Many articles have recently appeared lauding the trend toward fewer divorces. Statistically supported, this results from a number of related recent societal developments.
The divorce rate spiked after many states enacted ‘No-Fault’ divorce laws in the 1970's which eliminated the need to plead and prove a statutory ‘cause’ for the breakdown, typically substance abuse, physical/emotional abuse, adultery or abandonment. ‘No-Fault’ ended the need for these fictions, substituting ‘irreconcilable differences’ as the sole ground for divorce. Since divorces’ peaked in 1980, a steady decline began to the present. After peaking following World War II, the marriage rate also began an unstoppable decline in following the 1980s. What was going on?
Many young people are deferring marriage until later or opting for cohabitation and foregoing marriage altogether. Student debt, the changing role of women, observing the breakdown of marriage among their parents’ generation with the financial burden placed on ex-husbands, and economic uncertainty all contributed. The last three decades have been brutal economically on the young: The 1990 recession; the 2000 ‘Dot.com’ tech bubble burst; the 2010 ‘Great Recession’; the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic.
Society supports the deferring or by-passing of marriage. The Pew Research Center survey shows that in 2002 for adults 18 - 44, 54% have cohabited while 60% have married. By 2017, 59% have cohabited and only 50% have married. Today, 69% of adults say that it is acceptable to cohabitate even if there is no plan to marry and only 16% disapprove.
By age, the trend toward divorce by age among those who do marry is telling. Between 1980 and today, the divorce rate among 35 - 44 year olds - the bulk of the married population - has held steady at around 17% and is now trending downward, whereas for those over 55, the rate has ballooned from 7% in 1980 to 26% today. For 45-50 year olds, the rate of divorce has begun to decline steadily since 2010.
And women are driving the remaining divorce cases. Studies show that women over 55 tend to grow disillusioned with marriage after the child-rearing years with over 80% of divorce cases being initiated by wives. Another is that ‘No-Fault’ divorce has made it easier to leave an unsatisfactory marriage and state laws (with the notable exception of Texas) still favor generous life-time alimony awards for longer term marriages in the absence of an effective prenuptial agreement.
It is apparent that if trends continue, the young will marry later, cohabitate more and for longer periods of time, and that older women in longer term marriages will be the primary drivers of divorce.