WASHINGTON – After decades of increases, U.S. divorces are leveling off with couples now slightly more likely to reach their 10-year wedding anniversary. But the "seven-year itch" among couples persists, with nearly 1 out of 2 first marriages estimated to end in divorce.
Roughly 75 percent of those who have married since 1990 reported they had reached their 10-year anniversary. That's up about 3 percentage points for both men and women who married a decade earlier in the 1980s, when divorce rates in the U.S. had peaked, according to census figures released Wednesday.
The census report partly attributed the small declines in divorce to a recent jump in couples cohabitating as well as rising median ages before marriage as people wait longer before making long-term commitments. Increases in educational attainment and job opportunity might also be a factor.
"There's a new marriage bargain based on having two earners that seems to be working for more and more couples," said Andrew Cherlin, a sociology professor at Johns Hopkins University, citing a stronger economic basis for couples to stay together and raise a family. "Most divorces have always occurred within 10 years of marriage because most people who are unhappily married figure that out quickly."
Divorces climbed mostly sharply in the late 1960s and 1970s, amid the passage of laws that made dissolving marriages quicker and easier.
The report found that couples who broke up on average separated upon roughly seven years of marriage, a phenomenon often referred to as the "seven-year itch," before divorcing a year later. For those who remarried, they typically waited nearly four years.
Steven Martin, a family demography researcher for New York University, said there was nothing magical about the "seven-year itch," noting that it represents an average. While many separations and divorces occur around five or 10 years, he cited some recent higher-profile examples of splits occurring much later, including former vice president Al Gore and his wife Tipper, who separated after 40 years, and former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver, who separated after 25 years.
The Census Bureau, based on 1996 data, has previously projected that nearly 1 out of 2 first marriages will ultimately end in divorce — up from about 1 in 3 based on data from two decades earlier. Despite a recent leveling off of divorce, some demographers say Wednesday's census report continues to point in that direction, with 2009 numbers showing roughly 46 percent of more recently married couples failing to reach their 25th wedding anniversary.
Martin also said much of the divorce decline is occurring due to couples opting not to marry at all.
The 2009 numbers are based on the Census Bureau's Survey of Income and Program Participation, which samples 55,497 adults who have ever been married. It is one of the few government data sources that offer a comprehensive look at current and historical marital patterns in the U.S.
Among the findings:
— Among all women who have ever been married, the share of those who divorced reached as high as 41 percent among 50- to 59-year-olds. For black women, about 48 percent in that age group reported they had been divorced at least once, while rates for Hispanics and Asians were 30 percent or lower.
— The median age of first marriage last year was 28 for men and 26 for women. That's up from 23 for men and 20 for women in 1950.
— The share of women who have ever divorced is decreasing for those in the age groups of 30-34, 35-39, 40-49, and 50-59. There were slight increases for those ages 25-29 and 50-plus.
— The frequency of remarriage has not changed much: about 18 percent of men and 16 percent of women born from 1940-1944 had been married two or more times by age 40, not statistically different from those born in 1960-1964 who had remarried by age 40.
— Of currently married women under age 45 in their first marriage, about 1 in 10 are in an interracial marriage.
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