Has Divorce Reached Its Natural Rate?

Amanda at Pandagon linked to my critique of the methodology used by anti-divorce researcher Elizabeth Marquardt. In comments, Pandagon reader “Bitter Scribe” wrote (emphasis added by me):

…The divorce rate was kept down through the mid-20th century by virtue of an oppressive patriarchy. Restrictive social mores and economic dependence kept countless women bound in bad marriages.

When those mores changed and economic opportunities for women grew, so did the divorce rate, for the simple reason that the bonds to bad marriages loosened or dissolved. In other words, people who decry the current divorce rate are missing the point; it is today at (or close to) its natural level. The lower divorce rates of the much-romanticized bygone years got that way because they were artifically depressed.

All this is by way of agreeing with Ms Kate: Divorce is not just necessary, it is inevitable. Allowing people never to make a mistake in choosing a life partner is an intolerably cruel restriction that a free society will never, should never, accept.

As for the children of divorce, they deserve the same sympathy as any other victims of an inevitable social-historical shift. We can take hope in the fact that the natural resilience of the young, combined with the love and best intentions of two parents who may no longer love each other, will succeed in giving the child of divorce a chance at a fulfilled life without robbing his parents of theirs.

U.S. Divorce Rates per 1000 women, 1950-2000

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26 Responses to Has Divorce Reached Its Natural Rate?

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  5. 5
    Stentor says:

    I don’t think there is such a thing as a “natural rate” of divorce. The rate of divorce is always relative to the set of social and cultural institutions surrounding marriage (on the “do you want it” as well as the “can you get it” sides), and there’s no neutral set of those institutions (though there are some sets that are better than others). What the chart shows is the divorce rate jumping from rough equilibrium with the old set of social and cultural institutions to rough equilibrium with the new set.

  6. 6
    Jake Squid says:

    That is just a terrible graph. It’s not that it is inaccurate, it is just that the Y axis gradations and starting point make the increase since 1950 visually seem to be 5 times greater rather than the double that the numbers show.

  7. 7
    Jessica Atreides says:

    Bitter Scribe’s conclusion, in my opinion, is overly simplistic. No-fault divorce has increased the rates of divorce initiated by BOTH sexes, right?

  8. 8
    saltyC says:

    in an ideal world, the graph would go down to zero as zero women would need to marry because they won’t need men’s money. The rate of child molestation would also drop to zero.

  9. 9
    HelloDaly says:

    Can someone shed some light on why a happily married couple of 35-years would suddenly divorce? They are my parents in-law and their marriage was solid…until recently. I am just shocked–they were a loving, happy couple up until now. I don’t know what to say or do except be of emotional support to my mother-in-law and not make judgements or take sides.

    My father-in-law hasn’t said much. He admitted to being depressed and throughout all his life, kept moving the family (in relentless search of greener pastures as his wife puts it). They finally purchased a home close to my husband and I, the most perfect place to retire (in my opinion), where I thought they would finally settle. They are close to the lake and I would love to live where they live. But he wants to move–again and this time, his wife put her foot down. (She loves where they live and is happy to finally be close to us.) He alienated her since and talks like their marriage is over (selling properties, splitting assets, etc.).

    I am just baffled. No marriage counseling…he would consider anti-depressants but doubted that it would change his mind. 35-years of marriage–POOF! Does he love her or does he love moving so much more? (This time he wants to move to an even remote town…he’s sort of a loner and doesn’t like to have any friends where his wife is more of an extrovert.)

    There so much I haven’t said…I am just sad. I know they are adults and there is nothing I can do but continue to love and support both of them, no matter what their ultimate decision is. It’s just terrible. I feel like there’s little hope that my own marriage will last but I can’t say that, we are different people with different relationships and what happens with our marriage is up to us.

  10. 10
    Ampersand says:

    That is just a terrible graph. It’s not that it is inaccurate, it is just that the Y axis gradations and starting point make the increase since 1950 visually seem to be 5 times greater rather than the double that the numbers show.

    Good point. I didn’t make the original graph, but it was easy enough to modify so that the Y axis begins at zero. So I’ve just done so.

  11. 11
    Sailorman says:

    Ideally we’d do a better job of helping “bad” couples avoid marriage in the first place. Sort of like contraception-to-reduce-abortion programs, except for marriage ;)

    I agree: there is no “ideal” divorce rate, and the 1950s are not a great guide to what we should do now (in so many ways…).

    But when someone comes up with a convenient “simple reason” for an extraordinarily complex decison, charitably put I’m a tad suspicious. It’s also worth asking what “artificial” means…. is this viewed in the same way that, say, some people think a woman’s choice that supports patriarchy is never a free choice?

    Also: you should fix the graph to address Jake’s comments.

  12. 12
    Robert says:

    Stentor is quite correct. There is no “natural” rate for divorce. (What’s the “natural” rate of rape?)

    That said, I think the general phenomenon being badly labelled is more or less true. We used to suppress divorce through the legal system and cultural pressure. Whether the relieving of that pressure has done more good than harm is hard to say. It’s certainly the case that easier divorce improved the lives of a lot of married people who had been trapped with abusive or neglectful spouses.

  13. 13
    Kali says:

    Stentor is quite correct. There is no “natural” rate for divorce. (What’s the “natural” rate of rape?)

    I’m guessing that “natural” as it is used by Bitter Scribe means “without any external (societal, legal, economic etc.) restrictions”. With that interpretation, I would guess that the “natural” rate of rape would be close to 50%.

  14. 14
    Mikhaela Reid says:

    There is no “natural” rate of divorce. And divorce is not all about women shaking free from the shackles of abusive husbands, it’s just as much about men leaving women. It’s often a very sad and complex, if necessary thing, especially when kids are involved.

    Sadly, thanks to the wage gap divorced women (especially moms) are more likely to fall into poverty (they make maybe 55-65 cents to a man’s dollar), but the solution is to fight for wage equality, not to make divorce more difficult.

  15. 15
    Robert says:

    The problem, Kali, is that there’s no such thing as “without any external restrictions”. There are always boundaries, constraints, incentives, disincentives, and so forth; there is no state of nature.

  16. 16
    nik says:

    Criticising the idea of a “natural rate” of divorce kind of misses the point. Divorce rates are of course artificial, since marriage and divorce are artificial. But you can rephrase “Bitter Scribe’s” ideas without all the baggage of “natural rates”, “artifically depressed”, and so on. It is the Standard Theory of Divorce you see on places like Pandagon, which is essentially this:

    The divorce rate is generated by a proportion of marriage being ‘bad marriages’ and, as a consequence, divorce will reach a limit when all the people trapped in these bad marriages can and do leave – since at this point there won’t be any more people who want to divorce. Achieving this rate is a good thing, since forcing people to stay these in bad marriages would be inhumane.

  17. 17
    Robert says:

    The “Standard Theory of Divorce” (I haven’t seen it before so please pardon me if other people have raised these critiques) seems questionable.

    “Bad marriages”? Are the complexities of human relationship reducible to a binary dichotomy of “good” or “bad”? The theory also appears to deny agency and the ability to change situations and scenarios. A marriage that is “bad” in Ohio might do much better if the partners moved to Paris. A marriage that is “bad” or “good” can change that status if the partners work on it, or on themselves, or on their own issues, or on any of a host of other things. Social context can itself change the value of these factors; a society which endorses marriage counseling and assigns it no shame is different than a society where nobody dares whisper a hint of problems in their relationship. And so forth.

    Reductionism works for physics. For the social intricacies of marriage, not so much.

  18. 18
    ScottM says:

    Is the rate per 100 married women, not per 1000 as your Y label indicates?

  19. 19
    nik says:

    Robert – That’s my problem with it too. It ignores that marriage is a market like anything else, people can trade ‘up’ from nice marriages, just as they trade up from nice houses.

    ScottM – The rate is per 1,000 married women (or, really, couples). But remember, from the X axis, it’s per year. 10 divorces per 1,000 means 1 in 100 married couples divorce a year, 20 per 1,000 means 1 in 50 married couples divorce a year, and so on.

  20. 20
    saltyC says:

    ALso, woman A might stick it out and “work on” in a really disadvantageous relationship which is sapping her of time and energy, trapping her from pursuing her own personal development because of his possessiveness and greed. Whereas woman B would realize how much better life could be when she only has to look out for herself and not worry about whether dinner is on time or the cupboards are full or the laundry is done, and she doesn’t have to explain why she is spending so much time on her own projects, and drops him like a rotten potato.

  21. 21
    qlf says:

    HelloDaly, my heart goes out to you, not only because I empathize with your situation but also because I respect the stance you’ve taken. It’s their decision. I know that my parents’ 35 year marriage appears doomed, which disappoints me but also seems to make sense.

    I think there are a lot of reasons why a marriage would end after 35 years. Think of the plaque accumulating in the channels of communication after so many y ears. Think of the many past transgresssions that may have gone unresolved. Think of how you feel at retirement age, how frustrated you can be at what you didn’t get to do, who you didn’t become professionally, what you were supposed to accomplish that went un-done…

    I am engaged now, after a “failed” first marriage that ended in divorce. I’m hopeful that good things will come with this relationship, but I don’t rely on hope alone. We’re both in individual therapy and we’re also doing couples therapy. I don’t think the individual therapy will last long (I think, rather, that it’s a way to tide us over). But our goal with the couples therapy is go establish a relationship now and then go quarterly after we’re established. Maybe that will help prevent the patterns that made both of our previous marriages end. Maybe it won’t. I’m hoping it, and a lot of luck and love, will work.

  22. 22
    Kali says:

    The problem, Kali, is that there’s no such thing as “without any external restrictions”. There are always boundaries, constraints, incentives, disincentives, and so forth; there is no state of nature.

    I think that is taking the words “natural” and “artificial” too literally. Of course, any social system will always have constraints etc. But, over and above that, sometimes there are legal and social systems that deliberately encourage or discourage, allow or disallow something. Those are the “external restrictions” I am talking about.

  23. 23
    Nick Kiddle says:

    But, over and above that, sometimes there are legal and social systems that deliberately encourage or discourage, allow or disallow something.

    There are so many fuzzy terms here that I can’t see how the argument is anything other than subjective. How do we decide what is “over and above” what is inevitable with any social system? Where is the definition of what constitutes “encourag[ing]” or “discourag[ing]” something?

  24. 24
    nik says:

    “Where is the definition of what constitutes “encourag[ing]” or “discourag[ing]” something?”

    I suspect “Bitter Scribe” would say someone along the lines that you’re not discouraging divorce at a point when everyone who wishes to leave a marriage can. If you accept that line of reasoning I’m not sure you can encourage a divorce (at least in terms of framing divorce law), people who are in happy marriages don’t get divorced.

  25. 25
    Hershele Ostropoler says:

    How many couples break up without ever getting married? I agree with the suggestion that we need some sort of secular form of pre-Cana, but I think we’re doing pretty well. I suspect the proportion of committed couples — I’m using “committed” to mean “if they stopped seeing each other, it would be called ‘breaking up'”–who uncommit before one of them dies is greater than the proportion of married couples who divorce before one of them dies.

  26. 26
    Bitch | Lab says:

    A little behind here. Saw this last week, replied and then realized it was way too long for a comment post. A Bitch gets carried away.

    I just pointed out at my blog, though, that I think the claim Bitter Scribe made was pretty reductive.

    1. There is a correlation between white women’s movement into the paid labor force and rising divorce rates.

    2 Correlation is not causation however.

    3. Human social life is far more complicated than that, so one variable never explains the variation. Amp is very klewed to this one, which is why I love this blog. Warms my cold sociologist’s heart, it does.

    4. One of the most interesting things that I wrote about was Elaine Tyler May’s findings in ‘Great Expectations,’ that, at least in the 1920s, even tho work opps for women were expanding, particularly among the white middle class, who were increasingly see it as legit to go to work in order toearn “extras,” the bulk of reasons given for divorce in the records was that men failed as providors. Women launched divorces actions sometimes because the felt they had to work to obtain the life they thought they deserved.

    5. Also, while May also showed how fear of the Cold War threat was used to keep women at home in the 50s — a contributing factor some think in artificially lowering the divorce rate. As the graph shows, the “supression of the divorce rate wasn’t as huge as it’s been made to seem by Bitter Scribe’s language. Rather, it was more a continuation of a long term trend. It can also be made to look like a severe depression when you cut off the humbers for the decades prior. Why? Becasue there was a huge post-war spike in divorces. A trendline would eliminate those oddities — an oddity caused by a highly unusual situation, WWII.