For as long as I can remember, I have heard that half of all marriages in the United States end in divorce. That means fifty percent of all marriages fail, so if you ever attend a double wedding, you should expect one bright-eyed couple to become broken hearted, right? It’s no wonder they smash wedding cake into each other’s faces.
Since the 1970s, this discouraging statistic has been easily used to justify lifestyle choices that do not require the legal entanglements of a more formal union. After all, fifty-fifty odds create a fool’s game that makes the marriage bet worth reconsidering. This is especially true when houses, cars, and 401-Ks are put on the line. We’re talking serious poker chips in the until-death-do-us-part pot. Some would rather just split the rent and play black jack in Vegas.
But statistics are funny things. When presented to prop up an argument, they can look like your reflection looks in a fun house mirror. Sure, you’re seeing a picture that comes from your real self, but everything about you is suddenly, grotesquely, laughably distorted.
Of course it is impossible to deny that divorce is not uncommon in the United States. Everyone knows children with bedrooms in two different houses. It’s no longer safe to assume that a mother and a child will share a surname, and one only needs to buy a copy of People Magazine to delight in the antics of Hollywood folk who discard husbands and wives as casually as last season’s fashions.
But the truth is new couples do not face fifty-fifty odds.
So how are these numbers derived? The data to create the statistics comes from a variety of sources that do not take into account the whole picture. To simplify, let me use an anecdotal illustration that sheds light on how the numbers add—and don’t add—up.
My parents have been married for almost fifty years. My grandparents on both sides were married until death sundered their respective unions. My husband’s grandparents on both sides also fit that description.
However, my husband’s parents divorced when he was a young boy. His mother had two more marriages that ended in divorce. His father had one more marriage that ended in divorce.
If you’re keeping track, you’ll see I have listed five marriages that were successful. There are also five marriages that failed. (I count my husband’s father as having two failed marriages, my husband’s mother as having three failed marriages.)
If you go by those numbers, we can derive that fifty percent of all marriages fail, right? Those statistics create a completely accurate picture, right?
Well, yes and no.
Remember, we’re looking into a fun house mirror.
The number of marriages that fail might be fifty percent in this case, but the number of people who had failed marriages is not fifty percent. The statistic is misleading.
And while I’ve offered you anecdotal evidence, the above scenario can be exploded out into the larger world of marital statistics because, basically, the data is collected from states by the Center of Disease Control without taking into account finer points like how many times a bride has been a bride.
In other words, the 50-50 numbers don’t give you the real odds because of how they are presented to you. They are like a distorted reflection of the facts: real but not accurate.
If you really want to make bets on whether or not a couple will stay together, you must know more about them apart from when they said, “I do.” Age, education, and shared religious outlooks all tip the scales in a major way, and it’s not likely high school sweethearts with different financial goals will make a lasting commitment.
Of course, if you look hard enough, you will find that couple married at nineteen, barely out of high school, with no money in the bank who managed to make it work, but this is much more rare than finding a more mature, established couple with a shared life vision that have been able to stick it out to achieve happily ever after.
In either case, there are no guarantees.
Sometimes, when all the indicators say a couple will stay together forever, really good people still choose to hire lawyers and split apart.
Marriage, after all, is a partnership between people, and people are not perfect. Sometimes the problem is they are simply not perfect enough for each other.
Regardless, the fifty-fifty statistic that we bandy about is irksome because it undermines the viability of marriage in general. It makes people cynical about an institution that undergirds society. It makes it too easy for that bright-eyed bride and groom to file for that no contest divorce when the going gets tough because… well… chances are they weren't going to make it anyway.
That’s a shame.
While a divorce was much more uncommon in my grandparents’ day—something that should be taken into account when looking at the figures—it’s easy to prove that the number of people who break up in my own generation is not nearly as high as the public example of people like Kim Kardashian might lead us to think.
In fact, my husband and I and our siblings may sometimes feel as if we live in fun houses, but we are all happily married and have never been divorced.
I’d say we’re beating the odds, but the truth is we’re simply reflecting the majority outcome for marriage in the United States.
That’s a winning image.