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Why Have Divorce Rates Increased Over Time?

It is commonly believed that 50 percent of marriages will end in divorce. The statistic has been roughly accurate for the last 40 years, but there is much more to the story. Changes in the law and society may explain why the rate of divorce has increased, and why it may increase again.

Why Divorce Increased

Before 1970, divorce was relatively uncommon and difficult to get. Fault was usually required-one of the spouses must have committed a crime or sin that justified the divorce. There needed to be adultery, abandonment, cruelty, intoxication or some other reason that made it necessary to end the marriage.

No-fault divorce became an option in some states in the 1950s. Couples no longer needed to prove that one person was at fault. They could simply say that the marriage had broken down. By 1970, almost all states had laws allowing no-fault divorces.

A long separation before the divorce used to be mandatory. Many states also passed laws that greatly decreased the separation time, making divorce easier and faster.

These laws had a great effect on the divorce rate. From 1940 to 1965, the divorce rate remained near 10 divorces for every 1,000 married women. By 1979, the rate had doubled.

When Society Changes, Divorce Changes

Changes in the law explain part of why divorce was on the rise, but it does not tell the whole story. While the law was changing, society was also changing.

Women became a strong presence in the workforce. They no longer depended on their husbands to support them. This independence allowed them to leave an unhappy marriage and still provide for themselves.

Divorce also became more acceptable. The guilt and fault of the old divorce laws were gone. As more couples separated, divorce gradually became a normal part of life.

In short, many couples that would have previously remained married now chose divorce.

Other changes may also explain why divorce increased, including:

  • Cohabitation (living together) has become acceptable. Research shows that couples that live together before marriage are more likely to divorce.
  • A divorced person who remarries after a divorce is much more likely to get divorced again.
  • Children of divorced parents are more likely to get divorced. As the number of divorced parents increases, so will the number of their children that get divorced.

Is Divorce Becoming Less Common?

The rate of divorce has decreased slowly but steadily since 1980. As of 2008, 40 percent of marriages are estimated to end in divorce. This is down from more than 50 percent in 1980.

Statistics and research suggest some reasons for the decrease:

  • Couples are marrying later, when they are more mature and their lives are more stable.
  • Couples are having children later, which may contribute to a more stable marriage.
  • Fewer couples are getting married. It is acceptable to stay single late into life or not to marry at all.