People often married to gain property rights or to move social class. All of that changed by the mid- to late 1800s, with the ideas of love and romance becoming the main reason to wed. But that doesn’t mean our ancestors stayed married, which begs the question: What were divorce rates like in the previous centuries?
According to a report by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, divorce statistics were not recorded prior to 1867. Also, divorce statistics here are reflective of how many divorces there were in the general population, not how many marriages ended in divorce.
To see whether it’s true that half of all marriages today end up in divorce, allow us to take you through time and debunk this myth about divorce rates.
Divorce Rates in America Over the Last 150 Years
In the 19th century, divorce was rare and considered taboo. There were only 10,000 divorces in 1867, and by 1879, there were 17,000. However, the rate of divorce stayed at a very low 0.3 divorces per 1,000 Americans as unhappy couples would often separate but not legally get divorced. However, there were a few pioneers who did legally part ways. In 1880, the rate rose to 0.4 for every 1,000 Americans, and it increased again in 1887 to 0.5. The rate didn’t hit 0.7 until 1898, with 48,000 divorces that year.
While there certainly was a stigma attached to getting a divorce in the 1800s, divorce still happened on occasion. One factor that influenced the relatively low divorce statistics at this time was the fact that women outside of marriage had very few economic opportunities.
While divorce rates still were not that high compared to later years, divorce began to slowly increase. At the start of the 20th century, divorce was still considered taboo. In 1901, the rate rose from 0.7 for every 1,000 people to 0.8. There were 61,000 divorces that year. In 1907, it increased again to 0.9 and stayed there till 1910.
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Divorce rates during the early 1900s were still low because you could not obtain a divorce without proving abuse, adultery, or abandonment.
During World War I, many women entered the workforce as men fought in the war. Women began to gain more independence and freedom, later realizing that they didn’t need a man to depend on for security. In 1912, the rate of divorce reached 1 divorce for every 1,000 people and hit 1.4 in 1919, with 142,000 divorces.
During the ’20s, women continued to gain their independence as they embraced the life of a flapper and started dating publicly. Challenging traditional gender roles, many women chose to stay single longer instead of getting married young. The number of divorces increased to 1.7 per 1,000 people in 1928 and 1929, with 200,000 divorces.
While the trend thus far in history had been upward, this isn’t quite the case with the ’30s. Due to the Great Depression, many couples chose to stay together because they couldn’t afford the aftermath of divorce. A poor labor market meant that many women had to rely on men again for money. During this time, the divorce rate slipped from 1.6 per 1,000 people in 1930 to 1.3 in 1933. According to Matthew J. Hill’s “Love in the Time of the Depression” in the Journal of Economic History, “Marriages formed during tough economic times were more likely to survive compared to matches made in more prosperous time periods.”
It wasn’t until the unemployment rate went down that the divorce rate’s upward trend continued, reaching 1.9 in 1939, with 251,000 divorces.
When the US joined World War II, women entered the workforce again and regained independence, leading to a higher divorce rate in the country. In 1940, the rate was two divorces per 1,000 people and reached 3.4 in 1947. The end of the war saw a distinctive spike in divorce rates. Some have suggested that many families were strained under the burden of living with a man who may have been incapacitated during the war or that many women had a newfound freedom in working and didn’t want to give that up. Regardless, the spike in statistics suggests that the end of the war definitely put a strain on family life.
The rate dipped over the next few years, ending the decade with a 2.7 per 1,000 rate and 397,000 divorces.
A surge in baby boomers in the 1950s and 1960s greatly increased the population. Since the boomers were almost all too young to marry, the per capita marriage rate declined. Once the boomers got old enough, they immediately tied the knot, and marriage rates rose back to pre-WWII levels. The ideal, nuclear, all-American Family was created in the ’50s and put an emphasis on the family unit and marriage. This time period saw younger marriages, more kids, and fewer divorces. In fact, the divorce rate was 2.5 divorces for every 1,000 people in 1950 and dropped to 2.3 in 1955. In 1958, the rate even slumped to 2.1, with 368,000 divorces.
Defying the ideals of the previous decade, the ’60s changed everything. Women started to close the education gap, and the country started to embrace more progressive politics. As a result, women sought independence, causing the divorce rate to rise significantly. In 1960, the rate was 2.2 per 1,000 Americans and reached 2.5 in 1965. In 1967, divorce laws began to change, increasing the number even further. By 1969, the rate jumped to 3.2, with 639,000 divorces.
Divorce continued to rise steadily, taking a bigger jump in the 1970s. This may have been because, for the first time, couples have the option of a no-fault divorce. It was also the first time a spouse could cite irreconcilable differences as the reason for the divorce, making it much easier to obtain. Before this, as mentioned previously, anyone wanting to end their marriage had to prove adultery or cruelty in the marriage. The ’70s was also characterized by hippies and free love. The emphasis on group love and an absence of legal ties also contributed to the dramatic increase. This was the defining decade for divorce as the numbers reached an all-time high.
In 1970, the rate was 3.5, and by 1972, it had jumped to 4 divorces for every 1,000 Americans. In 1976, it jumped to 5, and by 1979, the rate was 5.3 per 1,000 Americans, with 1,193,062 divorces that year.
Divorce rates in the 1980s remained high, reflecting the changing lifestyles and the changing divorce laws. However, the statistics did level off slightly, even lowering by the end of the decade. In 1980, the rate was 5.2 divorces per 1,000 people, and by 1989, it had dropped to 4.7.
Rates declined further into the late 1990s. This has been attributed to many factors, like birth control and marriages later in life. It hovered around 4 for every 1,000 people. In 1990, the rate was 4.7 and dropped to 4.3 in 1997. By 1999, the rate reached 4.1 divorces for every 1,000 Americans with 1,145,245 divorces that year.
Since the turn of the 21st century, the divorce rate continues to decrease rapidly. New research suggests Americans in their late 20s have a less than 50% chance of getting divorced. Meanwhile, their chances of staying married are increasing.
By 2010, the rate of divorces dropped to 3.6 for every 1,000 people, and in 2017, the rate reached 2.9 with only 787,251 divorces—the lowest it’s been since 1968. Before 1968, a divorce rate this low was recorded in 1944! TIME reports that older generations continue to get divorced. Meanwhile, the falling divorce rate may have a lot to do with the millennials’ attitudes to marriage. Unlike baby boomers who married young regardless of their circumstances, millennials and some Gen Xers are choosing to marry only after they have completed their education, established their careers, and stabilized their finances.
According to the Analysis of American Community Survey (ACS) data by Philip Cohen, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland, “marriage is more and more an achievement of status, rather than something that people do regardless of how they’re doing.”
Marriage rates have declined steadily since the 1980s. Today they are lower than any other time since 1870, including during the Great Depression. Events like World War I, World War II, and the Great Depression all had a significant impact on marriage and divorce rates. Couples rushed to the altar before the wars started, as well as at their conclusion. As Olson notes, divorces also spiked after the conclusion of WWII, perhaps because some couples who had married rashly before the war realized their differences. Now millennials are making better marriage choices than the previous generations.
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