What percentage of marriages end in divorce?

Posted on Mar 31, 2021 by Katie Carter


Everyone likes to spout off the statistic that, in this day and age, 50% of marriages end in divorce.

Though I’m not, like, an anthropologist, and am hardly a fit and proper person to comment on vital statistics, I don’t think that figure is accurate anymore. A (very) brief Google search led me to this article, which posits that the divorce rate has been declining since the 1980s, when that statistic took hold. Though I can’t vouch for the article’s accuracy (again — not an anthropologist!), it does ring true to me.

The article suggests that, now, more like 39% of couples are getting divorced. But couples are getting married older and older, often after a period of cohabitation.

It doesn’t really mean that people are living happily ever after, though. For a fair number of the people who just cohabit, without making a commitment, they just break up. Is that better? Well, I think it really all depends on whether you’re the higher earning or the lower earning spouse.

I think the article says this pretty well. The people who are getting married are more affluent, and are doing so older and older, while their less privileged counterparts are cohabiting, having children, and splitting, without ever tying the knot. Specifically, the article reads:

A Brookings Institute analysis found that there’s a 50-50 chance that a child born to a cohabiting couple was not planned. And according to Pew Research, more than one of every two children born to cohabiting parents will endure a parental breakup by age 9, as opposed to only one-in-five born within a marriage. They’re also more likely to be poor: 16% of cohabiting parents are living below the poverty line, while just 8% of married parents are. And should they split up, things get more dire; 27% of solo parents live in poverty.

Divorce isn’t really the “big bad wolf” here. In fact, though it’s often hard to think of it this way when you’re actually facing a divorce, it’s meant to be a protection for you – especially if you’re the lesser earning spouse.

Sure, it’s difficult. But BECAUSE you’re married, you have rights. Rights that someone who is simply cohabiting with a partner does not have. Sure, a cohabiting person can just up and leave whenever they feel like it, which is nice.

But that also means that a cohabiting person can just up and leave whenever they feel like it, with no responsibility to the other partner in the relationship. If that partner has stayed at home, is working part time, or is just a lesser wage earner, it can be positively catastrophic.

All that to say that… I wish the divorce statistic was higher, because it would mean that more women (because, let’s face it, women are more likely to be the lesser wage earners, even still) would have the protections associated with divorce. They would have a right to the retirement earned during the marriage. They’d be able to ask for spousal support. They’d be able to get a portion of the equity associated with the marital residence. It wouldn’t just be a “So sorry, changed my mind, have a nice life” situation.

I’m not blind to the challenges of divorce, or the difficulties women experience navigating the Virginia courts. But I do think that it’s a whole lot better, in many cases, than NOT having access to the courts and having to walk away with nothing more than what you, alone, have earned.

If you’re looking ahead to the prospect of a divorce, it may seem bleak. Attorneys, agreements, court – blech, right? I mean, I’m not saying it’s fun. But I am saying that it’s a process that exists for a reason, and that reason is to protect both of the parties to the marriage.

If you’re unclear about what your rights and entitlements are, maybe reading up a bit will help you grapple with what you’re about to experience. Request a free copy of our Virginia divorce book on our website, attend our monthly divorce seminar, or just browse our library for a bunch of interesting, helpful articles (actually written by a licensed and experienced Virginia divorce and custody attorney – me!) like this one.

It doesn’t really matter whether the statistic is 39% or 50% or something else. To you, what should matter is gathering the information you need to get the best new start possible. We can help get you there. For more information or to schedule a consultation with one of our attorneys, give our office a call at 757-425-5200.