The Divorce Rate Is Falling. Shouldn’t That Mean the Sky Isn’t?

Claire Cain Miller of the New York Times Upshot blog dismantles the myth of the 50% divorce rate (emphasis mine):

It is no longer true that the divorce rate is rising, or that half of all marriages end in divorce. It has not been for some time. Even though social scientists have tried to debunk those myths, somehow the conventional wisdom has held.

Despite hand-wringing about the institution of marriage, marriages in this country are stronger today than they have been in a long time. The divorce rate peaked in the 1970s and early 1980s and has been declining for the three decades since.

About 70 percent of marriages that began in the 1990s reached their 15th anniversary (excluding those in which a spouse died), up from about 65 percent of those that began in the 1970s and 1980s. Those who married in the 2000s are so far divorcing at even lower rates. If current trends continue, nearly two-thirds of marriages will never involve a divorce, according to data from Justin Wolfers, a University of Michigan economist (who also contributes to The Upshot).

This should be fantastic news for conservative Christians, who often blame the decline in “traditional marriage” on divorce.

In 2010, for example, the Southern Baptist Convention denounced “the rampant divorce rate in our culture,” claiming it has caused “great social and economic cost, with women and children suffering disproportionately in ways that are incalculable.” Albert Mohler, president of the SBC’s Southern Seminary, has lamented the “post-marriage culture,” claiming at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission’s recent conference on “The Gospel, Homosexuality, and the Future of Marriage” that “the divorce revolution has done far more damage to marriage than same-sex marriage will ever do.” (UPDATE: Mohler addresses the article today in his daily podcast, The Briefing.)

But what if marriage, overall, isn’t on the rocks because of the so-called “divorce culture,” but is actually more stable precisely because of the very factors the Christian right frequently points to as causes of the “decline” of marriage: feminism, the broadening of reproductive rights and options, and cohabitation?

Miller explains that while the rising divorce rate of the 1960s and 1970s may have been due to the social changes brought by the feminist movement, today feminism provides the groundwork for a lower divorce rate:

[M]arriage has evolved to its modern-day form, based on love and shared passions, and often two incomes and shared housekeeping duties.

The people who married soon before the feminist movement were caught in the upheaval. They had married someone who was a good match for the postwar culture but the wrong partner after times changed. Modern marriage is more stable because people are again marrying people suitable to the world in which we live.

“It’s just love now,” Mr. Wolfers said. “We marry to find our soul mate, rather than a good homemaker or a good earner.”

Of course, people still get divorced, and they still stay in unhappy marriages, in some instances owing to economic factors. But the notion that easier access to divorce has continued to cause half (or close to it) of all marriages to crumble, and that’s the fault of a more permissive, less “traditional,” and/or less pious culture seems simply not to be the case. Rather than more divorces, these trends have produced different kinds of marriages (including long-term and life-long relationships that may not be marriages in the legal sense).

Love in lasting marriages, brought to you by the feminist movement.