What percentage of marriages end in divorce in the United States?

The quick answer: According to the American Psychological Association, about 40 to 50 percent of married couples divorce. However, that range is quite broad, and the numbers hide some important information. By delving deeper into divorce statistics, we can find a more accurate estimate.

Woman removing her wedding ring after divorce

First, the crude divorce rate—the total number of divorces during the year per 1,000 people—is 2.9, per the latest figures from the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS). The crude marriage rate is currently 6.9. That means that each year, there are about 2.4 marriages for every divorce. At one point, the crude marriage rate was twice the crude divorce rate, and that’s likely where the “50 percent of all marriages end in divorce" saying came from.

But crude divorce rates can be misleading, since saying "the number of divorces is half of the number of marriages" is different from saying "50 percent of all marriages end in divorce." Crude marriage statistics are only accurate for the year they’re measured; in the 1970s, divorce rates rose sharply, but people may have found divorce easier thanks to the introduction of new no-fault marriage laws, and some women may have put off marriage to pursue their careers.

The Problem With Divorce Statistics: They’re Complicated

Divorce statistics are difficult to accurately measure, and they change significantly over time. Even if you’ve got access to the latest crude statistics, you have to adjust for an enormous number of variables, and the U.S. Census isn’t much help, sense the NCHS stopped collecting detailed data on divorcees' age, income, race, and education back in 1996. That’s unfortunate, because those factors certainly affect the discussion.

Let’s start with a simple example. Some people get married and divorced multiple times, and if you’re trying to determine whether you, personally, have a 50 percent chance of being divorced in your lifetime, you’d probably want to exclude those “serial marriers" from your statistics, or at least make an adjustment so that their numerous divorces don’t cloud the statistics. After all, if a person gets married and divorced twice, they have a significantly higher chance of getting divorced after their third marriage.

Additionally, if you want to determine whether or not you have a high chance of a divorce, you’d also want to restrict your data to people from your generation, since cultural norms change over time. Millennials, for instance, are less likely to get divorced than older generations, but they’re also less likely to get married in the first place.

That brings up another issue, as age also plays a role in trends over time. According to Pew Research, divorce rates have increased among older Americans since 1990, doubling in the 50–65 age bracket and tripling in the 65+ bracket. And while millennials are getting fewer divorces, that trend might change over time—millennials are marrying at older ages than previous generations, so it’s possible that we could hit a “divorce boom" at some point in the future.

That likely will depend on the reasons that millennials are putting off marriage; are they being more selective when choosing their partners, or can they simply not afford to get married in the first place? Divorce rates might jump, but they might not, and a good forecast needs to look closely at the underlying issues rather than the simple statistics.

As you can see, divorce statistics quickly become extremely complex, and because all of these factors change over time, divorce rates become inaccurate almost immediately after they’re measured.

Divorce Statistics Change Over Time, And That Won’t Change Anytime Soon

Fortunately, there are numbers we can look at to see national trends, as long as we understand that they’re not applicable to every new marriage.

Many social scientists prefer to ask the question this way: What percentage of all people who have ever been married have been divorced? That number peaked at 41 percent, reported The New York Times, and has steadily decreased through the 2000s for most age groups.

Similarly, for the period from 2011 to 2015, the National Survey of Family Growth forecasted that first marriages among women aged 15-44 had about a 45 percent chance of being disrupted (either by divorce or permanent separation) within 15 years. That’s a fairly good number to keep in mind, and seems more accurate than the "40 to 50 percent" range quoted at the beginning of this answer.

But that doesn’t mean that your new marriage has a 45 percent chance of ending in divorce. Your exact chances of encountering a divorce will change based on your age, location, income level, religion, and a host of other statistics that can’t be neatly summed up in a single number. Still, it’s probably the most accurate estimate of nationwide divorce trends—just take it with a grain of salt (and maybe throw a few grains of rice while you’re at it).