Divorce in Our Nation

Julie Baumgardner

The latest data on divorce might lead one to believe that we are actually winning the war when it comes to fewer divorces and more couples staying married. From 1979 to 2014, the divorce rate dropped from 5.3 per 1,000 to 3.2 per 1,000, a whopping 40 percent decrease.

But there is more to the story, and it should make us cautious in our celebration. Many teens are skeptical about marriage, having seen their parents’ marriages crumble or never even form. Young adults question their own judgment about making a long-term commitment in marriage. Well-meaning parents who want to help young adults minimize risk are sending messages such as, “Don’t marry young. Establish yourself first. Be sure — VERY sure.”

Generation X children witnessed the emergence of a divorce culture, leading them to conclude that marriage can be a source of pain and loss. Widespread divorce led people to believe that although relationships are good, relationship definition is risky.

According to a 2004 study, Gen Xers spent their formative years as one of the least-parented and least-nurtured generations in U.S. history.[1] Census data show that almost half of Gen Xers come from broken homes, and 40 percent were latchkey children.[2] Today, Generation Xers are the parents of teens and young adults.

In a 2005 Journal of Sociology article, Kate Hughes states, “Adult children of divorced parents’ failed marriages and broken families brought a fragility that led to risk-diminishing strategies.”[3] Gen Xers took these messages of apprehension a step further to avoidance and began to form relationships that were not well-defined. The result is a generation of young people who believe that marriage really is just a piece of paper and, ultimately, not helpful.

Cohabitation is now the common first union for young adults, and living together precedes most marriages while fewer cohabiting relationships transition to marriage.[4] Young people fail to see the value of a healthy marriage despite a significant body of research indicating better outcomes for both adults and children.

Our country did not arrive at this point overnight, and change will take time. Many promising initiatives across the country are teaching healthy relationship skills.

Practitioners helping people develop stable relationships and form healthy marriages know that many youths who initially say that they do not desire marriage overcome that skepticism. After attending a relationship skills class, most say they actually still aspire to marry while being cautiously optimistic about their ability to discern whether or not someone would be a good marriage partner. There are many things that we can do culturally to increase these young people’s chances of achieving their aspiration.

  • We must do a better job of educating people. Young people and parents alike typically believe, regardless of background or life experience, that their chances of divorcing are 50 percent. They do not know that their chances of divorce decrease if their parents are still married, they graduate from college, they do not have a child before marrying, they do not cohabitate before marriage, they are not poor, they have the same religious values, and they participate in premarital preparation.[5] It is not rocket science, but it is information.
  • We must address unrealistic expectations head-on. Whether someone believes they lack what it takes to have a healthy marriage or aspires to the magical white-picket-fence perfection, parents, places of faith, community initiatives, and schools need to discuss how two imperfect people can create a healthy — not perfect — marriage. We need to teach people how to communicate well, to manage conflict, and to regulate their emotions. Myriads of people seek to form relationships, but they are ill-equipped to navigate life, much less have a healthy marriage.
  • We need to spread research-based truths in a non-judgmental way regarding cohabitation’s impact on adults and children, the consequences when families fail to form, and similar issues. People deserve to know the research findings, for example, that adolescents living in cohabiting-parent families — whether both are biological parents of the child or just one is — have higher levels of anti-social behavior, such as drug abuse, running away from home, violent behavior, being suspended from school, or getting arrested.[6] Similarly, rates of serious abuse are lowest in intact families, four times higher in an unmarried-parent family, and eight times higher when a parent is cohabiting with a partner who is not the biological parent (usually the mother cohabiting with a boyfriend).[7] Major media campaigns and other initiatives across civil society can help spread this kind of information.
  • We need to teach people that you cannot “test drive” marriage. Anyone who has been married recognizes that being married takes more than love. It requires commitment to figure out how to dance together. Living together is more about independence than it is about interdependence.

Healthy marriage matters to adults, children, and society at large. No one is exempt from helping to bring back marriage. It matters now, and it matters for future generations.

Julie Baumgardner is President and Chief Executive Officer of First Things First.

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  1. Erin E. Clack, “Study Probes Generation Gap,” Children’s Business, Vol. 19, No. 5 (May 2004).
  2. Susan Gregory Thomas, “The Divorce Generation,” The Wall Street Journal, July 9, 2011,
    (accessed June 14, 2016).
  3. Kate Hughes, “The Adult Children of Divorce: Pure Relationships and Family Values?” Journal of Sociology, Vol. 41, No. 1
    (March 2005), pp. 69–86.
  4. Karen Benjamin Guzzo, “Trends in Cohabitation Outcomes: Compositional Changes and Engagement Among Never-Married Young Adults,” Journal of Marriage and the Family, Vol. 76, No. 4 (August 2014), pp. 826–842.
  5. Scott Stanley, “How to Lower Your Risk of Divorce: Advice to Singles,” Institute for Family Studies, February 11, 2015,
    (accessed June 14, 2016).
  6. Robert Apel and Catherine Kaukinen, “On the Relationship between Family Structure and Antisocial Behavior: Parental Cohabitation and Blended Households,” Criminology Vol. 46, No. 1 (March 2008), pp. 35–70.
  7. Andrea J. Sedlak et al, Fourth National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect (NIS–4): Report to Congress, 2010 (Washington: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families),
    (accessed June 14, 2016).

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