When my daughters were in junior high they were each assigned a writing assignment about what diseases ran in their family. I don’t remember if these were English or Science class assignments, but I do remember my suggestions to them on what to write about: their family has a history of heart disease, alcoholism and divorce. They could understand how the first two could run in the family, but they always thought I was crazy when I mentioned divorce. I felt it was something they needed to take just as seriously as any physical illness.
My great-grandparents were divorced in the early 1900’s. The divorce rate in the early 1900’s was about 4 out of every 1000 marriages. By 1915 the CDC records list the divorce rate as 10% of all marriages. At that time divorce was still considered a social disgrace and you could not obtain a divorce without proving significant cause of abuse, adultery, or abandonment. I cannot remember which of those reasons was given for that divorce to be granted, but I am sure that given the times, it had to be pretty dramatic. Since they lived in a small town in Iowa, I am equally sure their divorce caused a major scandal in their town.
When my grandparents divorced in the early 1930’s, the divorce rate was still only 17%, but it was slightly easier to get a divorce. My grandfather was a delightful man with a sparkle in his eye, but he had a history. Married three more times after divorcing my grandmother, he ran hooch during Prohibition, wild-catted in the oil fields of Texas and was later a small town car salesman before settling down to run the family farm. His stories are legend in the family. My grandmother’s track record is not much better and I can only imagine what a marriage between those two looked like.
Not too long after my grandparents divorced, a major spike in the divorce rate occurred. It was in the mid-1940’s right after World War II ended. In 1946, the year after the war ended, the divorce rate peaked at 46% of all marriages. The war defined that generation and many factors existed that put strains on a marriage as the soldiers returned home.
With so many men in the armed forces fighting in Europe and Japan, businesses, especially factories that produced needed war supplies, resorted to hiring women to provide the necessary labor. This had to be a heady sensation for the women of that generation to realize that they had the ability to earn a living income. What a disappointment it had to be when the soldiers returned home and all of the working women were expected to turn their jobs back over to the men.
In addition to the freedom the women experienced, the men who were returning were not usually the same men who left. Stories proliferate of husbands who returned who suffered from what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. They had seen and experienced things at war that could not help but scar them. Society at the time was not structured to offer them the psychological help they needed, so they suffered in silence. That silent suffering effected both partners in the marriage. Another factor that had to contribute to the higher divorce rate was the fact that there were so many war-time weddings. With the man going off to war, seizing the moment and getting married quickly made sense to a lot of couples who would have never been that impetuous in normal circumstances. A marriage is hard work and being married to a virtual stranger makes it even harder.
The other spike in the divorce rate was during the mid to late 70’s. With the advent of both women’s lib and the birth control pill, women were appraising their world from a completely different perspective. Women were beginning to realize they did not have to put up with neglect or abuse; they could support themselves. The birth control pill meant they didn’t have to stay shackled to their home while raising babies that kept coming year after year.
My parents divorced in 1973 when the divorce rate was around 48%. When they divorced, it was a shift for me, but I most certainly didn’t feel like I was different than anyone else because of the divorce. In a relatively short period of time, divorce spread up and down the street I lived on just like a flu bug would. In a matter of a few years the block I grew up on went from being all married couples with stay-at-home wives to being almost entirely single parent families.
Despite the fact that I should have known better given my family’s low rate of success, I still insisted on getting married a few weeks after my 19th birthday. Three kids and eleven years later, my marriage also ended in divorce. How young we were when we were married was a major contributing factor to our breakup. At that time, in the mid-to-late 1980’s, the divorce rate was 50% of all marriages.
As society continued to evolve, more and more couples were choosing to cohabitate instead of marrying quickly. As women became more accepted as part of the work-force, two income families became the norm instead of the exception. Despite these changes, that logic would suggest would lower the divorce rates, we keep being told that the divorce rate is still running at 50%. However, more and more evidence suggests that the 50% rate is no longer accurate.
According to a new piece in the New York Times’ data blog, Upshot, the divorce rate has dropped. The real divorce rate for new marriages, according to the Times, could be as low as one-third. I want to be enough of an optimist to hope the lower rate is true. I hope that we, as a society, do a better job of preparing our children for the challenges of a marriage in todays world.
As for my family, I would really love for the next generation to be able to make their decisions about whether or not to marry without feeling the weight of the family history on their shoulders. I’ll do my best to help guide them.
Percentages given in this post are from the CDC’s report: 100 Years of Divorce and Marriage Statistics