Many of you remember sermons in church, statistics in political arguments, etc., that said that 1 out of every 2 marriages ends in divorce. In 1981, the number of marriages was 2,438,000 while the number of divorces was 1,219,000 or a rate of 10.6 marriages per 1,000 total population and a rate of 5.3 divorces per 1,000 population. It meant that there was one divorce for every two marriages. So, the statistic is actually correct.

Recently, I read an article claiming that the statistics had changed and that the rate had changed. More than that, the article took the typical attitude of today that the lack of knowledge about this change was the result of a conspiracy to keep people from having confidence in their marriage. In other words, somehow generic “liberals” were involved in lying to us so as to destroy the institution of marriage.

So, I went to the source of statistics, the Centers for Disease Control, National Vital Statistics System. There, I saw that the rate of divorce for 2011—the latest year available—was 3.6 per 1,000 total population. The rate for marriage in the same year was 6.8 per 1,000 total population. Well, if you do the division, that is still 1 out of every 2 marriages ending in divorce.

So, from where does the argument come? I found some further, more neutral, statistics that claimed that the percentage had dropped to 40%. But, I can do math, and there is no way that the math comes out to 40%, at least not the rate math. So, I did a little more digging.

I suspect I know what the confusion was. Let’s look at the total statistics for 2011. The total number of divorces was 877,000 while the total number of marriages listed was 2,118,000. If you do the math, this means that the divorce rate has lowered to about 40%, which is lower than the 50% figure of 1981. This means that there is an apparent discrepancy in the figures!

Well, there is not. You just have to look a little more closely at the statistics. The marriage statistics reflect all states, while the divorce statistics reflect only 44 states. This means that if you look at the total numbers, you will have two unequal numbers reflected. The only way to compare the numbers is by way of the rates, not by way of the total numbers. [No, I do not know why the statistics for several states is not included.]

By the way, when you look at the rates, both the rate of marriage and the rate of divorce have dropped. So, if you look only at the rate of divorce, you will inappropriately conclude that divorce is dropping and that this is a good thing. Unfortunately, the rate of marriage is also dropping, which is why the ratio has remained the same.

But, here is what troubles me. Statistics can mean different things. So, let’s look at the marriage statistics in a different way. How about if we look at the percentage of first marriages that end in divorce? In 1995, 50% of first marriages ended in divorce (after 20 years). In 2002, 33% of first marriages ended in divorce (after 10 years). Well, there is a difference between 10 and 20 years, but the indication is that first marriage divorces have gone down drastically. [Figures are also from the CDC.] This statistic seems to point to the idea that people married more than once have increased their frequency of divorce given that the ratios have not changed in 30 years.

So, what are my conclusions? One conclusion is that people in their first marriage are much more likely to stay married than 30 years ago. A second conclusion is that people who divorce are significantly more likely to keep marrying and divorcing than 30 years ago. A third conclusion is that there is no “liberal” conspiracy to hide the “truth” from all of us. A fourth conclusion is that while Christians are preaching correctly that 1 out of every 2 marriages still ends in divorce, they are preaching incorrectly in that the rate of divorce for first marriages has dropped drastically while the rate of divorce for those who have divorced once has drastically increased.

In other words, there is good news for pastor to preach. The rate of divorce for first marriages has indeed gone down. But, they need to preach it in such a way that the statistic is correctly understood. There is hope.

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