Americans are getting divorced less often than they were 50 years ago, but they are also getting married less and cohabitating more.
In 2017, the divorce rate among married women ages 15 and older dropped to 16.1 divorces per 1,000 married women, down from 16.7 the previous year. That’s significantly lower than the divorce rate’s peak of 22.8 in 1979, according to researchers with the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.
While that may look like good news, many of the likely factors in the falling divorce rate are not. In particular, young couples are more likely to live together before getting married than they were in the past, essentially allowing breakups without a formal divorce. Marriage rates also have been declining for years. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that in 2000, there were 8.2 new marriages per 1,000 people—that dropped to 6.9 marriages per 1,000 people in 2017. The lack of commitment corresponds with the lowest birthrate in 32 years, well below replacement levels.
Wendy Manning, director of Bowling Green State University’s Center for Family and Marriage Research, told The Wall Street Journal that while couples might cohabitate for two or three years before splitting up, they treat marriage differently: “There’s a fear of divorce or a specter of divorce looming large in people’s minds. They don’t want to make a mistake. They’re waiting longer to get married to divorce-proof their marriage.”
Peter Sprigg, senior fellow for policy studies at the Family Research Council, told me that the growth of cohabitation is one of the biggest reasons behind the falling divorce rate, partly because it reduces the total number of marriages and because it removes a large section of unsteady pairings from the data.
“The couples with less stable relationships that might have been more vulnerable to divorce—such as those in lower income classes—are likely to cohabitate instead of marrying,” he said. “So while the rate of divorce per se may be declining, it does not mean the percentage of all relationships that are stable and lifelong is increasing.”
In addition to living together before marrying, couples are also marrying much later in life. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that the median age of first marriages has been steadily rising since the 1940s. In 1947, the median age for a first marriage among women was 20.5 and 23.7 for men. In 2018, it was 27.8 for women and 29.8 for men.
Sprigg said the rising age for first marriages demonstrates a shift in attitude toward marriage. Instead of a gateway to adulthood, he said many people now see it as a “capstone” to getting an education and a career. And while the cohabitation-education-career-marriage path might result in decreased divorces, it’s not how God designed marriage.
“The ideal outcomes for both individuals and society occur when people abstain from sex, cohabitation, or childbearing until after marriage, and then remain committed to their first spouse for life,” Sprigg said. “Although declining divorce rates are good news, we still have a long way to go to reach that ideal for family formation.”