Do Most American Marriages Really End In Divorce? Statistics Show Otherwise

by | Aug 18, 2023 | Culture War

Don’t be misled by bad reporting. America’s marriage situation is far more complex—and among Christians, less dire—than the media has led us to believe.

I remember hearing a report on NPR in the 1990s, before I became politically active, in which studies conducted by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS) and the Catholic Church had shown definitively that those who cohabitated prior to getting married had a much higher rate of divorce than those who did not.

Even in my apolitical youth, it struck me that the liberal NPR reported this, especially given the sources of the data. It directly controverted the conventional wisdom that “giving it a try” before you tie the knot was the wise thing to do, to make sure it sticks. Turns out, as I recall the report, the idea of a “trial run” becomes a permanent condition in the relationship, and the idea of eternity gets replaced, more often than not, with a sense that this experiment can end any time, with no repercussions.

One can imagine the negative effects this attitude could have on loyalty and commitment.

The point of this anecdote is to open a discussion about the conventional wisdom surrounding divorce in America. We’ve all heard that 50 percent of marriages end in divorce. Many accept this as universal truth, regardless of any unaccounted variables.

The actual statistics tell a far different story.,

What Are the True Divorce Rates in America?

Divorce rates in America peaked in the 1970s and early ‘80s. Recent studies indicate 70 percent of marriages forged in the 1990s—more than a quarter century ago—have stuck it out.

Digging deeper, one must understand the numbers behind the claim. A recent tweet thread got me going down this rabbit hole, but the first tweet noted something vital to understanding how marriage actually looks in America.

A very important distinction here: The figure, fifty percent of marriages, does not necessarily equate to fifty percent of people. Before we even examine the veracity of the statistic, we must define the reference point. Without definition, assumptions can get real wild, real quick. As the tweet suggests, we rarely examine who gets divorced, their prior marriage history, their prior relationship history, or any demographic information.

We all just sort of accept that half of marriages end in divorce. In fact, the number is closer to 40 percent, and that number is skewed by folks divorcing for a second, third, or higher number of times. The divorce rates broken down by the number of times married tell a far different story:

  • First marriage: 41%
  • Second marriage: 60%
  • Third marriage: 73%

In other words, folks getting married a second, third, or fourth time have a disproportionate effect on the overall number of divorces.

Prior Sexual Relationships and Divorce

The number of sexual partners one has prior to marriage seems to have some correlation to divorce rates, but more study may be necessary. A study by the University of Utah showed that women who had zero sexual partners prior to marriage had the lowest rate of divorce, whereas those who had ten or more partners had the highest. Those with only two prior partners, however, had the second-highest rate, while those who had three to nine prior partners had a slightly lower rate of divorce.

According to Forbes, the divorce rate per capita (important note—not per marriage) has dropped by over one-third since 2000. In 2000, America saw a total of 944,000 divorces in the 45 states that provide such information to the CDC. By 2021, that number had dropped to 689,308 for the year.

Adjusting for population changes, that means the divorce rate dropped from 4 per 1,000 in 2000, to 2.5 per 1,000 in 2021.

Several other trends have emerged since 2000, including a per capita marriage rate that has declined by about 25 percent (from 8 per 1,000 in 2000 to 6 per 1,000 by 2021), while the average age for partners in a first marriage has increased from their late 20s to early 30s.

However, as one might deduce from the per capita marriage rate above, far more people got married than divorced in America in the first quarter of the 21st century. In 2021, America saw just over 1.9 million marriages compared with 689,308 divorces.

What about the anecdote from the opening of this article, about cohabitation? That’s held steady, too. According to Pew Research, 57 percent of couples that did not cohabitate saw their marriage last more than 20 years, compared with just 46 percent of those who did cohabitate.  

Another misconception revolves around married couples who attend church. Many might assume divorce rates are similar across religious beliefs, but the stats tell a different story. Among marriages where the partners attend church regularly, only about 26 percent end up divorced.

Among those who pray together daily, the rate drops to an eye-popping 1 out of every 1,156.

Social Contagion

One interesting fact emerges from the various studies done on marriage and divorce rates in America. Sociologists think a social contagion could partially explain divorce rates. Couples whose friends get divorced have a 75 percent chance of their own marriage ending. This would also provide a partial explanation for the divorce rates peaking in the 1970s, in conjunction with states relaxing their divorce laws.

On the other hand, birds of a feather flock together and shared lifestyle choices make for lower rates of divorce. Just as the vast majority of couples who go to church together stay together, for those couples who pray together the divorce rate is virtually zero. Similarly, couples in which the partners each have achieved higher education have a much lower rate of divorce.

So both can be true. Negative social contagions have a pronounced effect on divorce rates, as do positive ones. Just look at the “War on Poverty” to see how social contagions work.

I once interviewed Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, who told me flat out:

The poverty rate for adults who do these things in order is virtually zero: 1. Get a job; 2. Get married; 3. Start a family.

The war on poverty, according to Rector, failed because it replaced fathers in poor families with state benefits, failed to require recipients of welfare to seek meaningful work, and gave perverse disincentives for raising children in two-parent households.

The Good News About Marriage and Divorce

So, let’s dispense with the canard once and for all that half of marriages, or more, end in divorce. Instead, America needs to celebrate its good news. Rejecting false premises of the Left includes rejecting false assumptions based on conventional wisdom.

Divorce is falling in America for many reasons, and we have a clear formula for choosing the proper life partner and keeping it together through thick and thin. It requires creating the best conditions for sustaining marriages, and a dedication to avoiding social contagions.

Just don’t believe it when they tell you that half of all marriages in America end in divorce. It simply isn’t true.

Jeff Reynolds is the author of the book, Behind the Curtain: Inside the Network of Progressive Billionaires and Their Effort to Undermine Democracy. You can find all his work at