It's a commonly cited statistic that's guaranteed to put a twinge of doubt into the hearts of many an otherwise blissful newlywed: "50 per cent of marriages end in divorce." But like many of the pessimistic social statistics that seem to circulate persistently through our cultural discourse, the idea that half of all marriages are doomed to fail needs a bit of careful unpacking to figure out whether it's an actual social reality or just a tired cliché. If you're walking down the aisle this summer, do you really have just a 50 per cent chance of making it to forever?
On the surface, the simplest answer is no. Divorce rates in Australia, as in much of the Western world, have been decreasing since the 1990s, and for couples getting married today, statistics suggest that about two thirds will last the distance (Madden 2015). In fact, crude divorce rates in Australia are the lowest today than they have ever been since they peaked in 1976 after the introduction of the Family Law Act 1975. This was significant legislation because it allowed "irretrievable breakdown" (measured by at least 12 months of separation) to become the singular legal grounds for divorce, rather than the older system which forced couples to prove 'fault' for divorce or remain separated for up to five years first (Weston and Qu 2014). It was this easier legal access to divorce that was the cause of this one-off statistical peak (many couples who had long been separated would have finally been able to legally file), which might be the origin of the 50 per cent myth that still hangs around today.
So the old 50 per cent scaremonger is inaccurate, but that doesn't necessarily mean we're all getting better at staying in love with our spouses, or that we are taking marriage more seriously as a society. The reasons behind changing divorce rates are complex, with one clear factor being that fewer people are getting married in the first place. Ready access to birth control and lessening stigma against single parents has reduced the number of shotgun weddings, but also the number of marriages put under pressure by more children than they can handle.
The fact people are far more likely to live together before marriage, and that the median age of brides and grooms has gone up also contribute to the downslide in divorce rates. Most of us today have had a 'try before you buy' approach to marriage, and possibly a few failed serious relationships before we say an official 'I do', cultural trends that give contemporary marriages more of a fighting chance than previous generations who tended to marry young and only live together once the rings were on.
Divorce statistics also don't tell us the true picture of love and relationships in our society, because they usually don't take in to account the breakdown of long-term de facto relationships, which in Australia have a very similar legal standing to marriages. Anyone who has had to live through the bust up of a long-term partnership that involves things like co-habitation, shared assets, kids or pets knows that whether or not there was an actual wedding day can be immaterial when it comes to the impact on people's lives.
While there is no surefire way to 'divorce proof' a marriage, social statistics do suggest a few key factors that could reduce the chance of the Big D: waiting till you are really all grown up (younger marriages tend to be less successful); staying in school (higher levels of education correlate with lower chances of divorce); and trying to do it just once (first marriages have lower divorce rates than second, third and fourth marriages).
However, I would argue that it's not just inaccurate statistics around divorce rates that need some myth-busting. It's also the persistent cultural belief that a high divorce rate is necessarily a bad thing. Globally, societies with more divorces are also societies where women have greater economic and social autonomy; where there is a better social safety net to support single parent families; and where people are culturally expected to marry of their own choice rather due to familial or religious expectations. Ultimately, a healthy divorce rate doesn't indicate that a society is somehow 'failing' at marriage, it rather indicates that a society doesn't force people to stay in unhappy or even abusive relationships because of social stigma or economic risk.
There are many other ways that traditions and trends around marriage are changing, and these are almost always connected to broader social and cultural change. When it comes to the divorce stats though, the key message is that there's nothing really to panic about. If you've recently become engaged or tied the knot, and someone throws the 50 per cent divorce stat in the face of your wedded bliss, feel free to let them know they are several decades behind the times!