Divorce Rate Down-Along With Marriage Rate

Wedding bells aren’t ringing, but neither are phones of divorce lawyers (USA Today)

Divorce is on the decline in the USA, but a report to be released today suggests that may be due more to an increase in people living together than to more lasting marriages. Couples who once might have wed and then divorced now are not marrying at all, according to The State of our Unions 2005. The annual report, which analyzes Census and other data, is issued by the National Marriage Project at New Jersey’s Rutgers University.

The U.S. divorce rate is 17.7 per 1,000 married women, down from 22.6 in 1980. The marriage rate is also on a steady decline: a 50% drop since 1970 from 76.5 per 1,000 unmarried women to 39.9, says the report, whose calculations are based on an internationally used measurement.

“Cohabitation is here to stay,” says David Popenoe, a Rutgers sociology professor and report co-author. “I don’t think it’s good news, especially for children,” he says. “As society shifts from marriage to cohabitation – which is what’s happening – you have an increase in family instability.” Cohabiting couples have twice the breakup rate of married couples, the report’s authors say. And in the USA, 40% bring kids into these often-shaky live-in relationships.


In the USA, 8.1% of coupled households are made up of unmarried, heterosexual partners. Although many European countries have higher cohabitation rates, divorce rates in those countries are lower, and more children grow up with both biological parents, even though the parents may not be married, Popenoe says.

The USA has the lowest percentage among Western nations of children who grow up with both biological parents, 63%, the report says. “The United States has the weakest families in the Western world because we have the highest divorce rate and the highest rate of solo parenting,” Popenoe says.

This disparity is quite staggering, when one considers that the U.S. is also, by far, the most religious of the Western countries.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Marriage in the USA doesn’t stick because it is so heavy; by that I mean over-romanticized, over-iconized in media and popular culture, made into something it can never be. Unrealistic hopes are bound to be dashed, or, in some cases, taken into consideration in avoiding marriage entirely. We Americans tend to be sentimental, I guess to make up for the lack of some cultural cement.

  2. Anderson says:

    It just tells you something about American religion.

    Ambrose Bierce said it best:

    “CHRISTIAN, n. One who believes that the New Testament is a divinely inspired book admirably suited to the spiritual needs of his neighbor. One who follows the teachings of Christ in so far as they are not inconsistent with a life of sin.”

  3. RattlerGator says:

    Anderson — unfair, it seems to me, completely unfair.

    America also happens to be THE most mobile society by far — and I do mean that in more than one way.

    The most mobile vis-a-vis Upward Mobility and the most mobile, locale to locale.

    That combination is a far more likely explanation of the curiousity Outside the Beltway notes.

    Elliot, I tend to agree with you.

  4. Jim Henley says:

    Isn’t it great that the report gives us the decline in divorce rates since 1980, and marriage rates since 1970, so we can’t make any reasonable comparison whatsoever?? Go EME!

  5. I wonder what the rates would be if you controlled for race and income and so on… just curious.

  6. Anderson says:

    Is Bierce really so unfair? If you’re looking around and not seeing plenty to support that generalization, you’re not looking very hard.

    I’m a Christian myself, but I think satirists like Bierce help keep us conscious of the gap between our words & our deeds.

  7. ICallMasICM says:

    ‘when one considers that the U.S. is also, by far, the most religious of the Western countries.’

    I think you forgot to add when measured by church attendence and self identification. There’s a big accounting of sins done up above and I’m sure that Americans come in pretty much with everybody else.

  8. Just Me says:

    Being religious doesn’t mean committed religious. Although divorce rates among the religious haven’t been all that great either.

    I actually agree that our tendancy to be mobile may play a factor-especially if one moves far from family and lacks that support (we have lived far from family since our marriage 13 years ago, and I can vouch that not being able to call on mom if needed is stressful at times).

    I also very much agree with whoever said that the US tends to over romanticize marriage, and we tend to turn marriage into this happy fairtale land that just doesn’t exist anywhere but the latest romance novel. That unrealistic expectation I think causes people to become dissatisfied with marriage and ready to give up on it more quickly.

    Marriage is wonderful but it isn’t all happy fairytale land either.