Item from the Smart Marriages Archive, reproduced in the Divorce Statistics Collection

Divorce, American-Style
Scientific American, March, 1999

SOURCE: Estimates based on 1990 Census data by county and 1997 Bureau of
Census data for the U.S. Because the method of estimation is subject to
substantial error, data for individual counties may not be accurately
however, the broad regional patterns are believed to convey an accurate

The late social scientist Jessie Bernard of Pennsylvania State University
observed that "there are two marriages in every marital union, his and
And his is better than hers." The growing awareness of this particular
perspective among women most likely contributed to the dramatic rise in
divorce rates in the 1960s and 1970s, along with urbanization, the growing
role of women in the workforce and more liberal divorce laws. But why is
U.S. the world leader in divorce?

A possible explanation lies in the restlessness of Americans, who are far
apt to migrate than, say, Europeans. Those who move, particularly a long
distance, may be more likely to divorce because the inhibitions of
family and community ties have been left behind. Divorce has colonial
too: Puritan courts granted divorces, and disgruntled husbands and wives
simply abandoned their spouses.

The map shows the estimated proportion of Americans 18 and older who were
divorced as of March 1997. The reasons for the marked regional
disparities are
not definitively known, but they probably reflect several factors,
church membership, which may reinforce marriage ties. Not surprisingly,
therefore, Florida and most of the western states, where church
membership is
low, have a higher proportion of divorced people. Migration may
contribute to
the high proportion of divorced people in the West and Florida, which
have a
larger proportion of peripatetic individuals than other areas have. The
swath of counties stretching from North Dakota and Wisconsin down to the
Grande is an area with few divorced people, which might be expected in
view of
high church membership and the relatively few migrants to this area. The
prevalence of divorce in Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina may
in part from fairly high church attendance. The huge triangular area with
apex in Michigan and its base from eastern Texas to southern Georgia
shows a
mixed pattern in the proportion of divorced people. This area has wide
variations in migration.

There is little doubt that divorce rates rose sharply in the 1960s and
but there have been some difficulties in interpreting divorce statistics
the early 1980s. Larry L. Bumpass of the University of Wisconsin, who has
the most extensive work on this point, concludes that the divorce rate has
stabilized in the past two decades. As of March 1997, the U.S. had more
19 million divorced people, or 9.9 percent of those 18 and over. The
age of divorced people is about 50, and 58 percent are women. Among
9.8 percent are divorced, compared with 11.3 percent of blacks and 7.6
of Hispanics. Divorce rates in urban areas are higher than in rural areas.

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