Examining Marriage & Divorce Rates Throughout U.S. History

Randy Olson is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Pennsylvania. As a hobby, Olson has taken up “data tinkering” where he tackles new data analysis problems every week and reports his findings on his personal blog. His work has been featured in the New York Times, Wired, and FiveThirtyEight.

Recently, Olson collected data on long-term marriage and divorce trends by combing through the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics database. He then charted the per capita marriage and divorce rates for the last 144 years. The result is a fascinating look at the marriage and divorce habits of Americans throughout history.

marriage and divorce rates
Chart courtesy of http://www.randalolson.com/.

Click here
to view an interactive version of the chart. 

Here are several nuggets from the data Olson analyzed:

  • The marriage rate peaked shortly after the end of World War II with 16.2 marriages per 1,000 people in 1946. Olson noted that there was an increase in the marriage rates at the start of both World War I (1917) and WWII (1942) and the conclusion of both wars in 1918 and 1945.
  • Just as the marriage rate increased following WWII, the biggest spike in divorce rates occurred immediately following the war, reaching 4.3 divorces or annulments per 1,000 people in 1946 – more than double the rate at the start of the decade. The divorce rate then quickly dipped back to near pre-war levels during the 1950s.
  • The most notable drop in marriage rates occurred during the Great Depression as the rate went from 10.1 marriages per 1,000 people in 1929 to 7.9 in 1932.
  • The divorce rate steadily increased after 1962, reaching a peak of 5.3 divorces or annulments per 1,000 people in 1979 and 1981. Since then, the rate has steadily declined. There was a significant drop – from 4.1 to 3.3 – from 1999 to 2000.
  • In 2009, the divorce rate hit its lowest mark since 1968 with 2.7 divorces or annulments per 1,000 people.
  • The marriage rate hit its lowest mark in 2010 at 6.8.
  • Olson notes that after taking population into account, the marriage rates are the lowest they’ve ever been in recorded U.S. history.

Randy Olson discusses his analysis of marriage and divorce rates through history with DadsDivorce LIVE

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3 comments on “Examining Marriage & Divorce Rates Throughout U.S. History

    The marriage and divorce rates are based on “per 1000 people”. While this makes sense regarding the marriage rate — it does not for divorce rate. The above only states that as the marriage rate declines so does the divorce rate. Fewer people getting married means fewer people getting a divorce. A much more instructive approach is to view divorce based on “per marriages”. Has that changed over the last few decades?

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