By Megan O’Connell
The latest headlines in every gossip magazine always seem to be about what celebrity couple is calling it quits, but with nearly half of married American couples doing the same thing every day; this news has lost its shock value. It’s no longer, who is going to divorce? It’s when are they going to divorce?
The traditional American family structure consisted of husband wife and two children. The husband made the family income, the wife may have made some income too, but mainly took care of household chores and raised the children; and they all lived under the same roof. Over time the traditional structure has changed due to many factors including divorce. Now the average American family is living under separate roofs, sharing custody or maybe one parent is completely out of the picture.
Divorce is no longer a stigma because it is considered to be part of the modern family dynamics. Over the past 40 years there has been a significant increase in divorces and short lasting cohabitation relationships. This leads people to question the sanctity of marriage. A couple’s vows aren’t “till death do us part”, but rather “till we feel we should split.” In fact, only 5 percent of married couples reach their 50th anniversaries and only 35 percent reach their 25th anniversary according to the Census Bureau in 2002.
Even though divorce has become a significant part of our society, the divorce rate is on a steady decline. The divorce rate in 2005 was 3.6 percent per every thousand people– that was the lowest it has been since 1970. The highest divorce rate was at 5.3 percent in 1981 as stated by the Census Bureau.
“It’s pretty much believed that half of all couples get divorced,” said Maria Imbalzamo, attorney at Stark and Stark specializing in divorce. “Some people might be embarrassed, but most Americans aren’t surprised by the divorce rate.”
Looking back at divorce statistics, it isn’t hard to see when divorce started to turn into a national trend. The 1970’s in America was considered a ‘divorce revolution’. This was due mostly to state law changes that opened up the grounds for divorce. Although this was not the only reason for the rise in divorce it seemed to play a significant part.
Between 1960 and 1980 the U.S divorce rate nearly doubled. The no-fault law makes it so the wife or husband does not have to prove fault against their spouse. Prior to the law either party had to prove a “fault” confirming that their spouse had done something to break up the marriage. The grounds for divorce had to be established by proving things like adultery, felony or abandonment. Now either party can file a divorce based on “irreconcilable differences” which can account for a number of reasons.
In 1953, Oklahoma was the first to pass a law allowing couples to file for divorce without fault while it took 17 years for the rest of the country to follow in its footsteps. California was next to pass the no-fault law and it quickly spread to other states. New York is currently the only state that has not adopted any no-fault laws.
Not only did the change in laws add to this revolution, there were also many social trends in America that ushered in the divorce revolution.
“Women became more economically independent,” said Dr. Prakash Sharma a sociology professor at Rider University. “They were entering in the workforce and becoming equal with the men they worked with.”
Women were attending college, having children later in life, and not being the standard house wife that needed to depend on their husband’s income to live.
Dr. Sharma, who teaches a family course, also believes that in other underdeveloped countries such as India there is a lower divorce rate because women are not equal in the workforce. Therefore there is a greater need to depend on their husbands for financial reasons. Just because the divorce rate is lower may not mean they are happier couples. These women may need to stay married as a means to live.
Unlike couples in countries with greater restrictions, Americans are given the freedom to end a marriage and still be financially stable as a single person. People are marrying just as fast as they are getting divorced, and it’s not uncommon to be married and divorced more than once and maybe more than twice.
The age of the couple when they were married also plays a part in the divorce statistic. Younger couples aged 20-25 are more likely to get divorced at just under 40 percent according to the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) Monthly Vital Statistics Report.
“You really have to know yourself to get married and that’s really young to know who you are as a person,” said Kathleen Bonfield a graduate student interning at Rider University’s Counseling Center. “Who you are at 20 and 25 is going to look differently from who you are at 30.”
Even though younger couples have the higher risk there has been a new trend in divorcing couples that has been seen in the past five to seven years known as “gray divorce”. This term refers to older couples who get divorced after decades of marriage.
“The children have moved out of home and the couple is left with one another for the first time in a while,” said Bonfield who has done extensive research on divorce. “They now feel like they don’t know each other anymore.”
The slow decline in divorce rate since the 80’s is no reason to celebrate because Americans couples are still facing the same unresolved issues. Some experts believe the decline in divorce rate may be because many American couples are living together without ever getting married.
The problems a married couple faces aren’t due to the fact that they have a marriage license and a ring. When unmarried couples who cohabitate split, it can feel the same for them as a divorce.
“I recently represented a lesbian couple who never got married, but [the divorce] was messier than any divorce I had dealt with,” said Imbalzano. “It is the same for every couple. They had the same issues that any married couple had.”
According to Imbalzano’s New Jersey Law Blog, the growing rate of cohabitating couples has caused growing issues in the court about adjusting alimony. In some divorce cases the agreement is to cease alimony once the spouse receiving the alimony remarries or cohabitates. It is difficult however, to prove if the couple is just living together or if they are in a relationship.
Dr. Sharma believes that cohabitation is also beneficial for couples considering marriage. He suggests that although it was not socially accepted in the 60’s more couples turn to this to find out how compatible they are.
The reason why more couples are living together and not getting married could be because of the hard economic times the country is facing. Living together is sometimes a cheaper way of life for couples not ready to make the commitment.
“In a bad economy people stay together until things get better,” said Imbalzano. “There is no way to tell if the divorce rate will go up in the future when the economy is better.”
The bad economy may be keeping some divorces on the back burner, but it is also fueling more problems for other divorced and divorcing couples because of the rise in unemployment rate. Many study results have shown that losing a job increases the likelihood of divorce. Even after a divorce, losing a job can send a couple back to court to make adjustments.
“I have been busier than ever in a bad economy,” said Imbalzano. “More people are losing jobs so they are filling motions to change the circumstances of their alimony because of their decreased income.”
From Imbalzano’s experience with clients, money issues are often the root of the problem that leads to other issues such as infidelity.
“Cheating is really the outcome of the real problem, whether it is financial or something else,” said Imbalzamo. “When couples aren’t on the same page as to how to spend their money it can lead to other issues.”
Imbalzano feels the bad economy is forcing couples to stay married for the time being. She suggested many couples may not have the means to sell their house right now and when they can they will be able to go their separate ways. Dr. Sharam suggests that aside from financial issues, when money is tight it can also cause couples to become unhappier in their relationships.
“In better economic times couples do more leisurely things and spend more quality time together because they can afford it,” said Dr. Sharma.
The declining divorce rate does not reflect the increase of happiness in the relationship, but rather the change in economy. For now there may be a decline in divorce, but further down the road when the economy is better the country may see divorce back on the rise.
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