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  1. Introduction
  2. Public Pronouncements and Vital Social Statistics
  3. The History of Marriage and Divorce
    1. Marriage
    2. Divorce
  4. The Social Myth Surrounding Divorce
  5. The Marriage and Divorce Data
  6. Discussion
  7. Conclusion: Marriage and Divorce in the 21st Century
  8. Bibliography

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The perpetuity of marriage is enforced by law as a protection for children, for whose education and support society as such makes no other provision than the frequently aborted attempt to compel an efficient guardianship of the parent by penal enactments. (Andrews 1975:12)

The Romans bemoaned their high divorce rates, which they contrasted with an earlier era of family stability. The European settlers in America began lamenting the decline of the family and the disobedience of women and children almost as soon as they stepped off the boats. (Coontz 2005:1)

No trend in American life since World War II has received more attention or caused more concern than the rising rate of divorce. (Cherlin 1992:20)

As an often-cited U.S. government report indicates, “Current concerns about the condition of the American family, as well as discussion about ‘family values’ indicate a need for timely information about factors contributing to major shifts in family structure” (Norton and Miller 1992:iii). With the emphasis on marriage, divorce, and remarriage, the government is looking closely at well-known sociological facts pertaining to changes in the family, sex and gender roles, and issues relating to human sexuality. As noted by Cherlin (1992), “Although the family undoubtedly has a future, its present form differs from its past form in important aspects, at least in part because of recent changes in patterns of cohabiting, marrying, divorcing, and remarrying” (p. 2).

Although marriage may be a damaged institution (Cherlin 1992) and a marriage crisis is a global concern (Coontz 2005:2–3), social attitudes do not necessarily reflect a consistent assessment of these occurrences. Early alarmists, such as William F. Ogburn (1927) and Ogburn and Nimkoff (1955), who considered the family as a damaged institution and thus as a subject of sociological inquiry, raised important problems concerning marriage and divorce. In addressing family issues, these sociologists recognized that the economic, protective, recreational, and religious functions of the family had shifted since the 1920s. Consequently, functions like as protection, education, economics, religious instruction, and recreation have been outsourced to other institutions (Newman 1950; Zellner 2001:38–39). Indeed, the economic unit functions of the family were replaced by the factory, the restaurant, and the store, while the protective responsibilities were assumed by the courts, the school, and the health department (Ogburn 1927:7).

William Fielding Ogburn wrote in 1927 that marriage is a significant social institution due to its correlation with happiness. Ogburn may have been the first analyst to discover the significant disparity in the mortality rates of married and unmarried men. He acknowledged that divorce is of particular significance to society because, as he notes (p. 7), divorce typically occurs with the expectation that a new family will be created through remarriage.

Public Pronouncements and Vital Social Statistics

In 1632, the Grand Assembly of Virginia mandated that all ministers in the commonwealth record all burials, christenings, and marriages. Since then, the United States has maintained a long tradition of recording key occurrences. In 1639, the Massachusetts Bay Colony established a law mandating that all births, funerals, and marriages be recorded by government officials. Other colonies, including Plymouth Colony in 1646 and the Connecticut Court of Elections in 1644 and 1650, quickly ordered town clerks or registrars to record similar birth, marriage, and death information. In Massachusetts, however, a regular registration system and form were not established until 1842, when the Secretary of the Commonwealth assumed responsibility for collecting such data (Jacobson 1959:7–8).

Vital data such as births, deaths, marriages, and divorces were well-recognized declarations of public significance before the mid-1850s, when the collection of vital information became an important part of the official state census gathering. Possibly for this reason alone, the philosophy around marriage and divorce, especially in the United States, has been hampered by social, religious, and political interpretations for a very long time. Further legislation was interrupted by the Civil War, but in 1889, an issue of the Political Science Quarterly lent credence to the fact that issues relating to marriage and divorce were receiving significant exposure. Dike (1889) noted the following:

Twenty years ago President Woolsey’s Divorce and Divorce Legislation contained in a dozen scanty pages about all the existing statistics regarding both this country and Europe. Since then, the collections of their statistics by four or five more states (in a meager way, excepting the excellent work in Massachusetts begun by Mr. Wright, the Commissioner of Labor in 1879 and contained since under provision of statute); [and] the few additions by the National Divorce Reform League. (P. 592)

Lobbying for more efficient registration legislation led to important advances at the federal level by the early twentieth century with the creation in 1902 of the Bureau of the Census and, in 1903, a Congressional resolution calling for a cooperative effort between the states and the newly established Bureau to establish a uniform system of birth and death registration for the entire country. At the time, only 15 states and the District of Columbia had established a central filing system; by 1919, all states had legislation that required such registration even if strict enforcement did not occur (Jacobson 1959). Despite these advances in statistical gathering procedures, as late as the mid-twentieth century only three-fourths of the states had a provision for recording marriages and about one-half for divorces (Newman 1950).

In 1877, the first government database on marriage and divorce was formed, and Walter F. Willcox conducted the inaugural examination of the data (1891, 1893, 1897). Since then, there has been a significant deal of public discourse as numerous analysts utilize the vital statistics data to challenge parts of what was to become a complex social matrix including the structure and function of the institution of the family.

In the 1950s, it was hypothesized that divorce was more prevalent among lower socioeconomic levels and that the highly publicized divorces of prominent middle- to upper-class individuals generated an inaccurate impression of the incidence of divorce in the United States (Monahan 1955). In the late 1980s, it was asserted that two-thirds of first marriages would result in divorce (Martin and Bumpass 1989). Following this claim, White (1990), arguing that divorce is a macro-level problem, wrote that “A shift in the lifetime divorce probability from 10% to well over 50% cannot be explained at the micro level” (p. 904).

Such a view of and debate over marriage and divorce issues continues in the contemporary experience, prompted in part by the findings reported and commentary attributed to analysts such as Martin and Bumpass (1989), Riley 1991, and Cherlin (1992). Andrew J. Cherlin wrote (1992:7) that “During the 1980s the divorce rate declined slightly but remained high enough that about half of marriages, at current rates, would end in divorce.” Cherlin (1992) also observed that divorce “rates in the 1980s, although stable, still imply that about half of all the marriages begun in the mid-1970s will end in divorce or separation” (p. 30). Such information is also cited in the most learned of reference publications, as noted by Norton and Miller (1992) and Kurz (2001:3811), for example, who, drawing upon Cherlin (1992), among others, state, “The USA has one of the highest divorce rates—50 percent of all marriages now end in divorce.” Because of the respectable position these analysts hold, other analysts make good use of the information to further perpetuate the myth of a 50 percent divorce rate. For example, Ruggles (1997), in citing Cherlin’s work, stated, “Only about 5% of marriages contracted in 1867 were expected to end in divorce, but over one-half of marriages contracted in 1967 are expected to end in divorce” (p. 455). And of course, publications that champion women’s issues cannot neglect the divorce problem, as noted in Deborah Perry’s discussion on the economy: “with more than half of marriages ending in divorce, many stay-at-home women may not be entitled to the Social Security benefits of their former spouses” (Malveaux and Perry 2003:109).

Due to its seeming veracity, the common perception of a 50 percent divorce rate dominated the later decades of the twentieth century, and the myth continues to persist in the early years of the twenty-first. Despite its legendary quality, the presumed high divorce rate placed the institution of marriage and the event of divorce at the center of a core of societal concerns that confront our sensibilities. Indeed, since the publishing of the first public report of marriage and divorce statistics around one hundred years ago, tales of a more golden past surrounding marriage and the institution of the family have been prevalent (Calhoun 1917, 1919; Coontz 1992, 2000, 2005). However, rigorous analysis of the data demonstrates that the myth of a 50 percent divorce rate is not substantiated by social facts.

A discussion of the incidence and rate of marriage and divorce, as well as the debunking of the myth that the United States has a 50 percent divorce rate, is supported by official government documents. In the following sections, these data are applied to the historical and present marriage and divorce experience in the United States. These official statistics reveal that the prevalent myth of a reduction in the conventional family structure and the continuous exponential expansion of the U.S. divorce rate constitute an unsubstantiated social construct.

Some concerns related to the study of marriage and divorce are discussed in the sections that follow. Newman (1950) noted, however, that these topics cannot be studied in isolation because the study of marriage and divorce is related to vast changes in a complex social order that necessitate an investigation into the cultural, social, political, and economic aspects of the family, as well as changes in the structure and function of the family. If this evaluation was accurate more than fifty years ago, the message may be even more pertinent in the early twenty-first century.

The History of Marriage and Divorce

If civilization is to be founded on family life, then marriage also is essential. The family in its current form emerged during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when the conjugal family developed concomitant with the soon-tobe-discovered concept “childhood.” At that point in time and over the next two centuries, the primary task of the family was to train and nurture children; family life became increasingly oriented toward children. Thus, the modern family developed the concept “home” with its characteristics to include privacy, isolation, and the domestic life (O’Neill 1967:4–6). The history of the marriage institution and the cross-cultural complexity of divorce became well chronicled in an early-twentieth-century three-volume treatise titled A History of Matrimonial Institutions. Written by George Elliott Howard and published in 1904, this grand, scholarly series addressed the vast accumulated knowledge of marriage and divorce within a global context. Published during a period when many interesting questions were being raised about the family institution (see, e.g., Shively’s ([1853, 1889] 1975) edited work Love, Marriage, and Divorce, and the Sovereignty of the Individual: A Discussion between Henry James, Horace Greeley, and Stephen Pearl Andrews ), a previously unpublished work by Stephen Pearl Andrews (1975, edited by Shively) titled Love Marriage, and the Condition of Women, and the references found in the cross-cultural and regional comparative analyses of Willcox (1893), such resources established the import that subsequent research would offer policymakers of the future.

Walter Willcox’s demographic work was the first influential empirical assessment of marriage and divorce and helped to establish the foundation for future population analyses. But the first scholarly American study of the family appears to have been published in 1887 by Charles F. Thwing ([1913] 1887), a minister and later university president, whose analysis of divorce led to the belief that excessive individualism and modern secularism were the root causes of the divorce problem (as cited in O’Neill 1967:170–71). Thirty years later, Arthur W. Calhoun’s three-volume set Social History of the American Family (1917–1919) was to serve social analysts and policymakers well. In the latter instance, the important sociological inquiry into the family institution helped to establish a university-level curriculum for the developing discipline of sociology.

A more limited but no less important inquiry into the history of American divorce is offered by Blake (1962), whose work builds upon the issue of “migratory divorce” raised by Cavers (1937) a generation earlier. Blake’s questions about the conservative New York State’s position on divorce led him to further explore the issue on a national basis, especially as it led to Nevada’s liberal divorce laws. Willcox (1893:90), on the other hand, recognized long before Nevada’s developing reputation that states like Rhode Island offered more liberal opportunities, including divorce, to the residents of New York State.


The rapid expansion of the American frontier as a result of pioneering, the rise of industrialism and urbanization, and the improvement of living conditions in the northern United States had significant effects on the evolution of the American family. This included a greater emphasis on marriage, early marriage for both men and women, and high birth rates to ensure big families (Calhoun 1918:11–25). The following statement illustrates the cultural necessity of these early Americans. Marriage, according to Lowie (1933), is human mating that receives moral appraisal

according to the norms distinctive of each society. Marriage denotes those unequivocally sanctioned unions which persist beyond sensual satisfaction and thus come to underlie family life. It is therefore not coextensive with sex life, which embraces matings of inferior status in the social scheme of values. (P. 146)

As observed by Coontz (1992, 2000, 2005), a single standard definition of marriage is difficult to create due to the wealth of cross-cultural anthropological study literature (see, for example, Lowie 1933). However, marriage is a sort of cooperation between the sexes designed to ensure the perpetuation and ultimate survival of the species (Hankins 1931).

Despite conceptual difficulties, marriage and divorce are two family-related issues that have been the subject of extensive discussion, analysis, and criticism for over 125 years. Arthur W. Calhoun (1917) stated that the American family institution is the outcome of three evolutionary phases: “the complex of medieval tradition . . . on the basis of ancient civilization . . . ; the economic transition from medieval landlordism to modern capitalism; and the influence of environment in an unfolding continent” (p. 13).

Later, in the third volume of a series on the history of the American family, this author indicated that systematic study of the family began in earnest around the same time as the introduction of early inventions (i.e., the telephone, the incandescent lamp, the trolley car, and the typewriter) into American culture, each of which was to have dramatic effects on communications and transportation (Calhoun 1919:7–10). Similarly, Ogburn and Nimkoff (1955:iii) note that changes in the American family and family living from the early 1800s are influenced by what they describe as three clusters of inventions and discoveries: steam and steel, contraceptives, and the numerous scientific discoveries that have influenced religious beliefs. Almost ninety years after the publication of Calhoun’s family treatise, it is acceptable to assert that the American family institution continues to be influenced by a fluid social context, even though the economic forces that thrive today are vastly different from those of the past.

Official records of marriage behavior collected and maintained by states can be traced back to the act of 1842, when Massachusetts began collecting marriage data, including information on age, sex, and place of birth (Monahan 1951). According to Willcox (1893) and Jacobson (1959), the first state censuses to contain information on marital status were those of Michigan in 1854 and New York in 1855. Twenty years later, numerous additional states began collecting comparable census data. However, the national effort to gather and analyze data did not emerge until many decades later, when Willcox (1891, 1893, 1897) applied newly learning methods to a number of demographic analysts’ areas of interest. Interestingly, Willcox (1893) notes the following: “Only in five states, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut and Ohio, and in the District of Columbia, can the number of marriages be obtained with approximate completeness for each of the twenty years [1867–1886]” (p. 73).


Divorce has long been of interest to sociologists, and the topic has even been cast in importance alongside other social problems. Witness the effort of one eugenics-oriented author, D. George Fournad (1929), who wrote in the Journal of Educational Sociology,

The unfortunate fact . . . remains that the homes of millions of farmers, miners, laboring men, and especially bootblacks are actually cursed by six or more poorly brought up, if not perfectly neglected children, for no other reason than the lack of eugenics or the need of birth-control information. Small wonder that crime, insanity, suicide, homicide, divorce, and physical or mental degeneration are steadily on the increase. (P. 179)

Other observers, however, are more positive, noting that Puritan settlers in the 1600s introduced divorce to the American colonies, where it has a long and venerable tradition (Howard 1909:767). Howard demonstrates that the divorce process has experienced four centuries of liberalization. Long before the twentieth century, moralists, theologians, and statesmen debated the societal implications of a liberal divorce policy. In essence, then, the institution of divorce in the United States was active and expanding well before late-twentieth-century Americans brought it to its present level (Riley 1991:3).

Some of the earliest sociological observers of divorce and its rise lament the decline of the conventional family while describing its demise. However, the incidence of divorce was not the only cause for concern. Rather, divorce was considered at the turn of the twentieth century as “an evil which gravely threatens the social order, which threatens our most profound thought, our most mature wisdom, and our most persistent courage and endeavor” (Howard 1909:767). This is the same complaint that Riley (1991) claims originated in the late 1800s during the Victorian era, which has been designated by some modern alarmists as the model for family life. However, according to Coontz (2005:2–3), each generation over the past 100 years seems dissatisfied with the current arrangement, believing that the marriage connections of their parents and grandparents were significantly more satisfying.

Despite disparities in attitudes regarding divorce across the northern and southern parts of the United States, religious influences were unable to prevent divorce from being regarded as a social safety valve that insures the continuation of marriage (O’Neill 1967:6–10). From this perspective, divorce is not a sign of a failing family system, but rather a characteristic of Victorian patriarchal and industrial households. However, within the postindustrial/postmodernist family, there are still echoes of worry around the proper roles of the husband and wife and their children.

Some contemporary social critics view a high divorce rate as a threat to the institution of marriage, while condemning the liberal legislation that encourages this conduct as weakening traditional family stability. However, the idea that the demise of the patriarchal family is congruent with the movement toward political democracy that shaped American children and young people over the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries has been overlooked (Calhoun 1918:53). The findings presented in the remainder of the research paper tend to support this assertion. However, such lamentations and the image of an ideal, conventional marriage that is constantly in the past are neither new nor have they become so after the passage of the No-Fault Divorce Act. In fact, it has a considerably longer history. Witness the opinion crafted by Justice Thornton in Martin v. Robson, 1872:

The maxims and authorities and adjudications of the past have faded away. The foundations hitherto deemed so essential for the preservation of the nuptial contract, and the maintenance of the marriage relation, are crumbling. The unity of husband and wife has been severed . . . she no longer clings to and depends upon man. (as cited in Vernier 1935:3)

Moreover, Howard (1904:1–160) documents that during the colonial period, it was established that there would exist a free and tolerant divorce policy, and throughout the century following the founding of the United States, divorce legislation was liberalized even further. And during the mid-nineteenth century, social analysts such as Stephen Pearl Andrews (1975:12–13) recognized that despite the need to provide for and succor children, divorce might be a necessary option to maintaining a relationship between two individuals who never loved one another or who may have ceased to love.

As the legal dissolution of marriage, divorce is a cultural problem-solving technique (Honigmann 1953), and it is a normal remedy for those who are in less-than-fortunate family situations (Blake 1962:iii). John J. Honigmann (1953:38) recognized that divorce is a standardized social response that people employ to change their interpersonal relationships, and, as indicated by Hankin (1931:177), divorce is designed to relieve hardships placed upon and experienced by individuals because of customary marriage rules. And like marriage, divorce also

is a product of social evolution, therefore it is normal and to be accepted . . . inasmuch as certain functions of the parent have passed to the state we must begin to reconcile ourselves to the idea of state care of children to the virtual exclusion of home influence. (Calhoun 1919:10)

According to Calhoun (1919:7–10), the National Divorce Reform League, which began in the early 1880s, and in 1897 became the National League for the Protection of the Family, developed its focus on “existing evils relating to marriage and divorce” (p. 8). Although the extent of the poverty and divorce were unknown at the time, some analysts thought of poverty and divorce as important components of the emerging sociological studies of the family. In Volume III of the three-volume treatise Social History of the American Family, Calhoun documents this emerging relationship through the writings of analysts of the late nineteenth century who were looking into the “divorce question” and the “problems of marriage and divorce.” Many questions were raised, including those relating to polygamy, charity, and children as well as education, economics, politics, and religion—each of these issues and related questions was raised within the context of the lack of information pertaining to the 1880s’American family.

The Social Myth Surrounding Divorce

A false idea once implanted is hard to dislodge, and the difficulty of dislodging it is proportional to the ignorance of those holding the idea. (George Cantor’s law of the conservation of ignorance)

The mythology surrounding the American divorce rate is supported by individuals who develop what Sears et al. (1988:98) refer to as the “illusory correlation.” Thus, two factors, the “high divorce rate” and the perceived “breakdown of the family” as a viable social institution, are believed to be highly correlated. Both factors may be contrary to commonly shared set of values, but repeated exposure to such illusory correlation stimuli is consistent with Canter’s law of the conservation of ignorance: Myth eventually assumes the character of a social fact. Within this context, the news media and responsible citizens establish a portion of the public agenda that is based on an inappropriate social reality of the U.S. divorce problem. Dissemination of information in which the work of scholars is either misinterpreted or misrepresented serves to perpetuate social myths (see, for instance, Norton and Miller 1992:1; Kurz 2001).

The lack of public information is also important. In quoting a number of prominent analysts of divorce, Hurley (2005) noted the following:

Part of the uncertainty about the most recent trends (in marriage and divorce) derives from the fact that no detailed annual figures have been available since 1996, when the National Center for Health Statistics stopped collecting detailed data from states on the age, income, education and race of people who divorce. (P. D57)

Perhaps because of the more recent paucity of information, some analysts of the past contributed information that continues to receive notoriety (see, for example, Martin and Bumpass 1989; Cherlin 1992). Despite the fact that Cherlin did not have access to actual data to support his contention, he predicted that approximately one-half of the marriages contracted during the 1970s would end in divorce. Further misunderstanding emerges. In assessing the rise of divorce and separation in the United States during the period from 1880 to 1990, for example, Ruggles (1997), citing Cherlin’s work, stated, “Only about 5% of marriages contracted in 1867 ended in divorce, but over one-half of marriages contracted in 1967 are expected to end in divorce” (p. 455).

The Marriage and Divorce Data

William L. O’Neill observes that divorce was rare during the eighteenth century, and, according to Jacobson (1959) and Furstenberg (1990:382), during the 1800s formal divorce was difficult to obtain; thus dissolution of some marriages resulting from desertion were undercounted. But as shown in Table 1, during the next century, marriage and divorce were considered important enough to warrant official documentation, an accounting that began under the stewardship of Carroll D. Wright, then Commissioner of Labor (Dike 1889:592).

The first assessment of the American marriage and divorce question was addressed by Walter F. Willcox (1891, 1893, 1897). Portions of the data shown in the tables reported in this section are from these initial reports. These data beg the question as to why the myth of the 50 percent divorce rate prevails. One possible explanation may lie in the salience of attitude toward divorce reported by Peck (1993). Since the passage of the No-Fault Divorce Act in 1972, divorce, a fairly common event during the final decades of the twentieth century, emerged as a subject of considerable debate with important social policy implications. First, divorce is considered problematic when the union dissolution affects children. This is especially true when the quality of family life in terms of social, economic, and health-related factors for women and children, affected by diminished financial resources, is at risk (Furstenberg 1990). Divorce thus remains a salient issue, especially in terms of the conservative public attitude toward so-called traditional family values.

Evaluation of marriage and divorce in the United States is possible based on data from 1867 to the early twentyfirst century. Included in these data are those published in the first statistical study conducted in the United States and the national vital statistics gathered throughout the course of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

Marriage and divorce data for 1887 to 1906 first became available in 1908, and sociologists quickly acknowledged the information as representing a “great report” (Howard 1909:766). The data shown in Table 1 are from this first effort to offer an overall view of marriage and divorce in the United States. The researchers avoided reporting data in Part 1, actually reported in 1909, due to general underreporting/nonreporting jurisdictions. Indeed, Calhoun’s (1919:199) assessment of these initial numbers indicates that few jurisdictions outside New England did anything more than supply some numbers. But it is noteworthy that the period from 1896 to 1905, according to Calhoun (1919), was “distinctly prone to marriage” (p. 199) and divorce, which Howard (1909:776) argued was frequent in the two most enlightened and democratic nations in the world, namely, the United States and Switzerland.

     Table 1

Divorce Research Paper

Clifford Kirkpatrick (1968) argues that divorce is an imperfect index of marital and social disorganization. The reason is straightforward: There can be disorganization in the family without divorce. This is one oft-cited reason why the divorce laws have liberalized in Western societies from the early to mid-twentieth century (Kurz 2001). Moreover, when the modern family became the dominant form during the nineteenth century, divorce became much more common (O’Neill 1967). Then, during the Progressive Era from approximately 1880 to 1919, a more liberal interpretation of marriage and divorce arose among the urban, industrial middle class. Indeed, O’Neill (1967:viii) found that as the Victorian family was to represent the ideal throughout the nineteenth century, divorce was to become the first in a series of adjustments that emerged from the clash between ideas surrounding the patriarchal family and the new sexual ethic arising in turn from the new urban, industrial society.

Despite the suggested inaccuracy of the data and ofttimes inconsistent method in recording and reporting procedures through which these data were gathered, at least some data are available. During the 40-year period from 1867 to 1906, a total of 1,274,341 divorces were reported in the then states, the District of Columbia, and the Indian Territory (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1908). As shown in Table 1, there is a steady increase in the number of divorces from 1867 on and in the number of marriages from 1887 to 1906. One would anticipate such a trend, given the growth of the general population during this same period. Yet this did not seem so logical to those analysts who defined divorce in problematic terms. Note the not-uncommon statement of the early twentieth century attributed to William Fielding Ogburn (1927),

In 1924, there was one divorce granted to about every 7 marriages performed indicates that divorce is very common. Moreover, the chances of a marriage entered in 1924 being broken by divorce may perhaps be nearer to 1 to 5 or 6 than 1 to 7. There were in 1924 about 15 to 16 times as many divorces as there were in 1870, and yet the population is only about 3 times as large. (P. 7)

A similar, albeit misguided, statement is even later attributed to Newman (1950:89), who looked at the numeric increases instead of the rates of marriage and divorce.

In Table 2, the divorce “granted to whom”—husband or wife category—for most of the period from 1887 to 1932 isshown.Althoughnotavailableforallyears,thepercentage column for “granted to wife” represents a statistic that is noteworthy. Without exception, for each year two-thirds or more of divorces granted are to the wife. The first data for calculating ratios noting the number of divorces per 1,000 marriages also are shown. With a few exceptions, notably the years 1913, 1918, 1921, and 1922, the number of divorces increases throughout the period from 1887 to 1929. For the period from 1930 to 1932, however, the data show a moderate downward trend toward fewer divorces. With the exception of 1928 and the period from 1930 to 1932, the same observation can be made for marriages in that the trend in the marriage rate is downward.

     Table 2

Divorce Research Paper

Perhaps the most important aspect of these rich data is the fact that they were to serve well the needs of an admiring and ever-growing community of scientists, and these analysts began to raise important theoretical and methodological cause-and-effect questions. Prominent among these early sociologists was George Elliott Howard (1909), whose interest in the complexities of sex, marriage, and the family and especially the role education might play in solving social problems led him to focus on the officially recorded cause of divorce. Other less obvious reasons for establishing the importance of causal factors of what became known as a “divorce movement” included the excessive use of liquor and the platform advocated by the Temperance Movement.

The most frequently cited legal ground, as noted by Hankins (1931) and shown in Tables 3a, b, and c, represents the legally recognized grounds for divorce—namely, adultery, cruelty, desertion, drunkenness, and neglect to provide. Each was common during the period from 1887 to 1891 and for some time thereafter, lending support to the contention by Flexner and Fitzpatrick ([1908] 1996), who, in 1908, wrote, “Women were only granted divorces in instances of ‘adultery, desertion, non-support, and extreme cruelty.’” Other grounds for divorce, although less frequently cited, included bigamy, coercion, conviction of a crime, impotence, insanity, incompatibility, misconduct, fraudulent representation, vagrancy, infection with venereal disease (Hankins 1931). But what is perhaps most interesting is that even though the legal reasons for divorce currently cited may be less offensive by virtue of the descriptor employed, the general reasons for dissolving marriages cited in the past continue in the present.

The numbers and causes of divorces granted to a husband and wife for the five-year periods for 1887 to 1906 (Table 3a) and for 1906 to 1932 (Tables 3b and c) are shown. As noted in Table 2, throughout the period 1887 to 1906 a total of 1,274,341 divorces were granted. Of this total, 428,687 divorces were granted to the husband; to the wife the number is almost double, at 845,652, and serves as testimony that the women’s movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries worked to gain recognition from the courts to allow the initiation of divorce on behalf of women. As one can ascertain from these data, in the United States this right was granted to women in the nineteenth century (Anderson and Wolchik (2001). The causal factors identified within a legal context seem to hold at least up to the mid-twentieth century, for which period Harmsworth and Minnis (1955:316) reported that the legal functional categories, such as extreme cruelty, desertion, adultery, and nonsupport, represent overt manifestations of the factors leading to divorce but these did not necessarily represent the causes of divorce.

      Table 3a

Divorce Research Paper

      Table 3b

Divorce Research Paper

      Table 3c

Divorce Research Paper

Despite such issues, the position assumed by Howard (1904:Vol. 3, pp. 1–160) appears to be supported by the data reported in Tables 3a, b, and c and Tables 4a and b: Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, divorce legislation became more liberalized, reflecting a social need caused by migratory expansion and social changes in attitudes toward the marital bond. Competing definitions of need and justifiable causes also are reflected in the diversity of state legislation, which led to liberal legislation and thereby an increased number of legally acceptable causes for divorce. By 1891, for example, Washington State’s code included 11 causes, of which at least one cause codified a previous more abstract cause.

      Table 4a

Divorce Research Paper

      Table 4b

Divorce Research Paper

To this point the data raise interesting issues as to whether the traditional family some contemporary critics argue existed in the past did in fact really exist. Based on these five-year-period data, images of the traditional family may have been just that—images but not necessarily a reality of positive marital bliss. Some interesting findings reported in Tables 3a, b, and c include “adultery” and “desertion.” Although the data for divorces granted to the wife based on allegations of adultery and desertion are most extensive, the divorce data for these same categories granted to the husband also are noteworthy. Other categories include cruelty, a combination of causes granted to the wife. Such historical times hardly seem idyllic. Perhaps it can also be suggested that the reasons cited for divorce have not changed since 1887, albeit the contemporary law allows categories such as irretrievable breakdown of the marriage, incompatibility, or irreconcilable differences to serve as the more general reasons for filing for divorce, reasons allowed even if the divorce being sought is not mutually agreeable (Kurz 2001:3811). But other causes include crimes against nature, impotency, conviction of a felony and imprisonment, pregnancy prior to marriage, and unknown factors.

As with the information reported in Tables 3a, b, and c, the data in Tables 4a and b show the proportion of divorce by cause granted to husband and to wife. These data are broken down into proportions for the periods 1887 to 1927 and 1930 to 1932. Again, the “adultery” cause for divorce granted to husband is noteworthy as is the steady decreasing trend for this specific category. Of course the opposite effect for the “adultery” cause is noted for the “granted to wife” category. Focusing on the “desertion” cause category, the percentages are markedly consistent information pertaining to the sexual behavior of the throughout the entire periods from 1887 to 1927 and from 1930 to 1932 for both the husband and the wife.

Finally, the incompleteness of the data for the early 1930s is attributed to the fact that Congress mandated that the Marriage and Divorce study in progress since the early part of the century cease after publication of the 1932 study phase. By 1959, analysts such as Jacobson (1959) emphatically stated that marriage and divorce statistics represent the least developed branch of American vital statistics even though national data on divorce were available for many years before such information was available for births and deaths (p. 9).

Table 5 shows the 1921 to 1989 three-year average data for marriage and divorce. The three-year average rates increase from 1921 to 1923 up to the 1978 to 1980 period, and then a modest decline throughout the decade of the 1980s is documented. More important perhaps is that these data are from the oft-cited U.S. government report referred to above. It is important to recognize the historical rise and fall in the rate of first marriages. When placed within an historical context to include the relative prosperity of the 1920s, the Depression years, World War II, the tranquil years of the 1950s, and then the more activist years of the 1960s and 1970s, these data provide interesting American people.

      Table 5

Divorce Research Paper

Frank F. Furstenberg Jr. (1990) suggests that “Americans have always had a higher propensity to divorce than do Europeans and people of North Atlantic Countries,” a contention that receives empirical support from sources such as the Statistical Office of the European Communities report covering the 1960 to 1988 period. Although the United States is shown to have the highest divorces per 1,000 married women, the same reports indicate that the United States also had the highest marriages per 1,000 persons for this period.

The incidence, rate, and ratio of marriages reported for the United Status during the period from 1887 to 2004 are reported in Table 6. Although the data on the number of marriages are incomplete for the entire period, they are both interesting and suggestive. Ranging from a low of 7.9 for the year 1932 (the heart of the Depression period) and then 7.6 for 2003 and 2004 to a high of 16.4 in 1946 (the end of World War II), the marriage rate had been declining or at a steady state since the peak period from 1980 to 1982. The rates recorded for 2002 through 2004 are the lowest since 1932, at which time the 7.9 rate was the lowest ever recorded for the United States. Trendwise, the highest marriage rate for the entire 118-year period was during 1940 to 1950 or just prior to and immediately after World War II.

      Table 6

Divorce Research Paper

Finally, the ratios are important as well. Because of their refinement (but missing for the final decade of the twentieth century and the early twenty-first century), the ratios that are reported in this table may be more representative of the state of marriage.

Calvin L. Beale (1950) recognized the important role separation held as a factor in divorce, especially from the year 1940 onward, a period that includes the years prior to, during, and in the aftermath of World War II. Aside from couple separation as a major factor, as shown in Table 6, an upward trend in the divorce rate can be observed for the period from 1961 to 1981. Since 1981, however, the divorce rate declined, ranging between 5.2 and 4.0. The persistent myth of an increasing U.S. divorce problem may be attributed in part to a focus on the number of marriages and divorces recorded annually, rather than the divorce rate.

In Table 7, the rate of divorce and annulments for the United States during 1887 to 2004 are presented. Most noteworthy is the declining divorce rate since the year 1981, at which time a high of 5.3 per 1,000 population was recorded. The estimates for the years 2003 and 2004, 3.7 and 3.8, respectively, are the lowest since 1972, one year prior to the passage of the California No-Fault Divorce Act legislation.

      Table 7

Divorce Research Paper

Use of the ratio for the years from 1920 to 1996 offers a more balanced representation of divorce in the United States. The highest divorce ratio recorded officially is for the year 1979 (22.8). Early ratios offered by the federal government were the number of divorces divided by marriages for a given year; such data are not useful and tend to offer some modest if ill-informed support to the mythical oft-cited 50 percent divorce rate. The empirical facts differ from the myth. Indeed, the data show that after peaking to a high in 1979 (5.3 and 22.8, respectively), the U.S. divorce rate has decreased beginning in 1982 (5.0 and 21.7).


The reaction to divorce data represents an emotional response to social change, and this reaction may be especially noteworthy when the effect of divorce influences the delivery of social services. One example is the national concern that a large number of children from single-parent families are denied the requisite financial support to allow them the opportunity to prepare for the future. This concern has generated policies to make parents, especially males, more financially accountable for the well-being of their children (Anderson and Wolchik 2001). But the traditional view that men were responsible for women throughout their entire life changed with the passage of the no-fault divorce legislation. Women are now expected to provide their own support through employment to be supplemented by child support and an equal distribution of property (Kurz 2001:3811).

Second, as noted by Sears et al. (1988:134–135), the social milieu affects salience. More than a generation of conservative thinking and a changed economy affect social values. The divorce and marriage rates also may be affected by the economic conditions of the late 1980s and early 1990s that prompted people to consider the financial effects of divorce. The reasons for this kind of decision, such as “for the sake of the children,” “the cost of making two housing payments,” and “to keep intact an estate,” are similar to those reported after research carried out by Cuber and Harroff (1966) in a classic study of the attitudes held by upper-middle-class Americans toward maintaining an unhappy marriage. Another salient factor is the emotional desire to bond to one individual and the strong public attitude toward AIDS. Such external constraints, according to Sears et al. (1988:136), are likely to be salient factors that continue to target divorce as a social issue of import. In addition, the experience of growing up in a single-parent home, according to Dickinson and Leming (1990), is the cause of people viewing marriage differently compared with the past.

However, any discussion of the nature and origin of civil laws in debates over divorce remain relatively unexplored. If introduced into such discussions, evaluation of divorce law usually is confined to family law or the no-fault divorce statutes of the 1970s, especially the California Act of 1973. Thus, the argument as to whether the no-fault divorce laws are the cause or an effect of the U.S. divorce rate continues unabated. What is known is that the statutes currently referred to as “no-fault divorce” eliminate the requirement of providing proof in a court of law, as was required under common law, that one of the marital partners had engaged in adultery or some other act unacceptable to the marital relationship. No-fault divorce statutes eliminate the need to enumerate anything derogative as a sufficient ground for divorce. In other words, the no-fault divorce legislation eliminates the requirement to provide potentially damaging evidence by providing for the dissolution of a marriage based on the finding that the relationship is no longer compatible or viable (—retrieved January 23, 2003). Other acceptable reasons that lie outside the incriminating criteria used under the common law now include irreconcilable differences and incompatibility.

Conclusion: Marriage and Divorce in the 21st Century

In the sixteenth century, reformists viewed divorce as the medicine for the disease of marriage, while in 1919 Calhoun observed that the American people demonstrate a remarkable inclination toward marriage, a statement that was supported by the census of 1890 and the census Special Reports Marriage and Divorce 1867–1906 (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1908, 1909). In 1933, Robert H. Lowie wrote, “It may be safely predicted . . . that the future of marriage will be shaped not merely by utilitarianism but largely on the basis of pregnant ideologies (p. 154). And in 1931, Hankin observed, “Divorce, a symptom of the liberalizing tendencies of modern culture, seems likely to increase as long as underlying conditions continue their present trends” (p. 184). Such statements hold a general appeal—the ideas are not spatially bound or time bound—so that it may be safe to predict that a similar statement offers to forecast the initial decades of the twenty-first century. Witness the early returns. During the first three years of this century, the marriage rate averaged 8.1 per 1,000 population, while the yearly divorce rate averaged 4.0 per 1,000 population. These figures also characterize the final two decades of the twentieth century in that the marriage and divorce rates were lower than in previous years and both these rates declined throughout the final years of the past millennium. Indeed, the rate of divorce in the United States is at its lowest level since 1971, and this downward trend will probably continue or at least remain steady if only because of yet another trend observed by Norton and Miller (1992). These analysts documented the decline in the percentage of ever-married males and females between 1975 and 1990, thereby providing the evidence essential to understanding more recent marriage and divorce patterns in the United States.

Although some modest efforts to counter the myth of the 50 percent divorce rate do occur (see Hurley 2005), this misconception continues because it is reinforced by the news media, clerics, government officials, and even portions of the academic community. The data simply do not support this public misperception. A doubling of the divorce rate was a trend that occurred between 1940 and 1972. The divorce rate increased to 5.3 per 1,000 by 1981, and the decline in the annual rate has occurred since that time, representing an important trend that suggests a return to what may be identified as the normalcy divorce rate. Still, resistance to this fact and the perpetuation of the myth that a 50 percent divorce rate is undermining the family institution will probably continue because of other unrelated salient social issues. As Carter’s law of the conservation of ignorance suggests, a false idea, once implanted, is difficult to dislodge from the human psyche.

Changing social mores throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and changes in the divorce laws removed the legal constrictions and social taboos pertaining to divorce, in turn providing important new perspectives on divorce (Cherlin 1992). Thus, any explanation of marriage and divorce that is inclusive of an historical perspective is to be valued. Within this context, the historical data and a sociohistorical assessment of these data serve to address two sociological issues: (1) Was historical family life as good as some analysts would have us believe? and (2) Is the present family bond as bad as the common wisdom suggests? In focusing on the marriage and divorce topic in this manner, insights that are essential to challenging a longstanding myth pertaining to the solidarity of the traditional family and the most misleading social myth pertaining to the 50 percent divorce rate can be explored.

The importance of economic factors and marital stability was not recognized until the 1940s (Goode 1951), when employment status, occupation, deviant behavior, and public assistance variables were first taken into consideration. Given the important changes in the role of women during the past one-half century, and the call among some reformers to again relegate women to the domestic role, findings such as those reported by Schoen et al. (2002) serve to enhance our current views of marriage and divorce. Past perceptions that dual careers pose a threat to the family and that a persistently high divorce rate will eventually undermine the very foundations of the family institution do not hold up to long-term scrutiny, and it is this kind of analysis of marriage and divorce that must be undertaken within the context of historical change (Scott 2001). Note, for example, that the wife’s employment status, according to Schoen et al. (2002), may be influenced by their labor force participation to end an unhappy marriage, but the wife’s employment status does not appear to affect happy couples. As these analysts note, “There is an interaction involving wife’s employment and marital happiness with marital disruption . . . [but] wife’s employment is not associated with increased risk of disruption when both partners are happy in their marriage” (p. 569).

Thus, it can be suggested that if the cyclical prediction offered by William Strauss and Neil Howe in The Fourth Turning (1997) has merit, then we can anticipate a continued movement toward an American bonding experience throughout the early decades of the twenty-first century, including interpersonal relationships that emphasize the importance of the family. Thus, the marriage rate should remain stable or increase while the divorce rate will also remain stable or decline. If the past does indeed provide a lesson, this fourth turning crisis may thus reunite society by providing the requisite common purpose to reenergize and regenerate society. One possible result is that families are again strengthened, major public order questions are resolved, and a new order is established (Strauss and Howe 1997:256).

The assessment of the contemporary family system in general and of divorce in particular can emerge from a minority point of view to become a part of the new perspective of what the family represents and how this emerging definition fits into the social structure. As noted by O’Neill (1967), and consistent with the historical context emphasis advocated by Cherlin (1992), the period from 1880 to about 1919 was and continues to be important for understanding why the American rate of divorce increased and for identifying the change in the public attitude toward divorce. Thus, it would be erroneous to argue that divorce was, currently is, and will in the future serve as a sign of decadence that is corrupting the family institution.

Thus, as the American society strives to enter into a new cycle or era in which everything seems to be as it should be, Furstenberg’s (1990:381) view that the rate of divorce during the 1980s reflects the state of role conflict and ambiguity within the marriage system can be used to explain the marriage system of the past 25 years. Referring to what he identifies as a voluntaristic form of marriage in the United States, Furstenberg argues that divorce has become an intrinsic part of the family system. Although it may take up to several decades of the twenty-first century to resolve most if not all of the issues that constitute the current “cultural wars,” the outcome of these wars will determine the overall status of the cohesiveness and social bonding elements of the American society, of which the family system remains the most important. In the past, the most important social issues were related to fairness and justice for women; at the end of the twentieth century (Galston 1996) and as we move well into the twenty-first century, the public and moral issues seem to be related to our commitment toward children, which, as noted by Calhoun (1919), also was the case at the end of the nineteenth century. Perhaps the themes Stephanie Coontz has established are most appropriate for the twenty-first century when exploring family issues involving “the way we never where” and “the way we really are” in books with these titles. Certainly, the move toward legal sanctions for civil marriages among gay and lesbian couples and the questions and problems attendant on such unions or pairings really do not differ significantly from those that we are accustomed to.

Although sociologists have long employed divorce data (see, e.g., Ogburn and Nimkoff 1955) and permanent separation data (Beale 1950) as indicators of instability, the limitations of such census data are severe, as Ruggles (1997) noted. Despite the call by then Chief Statistician of the Marriage and Divorce Analysis Branch of the National Office of Vital Statistics Samuel C. Newman (1950) for better vital statistics, and the declaration by White (1990) that bigger and better data sets were available during the 1980s, currently less information is available on marriage and divorce. In turn, we have less rather than more insights into the complex issues surrounding marriage and divorce (Ruggles 1997). But data-gathering problems and methodological issues certainly are not new, and such problems continue. During the 1800s, formal divorce was difficult to obtain, and, for this reason, dissolution of some marriages resulting from desertion were undercounted (Furstenberg 1990:382). Even so, the published historical data were more comprehensive than those available during the final decades of the twentieth century.

Changes in recording practices occurred during the last two-thirds of the twentieth century, and in 1996, the collection of detailed marriage and divorce data was suspended by the federal government because of limitations in the information collected by and from certain states as well as budgetary considerations. Although the total numbers and rates of marriages and divorces at the national and state levels are available in the National Vital Statistics Reports, the paucity of data available for public and scholarly consumption will undoubtedly continue well into the twentyfirst century. Moreover, the total picture will remain less well defined than in the past because of an increasing number and rate of informal marriages formed by cohabitation that will go unrecorded.


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