No, that is not a typo in the title. I am asking why the divorce rate is not higher. Why am I asking this question? Because my husband and I are about to celebrate our 36thanniversary and I am absolutely amazed that anybody makes it this long without divorcing. Or committing homicide.
First let me disabuse you all of the common myth that the divorce rate is 50%. This is just plain not true, but like most myths, it gets repeated so often, with absolute certainty on the part of the person saying it, that we all believe it. This frequently quoted statistic is based on comparing the number of marriage certificates issued in any given year with the number of divorces filed in that year. That number indeed hovers around 50%, because the number of people GETTING MARRIED has been going down at the same rate as the number of people getting divorced.
If we count the number of people who are STILL MARRIED in any given year and compare that number to the divorces, we get a very different picture. To get that statistic, however, requires a more complicated and costly process, so it’s only done about every ten years. This data, by the way, is collected by the Center for Disease Control. So I want to know, which is the disease, marriage or divorce? I’m assuming the latter.
But I digress.
When calculated this way–comparing those getting divorced to those still married–the divorce rate in the U.S. peaked in 1979 at 23% and it has been going down very, very gradually ever since. These days it hovers around 20%. Much better odds than 50-50!
I am a psychologist by the way, and I teach developmental psychology, but if you don’t want to believe me, here are some links to check out. Those of you who could care less about these statistics, jump ahead to the good stuff further down.
Good article on the topic at PsychCentral:
Charts and study from Center for Disease Control:
Anyway, so why am I saying the divorce rate is surprisingly low, if it’s actually a lot lower than everybody thinks it is?
Because it just isn’t all that easy to stay married for decade after decade. First we’ve got that whole men-and-women-don’t-really-understand-each-other thing going on. This is mostly because women, in general, like to process things, especially their feelings, out loud. Men are more inclined to mull things over in their own heads. Also men are more action-oriented; they like to fix things. (More on these differences in a later post.)
She says: What’s wrong, honey?
She says: Something really upsetting happened at work today.
Neither approach is right or wrong; they’re just different. But we don’t get that these differences exist and we keep expecting our mates to react to things the way we do. And then we get hurt and/or angry when s/he doesn’t understand where we’re coming from.
Okay, now throw the stress of parenthood into the marriage mix. Are we clueless about what we are getting into there, or what? But then again, if we weren’t clueless, the species would have died out by now. If we knew in advance how hard parenting is, nobody would do it!
This is me at three months old; would you look at that hair!
Then we’ve got the whole aging process (more on this next week, cuz I’ve got a birthday coming up, and it’s a biggie!) And the fact that people change over time, as they experience new and different things. We don’t always change at the same rate or in the same ways as our partners do, however.
It takes a lot of work to stay on the same wavelength. And we should keep in mind that marriage was invented back when the average lifespan was twenty-five years! As recently as the early 1900’s, one partner or the other was bound to die after a couple of decades–from childbirth, disease or a cattle stampede. And I can’t help but suspect that, before the days of modern forensics, a certain number of household accidents were early versions of a Reno-quickie divorce.
So how have hubby and I made it this long? First, you’ve got the making-the-right-choice-to-begin-with factor. We lucked out here, or perhaps it was divine intervention, because I had definitely dated my share of losers before he came along.
The most important part of making that right choice is marrying someone who shares your values. You don’t have to have all the same interests or even come from the same background or ethnic group. But you do need to care about the same things in life. And fortunately we do.
Probably the single most important factor in surviving marriage over the long haul is communication. You gotta talk to each other, every day, about the little stuff and the big stuff, and about how you feel about things. It’s real easy to get out of the habit of doing this, or to decide that a certain subject is just too painful, or will start a fight, so you don’t go there.
Study after study has found that the single most important factor in marital satisfaction is that both spouses consider their partner to be their best friend.
So Happy Anniversary to my best friend! I hope we have many more, but I’m not taking anything for granted, because marriage is hard work.
When you stop laughing at hubby’s funny-looking tuxedo, please let me know what you think are the important aspects of keeping a relationship strong?
(Kassandra Lamb is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She writes the Kate Huntington mystery series.)