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Divorce rates falling, report finds

By Lamar Clarkson, Special to CNN
Dual-income couples tend to be more educated, and their economic stability bodes well for their marriages, academics say.
Dual-income couples tend to be more educated, and their economic stability bodes well for their marriages, academics say.
  • Divorce rates have fallen since 1996 by an average of about 5 percentage points
  • While fewer divorce, couples' prospects for sticking together are also tied to economic status
  • Dual-income couples are more educated, and their economic stability bodes well for marriage
  • Though our divorce rates improve, we still divorce more than our European counterparts
  • Divorce
  • Marriage
  • Relationships

(CNN) -- Back in the 1970s, before we met Dr. Phil; ate, prayed, and loved; and saw a British prince arrange his own marriage, it seemed like the institution of wedlock was doomed.

"The divorce rate was going up at an incredible rate. One of the things people were thinking at that time was, 'Wow, does this mean the end to marriage?' " remembers Kelly Raley, who studies marriage and family demographics as a professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin.

After divorce laws became more lenient in the late '70s, divorce numbers peaked around 1980 and began to level off.

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But a new report from the U.S. Census Bureau finds divorce rates for most age groups have been dropping since 1996 by an average of about 5 percentage points.

One reason that fewer couples landed in divorce court may be that people were waiting longer to get married and that about a third of men and women ages 25 to 29 have never married.

The numbers come from the report "Number, Timing, and Duration of Marriages and Divorces: 2009," which tracks changes in the population's coupling patterns.

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In 1996, 19% of 25- to 29-year-old women who had been married were divorced, but only 14% were in 2009 -- a drop of about 30%, according to the study.

For 30- to 34-year-old women, there was a smaller decrease of about 20%. The rate of divorce among older women increased, however. In 2009, nearly 37% of women ages 60 to 69 were divorced, compared with 27% in 1996.

The younger couples married after the divorce boomlet of the '70s, when traditional marriages were shaken by an increasing number of women who entered the workforce, suggests Andrew Cherlin, a professor of public policy and sociology at Johns Hopkins University and author of,"The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family Today."

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"In the '50s, there was an old-style marriage bargain where the wife stayed home, à la 'Father Knows Best,' " he says. "That didn't work so well as women entered the workforce."

It took a generation to adapt, and "now the bargain is both spouses work, and they pool their income," he says.

Middle- and upper-class dual-income couples tend to be more educated, Cherlin says, and their economic stability bodes well for the future of their marriages.

The percentage of recently married women who have at least a bachelor's degree increased from 21% in 1996 to 31% in 2009, the census found.

Both Cherlin and Raley say the more education you have, the more likely you are to stay married.

That's good news for well-educated couples, but not for their counterparts who lack a college education. The divorce rate "is not going down for people with just a high school degree," Raley says. "So we see this growing inequality in family by educational attainment."

Since the '50s, the median age of men and women marrying for the first time has increased, from age 20 for women and 23 for men in 1950 to 26 for women and 28 for men in 2009. And the percentage of men and women who have never been married is increasing in most age groups.

Why the delay? According to Raley, "People are waiting till they are settled in a stable job to get married."

People feel more comfortable postponing their trip down the aisle thanks to the increased acceptability of cohabitation, Cherlin says.

"Fifty years ago, you had to be married," he says. "Marriage used to be the first step in adulthood, and now it's the capstone."

The longevity of marriages is improving as well.

In 2009, 55% of married couples had been hitched for at least 15 years, 35% for at least 25 years and 6% for at least 50 years -- figures that show a 1 to 2 percentage point gain over 2004.

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