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Matrimonial Matters: Divorce rates are falling — is this a good thing?

The title of this month’s column is not meant as a joke. Yes, the first cynical thought is that a falling divorce rate is not good for matrimonial lawyers. However, statistics show that the overall divorce rate in the United States is falling, and has been falling for several years.

Sara Stout Ashcraft

Sara Stout Ashcraft

However, the question is whether a reduction in the divorce rate signals more amiable marriages — of which even the most jaded matrimonial attorney would likely approve — or whether something not so nice is causing the drop in the divorce rate. Recently, a number of online news sources have been pondering this question.

On Dec. 2, The New York Times published an article entitled “The Divorce Surge is Over, but the Myth Lives On.” This article points out that a number of popular news sources continue to refer to the “increasing divorce rate” and claim that at least 50 percent of U.S. marriages end in divorce. However, according to the Times, “the divorce rate peaked in the 1970s and early 1980s and has been declining for the three decades since.” In order to assess whether a falling divorce rate should be viewed as beneficial to society, we need look at the reasons the divorce rate is falling.

People are marrying later, with approximately one-third of men and women in the 25- to 29-year-old range having never been married. However, does waiting longer to get married produce more stable relationships or does waiting to get married simply skew the numbers since people have a finite lifespan in which to get married — and divorced?

Additionally, the decline in the divorce rate is mainly applicable to people who are college educated; the more education a person has the less likely he or she is to divorce. As there is a correlation between education and income level, that also means that those in the middle and upper income ranges are less likely to divorce. Conversely, the divorce rate among people with only high school educations is not going down, and remains fairly close to that 50 percent level.

It is not exactly clear why there is this disparity. Any matrimonial practitioner will tell you that financial pressures are often a factor in causing or exacerbating a marital rift. The changing economy has reduced the employment and income possibilities for those without a college education, increasing stress in the household, which may lead to divorce. Further, the desire or necessity of both partners pursuing careers may cause problems if one partner is looking for an Ozzie-and-Harriet type of marriage.

Another major factor in the falling divorce rate is the falling marriage rate. Cohabitation without marriage, as well as single-parent families, is far more acceptable today than it was a few decades ago.  Long-term cohabitation is particularly more likely among the less educated and less affluent.

Despite the fact that the breakup of a cohabitation arrangement can be as traumatic as a divorce, especially when children are involved, there is no clear way to track such divorce-like splits. However, there has been an increasing caseload in Family Court custody matters over recent years, and increased cohabitation and childbearing without marriage is clearly one reason for the overflowing dockets.

Another postulated cause for the falling divorce rate is that the idea of marrying for love is now the norm rather than making the traditional “good match,” e.g., good provider, good homemaker, etc.  Supposedly, people are now looking to marry their soul mate and thus are more likely to stay with that person. While there are probably fewer couples looking to achieve the classic good match, it is questionable about how many people today are marrying their soul mates.

This is particularly doubtful considering the array of television “reality” shows in which women and men compete to be chosen as the bride or groom and the over-the-top weddings which populate cable channels. On a possibly related issue: A few weeks ago, it was widely publicized that studies indicate that the more expensive the engagement ring — and the more expensive the wedding — the less likely the parties are to stay married.

Whether the falling divorce rate can be viewed as a good thing or simply a sign of changing times remains to be seen.

Best wishes for the holidays and coming year!

Sara Stout Ashcraft is a partner in Ashcraft, Franklin, Young & Peters LLP. She concentrates her practice in the areas of matrimonial and family law.

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