The Psychology of Everyday Life:Love, Marriage, and the Baby Carriage


How have the U.S. divorce rates changed over the last half century?

Two generations ago, divorce was fairly rare and even considered a source of embarrassment and shame. With the massive social changes of the 1960s and 1970s, particularly the women’s movement and the sexual revolution, the cultural attitude toward divorce shifted dramatically. The social stigma of divorce more or less disappeared and children of divorced parents were no longer marked by shame. In the 1970s the divorce rate shot up, peaking in the late 1970s and early 1980s. By 1990, it was predicted that 50 percent of all marriages would end in divorce. While the divorce rate has come down in the past twenty years, divorce is still extremely common. In 2004, 25.4 percent of forty-year-old men and 30 percent of forty-year-old women had been divorced.

The table below lists the percentage of 30-year-old adults who have ever been divorced, based on U.S. Census data. Note how the divorce rate increases from the 1960s into the mid 1980s but steadily declines from then on. This effect appears to be separate from the declining marriage rate. In other words, we cannot say that there are fewer divorces simply because there are fewer marriages. While the marriage rate for 30 year olds steadily declined across the same period, the divorce rate clearly peaked before it declined.

Years Men Women
1965–1969 7.3 11.5
1970–1974 11.6 14.0
1975–1979 16.2 20.8
1980–1984 16.0 21.6
1985–1989 15.0 20.4
1990–1994 13.3 19.9
1995–1999 12.9 17.4
2000–2004 10.7 14.1

Percent of Americans Divorced by Age 30

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