divorce rate is consistently so high.

Facts About the Divorce Rate

The divorce rate is commonly cited as being 50%. It isn't.

The truth is we don't know what it is exactly. Here's how it works. States report the number of marriages and the number of divorces to the Federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC). They compile for all the states and generate a national number of divorces per thousand people.

Divorce Rate

The percentage figure is usually a simple number of annual divorces divided by the number of annual marriages. For many years past, there have been about 2 million marriages and about 1 million divorces. 50%.

However, any high school student will tell that that is an inaccurate formula. Imagine this - you have 6 cookies. Two more are given to you. Then, 1 is taken away. What is the percentage of cookie loss? It's not 50%, but rather 12.5% because you have to consider not just the cookies added, but ALL the cookies you have. 

When annual divorces are divided by ALL married couples, the actual divorce rate is between 1% and 2%.

There are many other problems with the 50% figure.

First, not all states report their numbers to the CDC. For 2017, the last year we have CDC final numbers, 5 states did not report their number of divorces, but only 1 state failed to report their number of marriages. The numbers are off.

To make matters worse, California has not reported divorce rate stats since 1997. California typically had a divorce rate of 5 times that of the national average.

There is vague data as to how many of those divorces are first time marriages, second marriages, and so on.

Here's the best conclusions we can make.

  • From 1975 to 2011 the ratio between marriages and divorces were almost identical. Since 2011, the number of divorces compared to the number of marriages is showing a decline.
  • Some say the lifetime expectancy for divorce is around 45%. I doubt that speculation.
  • Second marriages end in divorce more often than first time marriages. Third-time  marriages end with a higher rate than second-time marriages.
  • The number of divorces has been on a steady decline since 1980. The number of marriages also declines steadily since 1980 but has evened off since 2009.

So what does all of this mean?

The number of divorces is still very high. The question that should be on everyone's mind is this:

With an abundance of resources, coaches, counselors, therapists, pastors, videos, books, blog articles, podcasts, webinars, weekend marriage seminars, etc, why is the divorce rate still consistently so high?

My answer is - the system is broken.

I do not accept that 600,000 to 1 million annual divorces is a success.

This question weighed heavy on me for years. I chose this occupation because I wanted to make a difference. The last thing I want to do is have the same results as everyone else. So, I researched WHY the divorce rate is so high.

I concluded there are 3 reasons.

Reason #1 – The Marriage Support Industry is Failing

I want to start by saying that I truly do believe the vast majority of marriage help service providers have the best intentions to help their clients. Unfortunately, those best intentions have not transformed into positive results.

600,000 to 1 million annual divorces is not a success.

I will make the case that the industry has failed because of a lack of quality, quantity, and poor pricing models.

Look at the divorce rate chart. Prior to the 1970's, divorce was extremely rare. It was when no-fault divorce became law throughout the nation that created the huge spike up through 1985.

At that time, couples didn't have the choices that exist today. If you wanted marriage help, you saw a counselor or your church pastor. Neither were prepared for the massive influx of customers.

Counselors are really good at helping those with personality disorders or have mental health issues. Counselors treat those clients as "broken" people. A couple seeking marriage help is not broken.

The help couples received was less than spectacular.

The massive increase in divorce spurred researchers to start honest study into human relationships. Some of those who are looked upon as true marriage experts started their scientific research during this time.

Today, some 35 years after the divorce boom, we know without a doubt what makes a marriage work and what makes a marriage fail. It isn't rocket science. Today, anything anyone wants to know about making marriage work is available through video's, articles, books, courses, etc.

The problem is that there is so much information, how does one know where to begin or what to work on first. Therein lies a key problem with marriage service providers.

In another post I will explain that there are really 4 different kinds of marriage help service providers. You need to be able to determine which is best for your marriage.

Too many service providers do not provide the quality of help their clients need. What do I mean by quality? 

  • What do you do when you get a headache?
  • If you are diagnosed with high blood pressure, what do you do?
  • If you are diagnosed with high cholesterol, what do you do?

Chances are, your answer to each of these questions is - take a pill. Instant satisfaction by taking a pill. We are conditioned to demand microwave fast results, even if it doesn't solve our problems! The pills are not solving our issues - they are merely treating the symptoms.

In marriage, I call these symptoms "surface issues." 

  • We don't communicate well.
  • We argue all the time.
  • We don't have enough sex.
  • I'm not feeling loved.

These are common issues where we expect microwave fast results. Service providers know this and offer help to satisfy the customer. The problem is that the real underlying root issues are not being addressed. Results are short term.

Marriage help service providers are too often giving short-term "pills" to customers instead of addressing the root issues that provide long-term results. This is the quality issue.

The quantity issue is based on expectations and the cost of services. With a microwave mentality, I've had several couples in need tell me they only want to do coaching for 3 to 5 sessions. This comes after I've told them their issues require between 6 or 12 sessions.

Serious issues that have been going on for a long time cannot be solved quickly. It does take time.

Part of the issue is tied to cost. One-on-one service is expensive. If a client cannot afford the number of sessions they need, what is the service provider supposed to do?

The divorce rate is highest among couples earning $30,000 or less per year. Education level is associated with earning levels.

Up until the popularity of the internet, costly personal service was the only service available. Now, there are alternatives like eBooks and online courses.

Suggested Industry Actions to Lower the Divorce Rate

What can the industry do to improve the quality, quantity, and price of service?

I propose 3 actions.

  1. 1
    All services need to address the root issues, no matter the medium of service, or cost. We need to stop addressing just the surface issues with short term fixes.
  2. 2
    Provide low-cost or pro-bono work for a limited number of low-earning clients every month. Partner with state and local governments and agencies to find those in need and/or offset the cost of the operation.
  3. 3
    Provide high-quality programs in a wide range of price points covering multiple time periods. Leave no couple behind because of time expectations or income level.

Reason #2 – The Culture is Not Marriage Friendly

When I say the culture is not marriage friendly, I am referring to the ideas and actions of everyone, not a particular generation. It doesn't matter if you are a boomer, millennial, or generation Z, our culture impacts all of us.

You may see this article as a bit controversial. If so, fine. I hope everyone reads it with an open mind and is willing to consider the content.

Our culture includes so much of what we see and hear every day. It's the arts including painting, music, TV, and movies. It's our online activities. It is our values, customs, and norms. I encourage everyone to take in the culture. Listen to the music. Watch TV and movies. Participate online. However, as you will soon read, we should not be a sponge soaking it up blindly. We need to enjoy the culture, but filter out that which does not build us up and make us better.

The current culture is positive in many ways. We are seeing how interconnected the whole planet is. Awareness of potential environmental problems drives many to seek out solutions that may one day cleanly power future generations. We are living at a time when crime is at historic lows, the poor are better off than ever before, and superheroes keep us entertained.

However, there is a downside. We treat each other with little respect, emotional reasoning is given more credence than reality, and gender obscurity increases stress and uncertainty for so many.

All 3 of these negatively affect how we treat each other, see one another, and act toward one another. It harms relationships and marriages. It affects the divorce rate.

Let's look at them one by one.

We treat each other with little respect

  • Take a long drive. How many people don't use their blinkers, or don't turn off their high-beams quickly?
  • Online, how often do you see comments that are vulgar, use name-calling, or shame others?
  • How often do people abuse your time?
  • Have you ever walked behind someone going through a door and they let the door slam behind them?

Respect is when you show awareness of another, show them honor, and cherish their being.

Human nature relies on consistency. We cannot act poorly online and then think we treat our spouse kindly. That's schizophrenic behavior. When we show disrespect to our partner by not listening to them, taking them for granted, hounding them, or not being there for them, we are harming the marriage.

Sadly, it has become a cultural norm to not show respect. Listen to the music. Rap music routinely disrespects women. TV shows and movies put down men, making them like fools just to get a laugh. Divorce is talked about as a normal part of life to be expected.

We see it. We hear it. We live it.

Emotional reasoning outweighs reality

To many, their feelings are their reality. If they feel anxious, the environment is dangerous. Feelings become their gender. Feelings run their lives.

In their co-authored book, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, Haidt and Lukianoff make a compelling case how the culture is turning us into a bubble-wrap society. We coddle our children, keeping them away from hardship, disappointment, and failure. We ban tag and dodge-ball. We take away recess so they don't get hurt.

It is only through intense pressure for a long time does a lump of coal become a diamond. A muscle is made strong and larger by being torn down and then worked hard. Some of the most successful people today acknowledge it was their past hardships that made them drive for success.

In the last decade youth suicides have increased by an astounding 56%. Today nearly 33% of 13-18 year olds experience an anxiety disorder. Why? According to healthychildren.org, one of the reasons is a feeling that the world is scary and threatening.

I'm sure you're aware of the term "snowflake." We get offended at the slightest of things. We complain, protest, or try to ban everything we don't like. We are more divided as a people than ever before pitted against one another by politics, religion, ethnicity, or class.

We get offended at the slightest thing from our partner. It doesn't matter what our partner says or does, our feelings rule. The culture embeds in us the desire for microwave fast results. We get angry quickly when we don't get what we want fast enough. Our focus turns towards our desires and wants rather than our partner's or a mutual goal.

Feelings are essential and should be heard. They make a good servant, but a lousy master.

Gender obscurity increases stress and uncertainty

What is the role of a man today? What is the role of a woman today? We hear terms like toxic masculinity? There are books like The Way of the Superior Man by David Deida, that promotes the idea that the superior man is one that trades his masculinity to behave more like a woman. Recently, a Supreme Court nominee couldn't, or wouldn't, define what a woman is.

Women have earned much in terms of equality and now find themselves in high corporate and political environments. In some households the wife is the bread winner and the husband stays home taking care of the children.

We find households where the traditional roles of husband and wife are still traditional, mixed, or completely reversed. For me, I think it's a good thing. We all need to do whatever works for us.

The catch... is that the obscurity of the roles leads to an increase in stress and uncertainty. In his recent book Beyond Mars and Venus, Dr. John Gray explains, with research by his daughter, how important hormones are in stress and passion.

When a man gets stressed, his estrogen levels increase and his testosterone levels decrease. To reduce his stress, he needs to do traditional masculine behaviors to boost his testosterone.

When a woman gets stressed, her estrogen levels decrease and her testosterone levels increase. To reduce her stress, she needs to do more traditional feminine behaviors to boost her estrogen.

Passion comes from polarity. A man and woman are usually most attracted to one another when he is his most masculine and she is her most feminine.

But what does the culture promote?

Men and women are identical. Forget the reality that the male and female brains are physically different with the female brain having significantly more synapses between brain hemispheres. This confusion creates stress and uncertainty.

It carries over to the marriage. At some point each partner has to assume their more traditional roles to reduce stress and create love and passion. If they don't, the stress and uncertainty turn to anger and conflict.

Suggested Actions to Counter Cultural Influences

What is the solution?

  1. 1
    We all need to better develop our sense of awareness, both on ourselves and that for others. Understand your feelings and let them serve you. Be aware of others around you and what is going on with them. The more you focus on what is happening with others, the more grateful you will be with your life.
  2. 2
    Develop Emotional Intelligence (EQ). Feelings should serve us, not be our masters. Emotional intelligence is a broad term for understanding, controlling, and using your emotions to your benefit. One quick EQ tip is to ask 3 questions before saying or writing anything. First, does this need to be said? Second, does this need to be said by me? Third, does this need to be said by me right now? If the results might cause hardship or hurt feelings, don’t say it.
  3. 3
    Ask quality questions. Don't just accept what you are hearing or seeing. Filter everything through your beliefs and values. If it serves you and is consistent with your beliefs and values, great. If not, disregard it. Whether it comes from me or anyone else, question it, and ask good "why" and "how" questions. Asking questions is how you get real answers that get to the root of the issue.
  4. 4
    Always be kind to everyone. Be consistent in your actions. When you show honor and respect to others, you'll be amazed at how others will treat you in return.
  5. 5
    Be true to yourself. When you develop your sense of awareness about you, develop emotional intelligence, and start asking quality questions, you'll sense the actions and directions you need to take. You'll feel less pressure from the culture and do what is best for you. You won't feel gender obscurity. You'll know what you need to do to recharge, feel less stress, and have passion with your partner.

Reason #3 – Couples Cause Their Own Divorce

What would you think of someone who gets heart palpitations, and never sees a doctor?

Or, how about a couple that has a leak in their roof that drips water in the kitchen, and wait years before they get it fixed?

Lastly, what would you think about a guy driving a car for months with the low oil light on?

In each case you'd probably say the folks were unwise to wait so long before getting help. You'd probably even suggest that they would have to pay more to fix the problem because the problems became worse over time.

You would be correct on both counts.

What does this have to do with marriage and divorce? 

Everything! Studies show the average couple waits 6 years before getting professional marriage help.

Six years.

By waiting so long couples are causing their own divorce. 

Couples Wait Too Long to Get Professional Help

When problems are small it usually doesn't take long to make a course correction. When problems get larger, the pain and hurt build. Mistrust becomes a major issue. By the time problems have been around for 6 years, one partner usually has a foot already out the door. This partner is probably talking with a divorce lawyer being encouraged to seek counseling. It's not to help the marriage, but to build the case for the judge that they've tried everything, even counseling.

The partner will go through the motions, never intending to make the marriage work. By this time, they have already decided on divorce. It isn't fair to the other partner, and it definitely isn't fair to the counselor.

The longer a couple waits to get professional help, the longer it takes to repair the marriage, and it costs more.

In another blog post I presented the question of how long does it take to repair a marriage. The answer was that it's impossible to fix a set time to it, but there is a 3-step pattern all marriage repairs go through.

The first step is what I call the "spark." A spark is a new idea, mindset, or concept that is a new revelation about the marriage. The spark itself doesn't do anything to fix the marriage, but it's a required 1st step to help the marriage.

With this new revelation from the spark, the partner takes the 2nd step and makes a decision to make the marriage better. A decision is not a "wish the marriage were better" or "want the marriage to be better," it is a definitive call to action. A decision cuts off any possibility of failure. A decision is a call to take action until it is completed. Period.

The 3rd step is consistent action. This is what truly counts. If both partners are working together, the results can come quickly as each see the other as actively involved. When one partner is working solo to make the marriage better, which happens often, it will take longer. The other partner has to see the consistent actions long enough to realize the partner is serious about improving the marriage.

The longer the pain, hurt, and mistrust build, the longer it takes for a partner to recognize the consistent actions are serious.

After 6 years of building up hurtful comments, disrespectful actions, and unloving behavior, there is no quick fix.

Couples Marry for the Wrong Reason

The second way couples cause their own divorce is by marrying for the wrong reason. The fact that there is a term called "starter marriage" explains itself. 

Some people marry because they want the companionship, wild sex, or fun, never expecting to have children with the one they just married. Likewise, some marry because they want a child, but not a partner. I'm sure you've heard of people marrying to gain status or money.

There will always be a certain amount of divorce because couples married with short-term intentions, or simply made a bad mistake.

Couples Marry to Get Rather Than to Give

The best article I've ever seen about this is by Seth Adams called Marriage Isn't For You. The short article succinctly points out that marriage is not about what we get - love, affection, sex, etc. Marriage is about a love so deep for another person that your focus is on their happiness, love, and life.

It astounds me when I hear a partner tell me they don't talk any more because they already know everything about each other. NOTHING could be further from the truth. If you are not having daily or at least weekly conversations about what is going on with each other, you are missing out on a great part of life. 

Every day provides new thoughts, opportunities, and challenges. 

If your focus is on what you are not GETTING, your thinking will lead to divorce!

It is called the law of reciprocity. When a person is given something of value, they have an innate feeling to give back, whether in goodwill or by action. When one gives something of value to their partner, the partner has the innate feeling to give back. It may take some time, but it is in our nature to give back when we receive.

Suggested Actions for Couples

What can people do to NOT cause their own divorce?

  1. 1
    Get professional help early. In another post I'll explain the 4 types of marriage help service providers. Suffering in a painful marriage is an awful way to live. Find the right professional for your needs and budget. Our culture puts a stigma on getting marriage help. Disregard the stigma and do what's best for you and your marriage. It will save you hardship, time, and money.
  2. 2
    Marry for the right reason. Maybe the millennials today are doing it properly by waiting longer before getting married. While it's still early to tell, all signs are indicating their divorce rate is lower than average. Marriage requires a tremendous emotional investment. Marrying for the short-term has long-term consequences.
    List Element

About the author

Mark Jala is a certified marriage coach, researcher, and consumer advocate. Certified in Strategic Interventions, Mark bases all of his services and advice on verifiable research. With nearly 40 years of problem solving experience, Mark has developed a holistic approach to marriage coaching which provides a context and execution plan not seen in ordinary marriage services.

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