Getting Married? If You Want to Optimize for a Lower Divorce Rate, Read This

(Photo: Ben Rosett) (Photo: Ben Rosett)

This question originally appeared on Quora: Statistically, what’s the best age to get married if you want to optimize for a lower divorce rate?

Over time, and across cultures, the “optimal” age of marriage, to result in the lowest statistical likelihood of divorce, changes.

For the U.S. the optimal age range to marry, according to the most recent American statistics, shows the lowest divorce rate is presently enjoyed by people marrying between about age 26 and 33.  This coincides fairly neatly with the age at which most Americans are likely to enter marriage.

Historically, researchers found that divorce rates went up the older a person was when they got married. But that has changed over time, particularly as the number of people getting married in the first place has gone down. A record share of Americans have never married

It isn’t just the rate of marriages that makes the divorce rates. In the 1930s, during the great depression, marriage rates were still high. The average man got married around age 26 and the average woman around age 23, and the divorce rates were still low. In the U.S., only in 1950s did the average age of marriage drop to almost 20 for women, but the divorce rate of those marriages was not much higher than the divorce rate of their parents.

(U.S. Census) (U.S. Census)

Beginning after 1981, which represented both the peak in American divorce rate, and the time when the average age of marriage rose above the pre-1940s level, the divorce rate has fallen but not close to where it was 100 years ago. Social, cultural and legal changes in the U.S. have changed over time, making divorce easier over this time. Therefore, the correlation between age at marriage and likelihood of divorce are not comparable.

Starting in the 1970s, state laws began to make divorce easier, and the divorce rates jumped. The rate of divorce in 1980 and 1981 were the highest on record, but some of that is likely to represent a divorce bubble, where people who either couldn’t or wouldn’t get divorced before the laws and cultural acceptance shifted finally decided to make the move. By the 1990s, that bubble had finally burst, and divorce rates came back down.

As the system leveled out, a strange thing happened to the statistics about the best age to marry.  Compare these two charts showing the age of first marriage and the risk of divorce, the first one showing the statistics for 1995, the second one covering the years 2006-2010. Notice the change in shape of the curves. In the earlier one, average divorce rate plummets from earliest ages to the mid-20s, and then generally goes down over time. In the second, it plummets through the teens, bottoms out around 30 but then begins climbing back up. (These are flawed charts in a variety of ways but do an excellent job of showing the change of curve.)

New census data show more Americans are tying the knot, but mostly it’s the college-educated.

Research has also shown that the percentage of people in a marriage at any given time, peaked in 1960, at 72 percent. Between 1960, when the most people were in marriages in the U.S., until 2012, the percentage of people who never marry has gone up with the percentage of never married men rising from 10 percent to 23 percent, and for women, from 8 percent to 17 percent.

Since the 1960s, the percentage of people getting married in any given year, has gone from about 40 million to about 60 million. Meanwhile, the population has risen significantly faster, going from about 180 million to about 320 million.

Even though at any given time, the percentage of married people at any given time has been going down and is just over 50 percent presently, still, over 80 percent of the population will get married at some time in their life. This lowering of percent of people in a marriage at any given time is happening at the same time that divorce rates have been going down. The reason is later and fewer marriages overall, and a significant (but hard to count) number of people co-habitating with a partner (with or without children) without getting married.

Marital Status Among Young Adults Ages 25-34 (Percent)

                              2000     2006     2007     2008     2009

Married                55.1      48.9       48.2       46.9       44.9

Never Married     34.5      41.4       42.6       43.9       46.3

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2000 Census and American Community Survey.

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What leads to lower and higher marriage rates?  It changes at different times in history. External pressures to marry (as opposed to personal interest) vary over time. Cultural acceptance to not marry varies over time. Experts debate pressures, such as economics, education and religion, as being the major pressures, but at different times, each of these issues seemed to correlate with higher and with lower marriage rates.

In the 1930s, during the great depression, marriage rates were still high, the average man got married around age 26 and the average woman around age 23. Only in the 1950s America did the average age of marriage drop to almost 20 for women, and it did not stay there. What caused the enormous spike in marriages after WWII? Whatever it was, those young married couples of 1950 did not get the high rate of divorce; their children did that, in 1980.

In the 1940s and 1950s, the marriage rate was the highest in American history, and the following generation had the highest rate of divorce in American history. Social, cultural and legal changes in the U.S. have changed, making divorce easier starting in the 1970s, but also, maybe more people got into bad marriages in the 1950s and produced children who grew up with bad marriage role models.

It is likely that part of what is lowering the divorce rate is the expansion of the number of people who simply never get married. Who are the people who do not marry? At least some of them are people who don’t want to, but in past generations would have married due to external pressures, leaving them more prone to divorce. As families make the intentional choice to only have two children, they feel less pressure to get married early enough to have “a big family.” Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the most common age to marry in the U.S. is also the age that leads to the lowest divorce rate. We have hit a natural ceiling on the average age for women to marry, due to the statistical likelihood to have healthy children. Maybe people who wait to marry until they pass the best age to get pregnant easily are simply more likely to be the kind of people who were not as interested in marriage in the first place.

What leads to higher and lower divorce rates?  It also changes. Presently, more education, enough money and marrying at the average age leads to the lowest divorce rates. Less education, not enough money or marrying too young (early 20s or younger) or too old (over 34) contributes to higher divorce rates. Age at marriage is important, but perhaps this is due to things besides just the year they were born. Old enough to get an education beyond high school and to get a good start on a career—young enough to reflect that getting married and having a family are important, personal goals.

And the age itself might be important. Marriage is hard, raising children is hard, and it seems reasonable that the people most likely to not get divorced are the people who enter marriage with a greater sense of commitment to the endeavor. Not too young, and lacking maturity, but not so old that they desire to maintain their independence more than their marriage.

Bottom line? In the U.S., statistics show that women between about 26 and 31 and men between about 28 and 33 have the best chance to stay married. History shows, though, that this age range and the statistics will change.

Related links:

What is the secret for a happy marriage?
What are some of the the best/most creative marriage proposals you’ve heard of?
What is it like being a woman on a dating site?

Shulamit Widawsky is a mental health professional with decades of experience helping couples and a Quora contributor. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.

Getting Married? If You Want to Optimize for a Lower Divorce Rate, Read This