Saturday, September 29, 2007

Divorce American Style

One of those widely accepted assumptions that never gets questioned is
that “about half of all U.S. marriages end in divorce.” We hear it all the time from “pro-family” groups like James Dobson’s Focus On The Family (which even claims that "evangelicals who attend church regularly divorce at a rate 35 percent lower than secular couples.” I wonder how that rate compares to non-evangelicals and couples of other faiths who attend worship services regularly? Sadly, Dr. Dobson doesn’t tell us.)

But an Op-Ed in Saturday’s New York Times by the Wharton School’s Betsey Stevenson and Justine Wolfers says divorce rates are actually at historic lows:
The story of ever-increasing divorce is a powerful narrative. It is also wrong. In fact, the divorce rate has been falling continuously over the past quarter-century, and is now at its lowest level since 1970. While marriage rates are also declining, those marriages that do occur are increasingly more stable. For instance, marriages that began in the 1990s were more likely to celebrate a 10th anniversary than those that started in the 1980s, which, in turn, were also more likely to last than marriages that began back in the 1970s.

But, the authors note, last week the New York Times ran with 25th Anniversary Mark Elusive for Many Couples:

More than half the Americans who might have celebrated their 25th wedding anniversaries since 2000 were divorced, separated or widowed before reaching that milestone.

Stevenson and Wolfers blame a statistical glitch on the erroneous report, which got picked up by papers all around the country. I’ll let you click through to read their explanation of the statistics involved -- nothing bores me more than reading about statistical methodology. They also point out that counts of divorce certificates “show the divorce rate as having peaked at 22.8 divorces per 1,000 married couples in 1979 and to have fallen by 2005 to 16.7.”

This interests me because this story shows the tenacity of certain American myths. On a more cynical note, it also shows the willingness of our news media to publish virtually any juicy human interest story that crosses the wires because some editor thought it felt plausible, based on that tenacious American myth. The 25th anniversary story appeared everywhere from to the Chicago Sun-Times to the Houston Chronicle to the Christian Post. The Post's story generated a comment spouting the predictable BS about divorce being the product of sinful behavior, premarital sex, cohabitation, etc.

This is why this story bothers me. These erroneous beliefs eventually manifest as public policy: covenant marriage laws, for example, or the ridiculous notion that society’s acceptance of GLBT relationships has weakened heterosexual marriages because "gee, nearly half of all marriages end in divorce!" I wonder how many papers that published the “fewer 25th anniversaries” story will print the Stevenson and Wolfers piece? Probably none. Will the Christian Post? Doubtful.