What Factors Affect the Divorce Rate?

Divorce has become an increasingly prevalent part of American society.  Until the latter half of the twentieth century, divorce was considered scandalous and taboo, a dirty secret to be swept under the rug — or better yet, avoided at all costs.  As the years passed, however, divorce gradually evolved into an almost casual fact of American life.  Vague statistics commonly cite the “fact” that “50% of all marriages end in divorce,” and Generation X- and Y-ers shrug nonchalantly at a social institution their grandparents would have only whispered about behind closed doors.  But how many people really do get divorced, and what factors affect the divorce rate?  In this entry, our New Jersey divorce attorneys explore divorce trends and contributing causes over the years.

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Marriage and Divorce Rates in the United States

In 2011, there were 2,118,000 marriages in the United States, meaning 4,236,000 people joined hands in holy matrimony.  According to Census data for the same year:

  • Marriage rate = 6.8 per 1,000
  • Divorce rate = 3.6 per 1,000

In 1991, just 20 years earlier:

  • Marriage rate = 9.4 per 1,000
  • Divorce rate = 4.7 per 1,000

Interestingly enough, when you look at recent years, both divorce rates and marriage rates seem to decrease and increase together.  The marriage rate was lower in 2011 compared to 1991; but then again, so was the divorce rate.  However, when you travel even further back in time, divorce and marriage rates divide sharply in the opposite directions.  In 1920, for example:

  • Marriage rate =  12.0 per 1,000
  • Divorce rate =  1.6 per 1,000

Compare the difference between the marriage and divorce rates in 1920 as opposed to 2011: as you travel forward in time, the gulf between the two rates becomes increasingly narrow.  In fact, when you consider the matter, that’s precisely what you would expect.  As divorce has become more socially acceptable, unhappy couples in America are no longer subject to cultural pressures to stay together.

Nonetheless, marriage and divorce can be pinned to factors which are far more specific than a generalized progression toward social acceptance of divorcees.  Variables like age, education, socioeconomic status, and even the time of year all play a crucial role in what makes or breaks a marriage.

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How Do Education, Age, and Income Affect Divorce?

Contrary to what romance novels would try to tell you, no marriage is perfect, and all marriages take hard work.  However, some marriages require considerably more work than others — so what makes the difference?  Personal chemistry plays a significant role, of course; but for better or worse, there are more factors at play than the emotional bond between two individuals.  It’s been scientifically proven by numerous studies that variables such as education, age, and income all have hard, quantifiable impacts on the overall durability of American marriages.  Scientific studies may not be able to ascertain how the power of love plays into a marriage; but they certainly have drawn some concrete conclusions regarding the power of the dollar, among other factors.

Susan L. Brown is a professor of sociology and co-director of the National Center for Families and Marriage at Bowling Green State University, located in Ohio.  Brown identifies education levels, income levels, and the age of married couples at the time of marriage as the key points which will predict the success or failure of that marriage.

All of this is good news for New Jersey, which currently boasts the lowest divorce rate in the nation.  According to Census data from 2011, in New Jersey, only 9% of all adults are divorced — fewer than a fifth of the 52% of adults who are married.  But why?  Is New Jersey full of happy couples by sheer, random chance?  Not likely.  What New Jersey is full of is couples who have the marriage factors “right.”

“The composition of New Jersey married individuals is quite favorable across several indicators, providing some evidence for the low divorce rate,” says Brown, who goes on to cite “education, race-ethnicity, age, and age at first marriage.”

The ideal age at which to be married, according to Brown, is 25 or older.  But why?

“Marriages are more likely to last for longer periods of time when people marry at an older age, have a higher education and earn more, and New Jersey scores high on these three criteria,” says Naomi Cahn.  Cahn, a professor at George Washington University Law School, goes on to add, “There are fewer divorces in New Jersey because there are fewer risk factors.”

June Carbone, a professor at the University of Missouri, agrees.  Carbone says, “…people who tend to marry later tend to be wealthier and better educated and are more likely to marry someone wealthier and better educated.”

It makes logical sense.  The older you are, the more likely you are to have completed a given level of education.  The more education you have completed, the better your earning power is going to be.  The more money you earn, the more comfortable your marital home will be.  Wealthy, educated couples may get on each other’s nerves for personal reasons — but they will typically not have to confront the emotional strain that results from stretching a shoestring budget.  Where there’s less stress and conflict, there’s less cause for thoughts of divorce to edge into the picture.  A study conducted by the University of Utah found that couples who only fought about money a few times per month were significantly less likely to file for divorce than couples who fought over finances on a daily basis.  Studies conducted by the University of California have arrived at similar conclusions.

Interestingly enough, the current economic recession has had a double-edged effect on divorce in the United States.  On one hand, the recession has spurred some divorces ahead, as the strain of losing money and facing debt, unemployment, and foreclosure becomes enough to shatter some marriages.  On the other hand, divorce can be expensive, and some couples who would otherwise part ways are staying together for practical financial reasons, like keeping insurance coverage.

In New Jersey, where alimony arrangements are notorious for their financial brutality, the prospect of facing a lifetime of mandatory spousal support is enough to help keep some marriages glued together.

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How Does the Time of Year Affect Divorce?

Income, age, and education all work in conjunction to help or harm any given marriage — but those aren’t the only factors.  The time of year can affect divorce, too.

To most people, January is known as… January.  But among therapists, accountants, court officials, and other professionals who work in the realm of marriage and divorce, January has another, less pleasant name: “Divorce Month.”

Why?  What’s so different about January that it should stand out from the other 11 months of the year?

Some divorce and family law experts, like Jane Miller, point to January’s unique chronological position: immediately after the holiday season ends.  Positing a theory for why many parents wait until January to file for divorce, Miller says, “They feel they know they want to move in that direction but understandably hold off until the New Year because of their children.”

It seems like a reasonable assertion.  After all, no parent wants to mar memories of an otherwise happy holiday by darkening Christmas morning with a divorce announcement.  The same line of thinking has been applied by many to explain the rise and fall of divorce rates surrounding summer vacation and the graduation months.

Nonetheless, other professionals disagree with Miller’s reasoning.  Ann C. Thompson, a family law attorney with nearly 30 years of experience, is openly baffled.  “Some attorneys say couples stay together until the beginning of the school year, while others say they wait until after graduation is over,” says Thompson.  “These are all theories.  Personally, I don’t have a clue why people divorce at certain times of the year more than others.”

Whatever factors play into the matter, divorce is often a complicated and painful procedure, both from an emotional and a legal standpoint.  At Maselli Warren, our New Jersey family law lawyers have over 25 years of experience helping the men and women of New Jersey dissolve their marriages, obtain child custody, make arrangements for child and spousal support, and settle matters of property division.  If you would like to speak with an experienced New Jersey family law and divorce attorney, call our law offices at (800) 891-2657, or contact us online.