Looking for love advice? Maybe I’m not your guy. But on the subject of breaking up? Yep, this child of divorce can speak to that. Today I take you through its twisting contours, from divorce as a sign of marriage equality to why it might make sense to break up for the kids. Then I’ll shed light on some of the more tragic aspects of divorce, including women held spiritually hostage by their husbands, and Americans with disabilities forced to choose between marriage and health care. Welcome to the science of divorce. We hope you’ll stay till the bottom of the email do us part.
Nick Fouriezos, Senior Reporter
what’s happening now
1. The COVID Pause
Last April, YouGov published a poll of 1,000 divorced couples in the U.K., in which 28 percent said the pandemic would have made them less likely to divorce (only 6 percent said it would have made them more apt to split up). From March to September of last year, divorces in Florida were 28 percent lower than anticipated — but the number of marriages also plummeted. In fact, both divorce and marriage rates across the U.S. dropped in 2020, with an estimated wedding shortfall of around 339,917 and a divorce deficit of 191,053 … suggesting that this was a year in limbo for couples across the happiness spectrum. This mimics a pattern shown by American couples during the Great Depression, which was followed by a postwar marriage peak. It all means we could be in for a post-COVID summer of love — with both marriages and breakups.
2. The Long View
Before 2020, divorce rates in America were already dipping, with 2019 registering the lowest numbers in half a century. Globally, though, the divorce rate has more than doubled in the last four decades, as many countries liberalize their divorce laws and women gain more economic opportunity. Meanwhile, marriage rates, particularly in Western countries, have hit record lows, suggesting that with fewer people getting married, the couples who do go through with it are more likely to last.
3. Changing Perceptions
Even as the U.S. divorce rate dropped to new lows, the proportion of Americans who believe divorce is morally acceptable rose to a record high 77 percent in 2019. It’s difficult to find similar data about perceptions worldwide, but perhaps judging nations by their divorce rate can be a telling indicator of how divorce is perceived. In 2017, India had a divorce rate of only 1 percent, followed by Chile and Mexico at 3 percent and 9 percent, respectively, the lowest rates worldwide that year — suggesting that divorce is still very much taboo in those countries.
4. Break Up for the Kids
A study by four sociologists found that divorce is not uniformly disruptive, at least when it comes to children’s education in “high-risk” marriages (those likely to bust up) — which could be a sign that the impact isn't so bad on other facets of life. I can say that it was a positive in my life because my parents had a better relationship as friends than as partners, shielding my siblings and me from what could have been another decade of domestic squabbling.
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In many cases, Americans with disabilities must pick between marriage or their health care, due to Social Security Administration policies that strip coverage from those who marry a partner whose income exceeds certain thresholds. Some states have tried to raise limits to help mitigate this choice, but most haven’t, leading to huge disparities in divorce: Nearly twice the number of Americans with disabilities got divorced than married from 2009 to 2018. That’s the opposite of the broader population, where marriages tripled the number of divorces.
Digging into the demographics of divorce, there was only one group with a higher divorce rate than marriage rate: Black women. In fact, their divorce rate as of 2018 was nearly doubled that of their marriage rate. In their paper “Is Marriage for White People?” researchers from Canada, Spain and the U.K. found that differences in U.S. incarceration rates and employment dynamics accounted for 76 percent of the Black-white marriage gap. But there are complex factors at play, as Hispanic women and “other” races (including Asian, Indigenous and multiracial women) had a higher marriage-to-divorce ratio than white women, according to a 2018 study.
As divorce becomes more common even in religious communities, old customs are rubbing up against new understandings of equality between the sexes. Consider the plight of the agunot, Orthodox Jewish women whose husbands refuse to grant them the “get” required to divorce before the eyes of God. Many men withhold it as a bargaining chip for civil divorce proceedings. Advocates, including devout Orthodox millennials like attorney Keshet Starr, are fighting to give women more equal footing.
“Talaq, talaq, talaq.” The phrase is dreaded by women throughout the Islamic community, because the three words, when spoken, signal a husband’s demand for divorce. Traditionally, this “instant divorce,” as it is often called, could banish women to a life of destitution, given many women’s struggles to own property in their own name or to find profitable work. But the Supreme Court of India banned the triple talaq practice in 2017 except in very special circumstances, in part thanks to the efforts of a social activist cleric. And in the Central Asian republic of Tajikistan, women divorced by their migrant husbands have banded together to create an entrepreneurial support system that swelled to 75,000 members (and growing) in 2019.
5. Divorce Equality
Steven Petrow, writing for The Atlantic about marrying and subsequently divorcing his husband, notes that the dissolution did just as much as the union to legitimize marriage equality in America. He also laments the fact that while his friends and neighbors proudly celebrated his marriage, many would dance around the word “divorced” years later, choosing softer language like “split” or “broken up.” The term carries historical weight and legitimacy, he says, and he sought the recognition conferred by the language.
6. Take a Breather?
In January, China implemented a law making it harder for couples to dissolve their marriage. The new policy forces those who mutually agree to end their relationship to engage in a one-month “cooling-off” period. Unhappily wed Chinese couples aren’t thrilled, and it has led to a surge of husbands and wives applying for divorces — with demand so high that scalpers in some cities, such as Guangzhou, are emerging to upsell appointments with divorce lawyers. The law, passed last year, was in response to a sharp rise in divorces as China began lifting government-mandated pandemic lockdowns.
7. An Affair to Remember
South Africa is the 12th-biggest market among the 50 countries where infidelity site Ashley Madison operates. And it’s often women who are driving membership — in South Africa, there are 1.8 active female accounts for every male one (compared to 1.11 women-to-men globally). When divorces are difficult to obtain or socially discouraged, cheating might be the one foot out the door that couples turn to.
This week on The Carlos Watson Show, we’re remembering The Rulebreakers — change-makers who break barriers and defy the odds. Today, meet the Mischief Maker. It’s impossible not to have a fascinating conversation with famed New Yorker writer and Revisionist History podcast host Malcolm Gladwell. He tells Carlos about his journey to intellectual superstardom — including how his famous “10,000-hour” rule applied to his own journey of mastering the craft of writing — and how he thinks America can start to work toward racial justice.
Those who marry in their teens or after 32 may well be doomed. Young love has been known to fizzle, with partners often lacking the maturity to weather rough patches: Those who marry at 25 have more than a 50 percent lower divorce rate than those who marry at 20. But on the flip side, each year after age 32 ups the odds of divorce by 5 percent, according to a University of Utah study, a correlation that’s only popped up in recent years. The reasons aren’t entirely clear: Perhaps people are just too used to being single, the marriageable pool is full of duds, or people are rushing in heedlessly once their biological clock starts sounding like Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.”
2. Part-Time Husband
The odds of divorce go up to 3.3 percent in the year following a husband not having a full-time job (compared to a 2.5 percent rate for full-time working men). However, the Harvard study that monitored thousands of couples over decades found no impact from the employment status of wives. So, while money matters a great deal to a marriage, traditional notions of the male breadwinner may have an even stronger gravitational force.
Sorry, flight attendants, gaming managers and bartenders, but your chances at marital bliss are the worst of any professions. Possible factors include working nights and being surrounded by vice. If you’re looking for a better shot at sticking together through thick and thin, you might want to marry a scientist or actuary.
4. Affectionate, But Not Too Affectionate
Showing contempt, as in seeing your partner as beneath you, is one of marriage’s “four horsemen of the apocalypse,” according to psychologist John Gottman, a list that also includes criticism, defensiveness and stonewalling. If that doesn’t shock you, maybe it will surprise you that showing too much affection — about one-third more than the average couple — could be a sign that you’re headed for Splitsville, given that few relationships can sustain that level of Hollywood romance.
The Maldives, that lovely archipelago of 1,200 tiny islands south of India, is all bungalows and beaches, a land that has launched a thousand ships on their way to thousands of honeymoons … and also the place with the world’s highest annual divorce rate. The country once set a Guinness World Record with 11 divorces per 1,000 people each year. For perspective, the next most divorce-happy nations on the list were Belarus and the United States, at around 4 per 1,000 a year. The explanation? Horny teenagers and restrictions on premarital sex, experts say.
Former divorce lawyer Erin Levine wants to make the painful process of divorce a bit smoother. And that includes easing your financial strain, with a platform, Hello Divorce, that allows folks to dissolve their union for just $1,500. With the average U.S. divorce costing about $18,000, that could be the difference between death do us part and debt do us part. Some worry it could spell the death of marriage, but if money is the only glue keeping a couple together, then we say an affordable divorce is probably the best option for everyone involved.
Chile saw a huge surge in people tying the knot in recent decades. The cause? The continued aftereffects of Chile’s decision to finally legalize divorce in late 2004, when it was one of just three countries in the world that still banned the practice. Previously, frustrated couples had to go through a bureaucratic annulment process that often involved cumbersome fees. And while the Catholic Church initially predicted legalization of divorce would lead to a collapse in family values, it’s actually led to an increase in matrimonial unions — although gay couples are still unable to wed in Chile, after the Constitutional Court last year denied recognition to a same-sex couple who had been married in Spain.
read, watch, listen
1. ‘Anatomy of a Divorce’
Pat Conroy, author of Prince of Tides, The Great Santini and other acclaimed books, wrote a vivid 1978 reflection in Atlanta magazine about his divorce and those of his friends: “Each divorce is the death of a small civilization.”
2. ‘Marriage Story’
The Oscar-nominated 2019 Netflix film can be torturous to watch, as Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver’s relationship unravels, but you can’t look away. It may be painfully awkward to watch with a partner, but perhaps witnessing the sheer awfulness of divorce will help keep you together.
3. ‘Divorce Separation Blues’
Set to a bouncy beat, and with a pinch of yodeling (bear with us, it’s good), the Avett Brothers deliver a darkly comic take on divorce, based on Seth Avett’s personal experience: “Well some folks just want the dirt / And don’t even care if it’s true.” Words that apply to far more than divorce.