The Evolving Factors That Have Predicted Divorce Since The 1950s

In a recent study, researchers undertook an ambitious analysis of the predictors of marital dissolution, e.g. divorce, and how they have evolved since the 1950s in the US. The study has explored whether certain factors that have been associated with higher divorce rates have remained consistent or whether new ones have emerged due to growing economic and social inequalities.

There is already a rich body of work exploring how predictors of divorce change over time in the US, but this work has tended to focus on a single key predictor at a time. These have included factors such as education level, whether a couple cohabitated before they were married, or whether they were themselves the children of divorce. 

Prior to this latest study, the last comprehensive review of the subject was conducted in 2002 and found that predictors were generally stable up to 1995. The only significant interaction with time, so the study claimed, was a convergence in Black women’s and white women’s divorce rates.

But since the mid-1990s, the US, as with other countries, has experienced a significant increase in economic disparities and changes in social norms, which need to be examined in detail.

“Since the 1950s, the US family system has undergone a historically unprecedented transformation”, authors Michael J. Rosenfeld and Katherina Roesler write in their study.

“The age at first marriage has risen, educational attainment has grown, interracial and interethnic unions are more common, the ethnic diversity of the United States has increased, and premarital cohabitation has become dramatically more common. In other words, the mate selection system has diversified and changed in several important regards.”

Together, Rosenfeld and Roesler examined data from 10 cycles of the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG). This data covered the years between 1973 and 2017 and focused on first marriages of women aged 15-44 (which was expanded to 15-49 in the 2015-2017 wave). Due to the NSFG’s focus on male-female couples, the data was only relevant to marriages between men and women.

“We examine women in first marriages exclusively because second and third marriages occur later in life, often beyond the NSFG’s age window”, the team explained.

The dataset encompassed 47,390 women and featured 14,236 divorces, sufficient information for analysis. Using Cox proportional hazards regression, a technique used to assess the association between variables and survival rates, the team were able to account for static and evolving factors across time. These included level of education, race, premarital cohabitation, and family origin intactness.

Interestingly, between the 1950s and the 1990s, the divorce rates between Black women and non-Black women converged. This trend was regarded as a positive outcome of the Civil Rights movement which had led to societal progress that helped to stabilize effects on marriages.

However, after 2000, the trend reversed again. This finding fits with the “Diverging Destinies” hypothesis, which predicts that the greater inequality experienced in recent decades has exerted divisive influences on marital stability, especially among disadvantaged Black women.

“There is a fundamental question about whether increasing inequality in the United States has lead to more inequality in the predictors of divorce, and I find that yes it has on the dimensions of race, education, and age at marriage,” Rosenfeld told PsyPost.  

“The difference in divorce rate between Black and white women narrowed after the Civil Rights revolution but has widened again in the 2000s. The greater divorce risk of marrying as a teenager has increased over time.”

Rosenfeld and Roesler also found that there is a growing gap in divorce rates for women with and without a university education. This too affirms the Divergent Destinies hypothesis as higher education tends to be associated with better economic and social prospects. Education, it seems, remains one of the protective factors that may lessen the chances of a divorce.

Equally, those who marry young (especially women who married at 18-19 years of age) also experienced sharply declining marital stability across the cohorts in the study. In contrast, women who married at age 25 or higher tended to experience relative marital stability from the 1970s onwards.

The authors conclude that “The verdict on the Diverging Destinies hypothesis depends in part on seemingly arbitrary modeling choices. Race and age at marriage are the two predictors of marital dissolution whose change across cohorts is most consistent with the Diverging Destinies hypothesis.”

“We also observe (in six out of nine models) a rising divergence in marital dissolution rates between women without the BA degree and women with the BA degree.”

The study does have some limitations that need to be factored in. As the authors note, “The retrospective nature of the NSFG surveys precludes useful attitude data from subjects before marriage.”

The NSFG datasets also lack any measure of the subject’s income over time and there is a lack of information about marriages and divorces that occur later in life. There is also insufficient data on the division of labor in households, while key questions related to the age at which an individual obtained their BA degree or the reasons for their family of origin non-intactness were also not measured consistently across the NSFG waves.

Nevertheless, this study offers powerful insights into the changing rates of divorce across time and shows how significantly the widening equality gap impacts society.

The study is published in the Journal of Marriage and Family.

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