Hell in a handbasket, or the democratization of divorce?

Two ways to look at the results of a new (paywalled) meta-analysis of studies on the educational gradient in divorce rates:

  • Across Europe, most in the liberal welfare states, the privileged access to divorce enjoyed by women with higher education has eroded across the last several decades.
  • Or, led by the welfare state, the liberation of women has progressively destroyed families further and further down the economic food chain.

The study combined many analyses of divorce rates and analyzed them together. The results for the Nordic countries were most pronounced. Here is the relationship between education and divorce in studies over the last 20 years (going down the chart). Dots to the right of the solid line indicate studies in which more educated women had higher odds of divorce, moving to the left means divorce is spreading to women with less education:


Studies now show a negative gradient, that is, women with less education have higher odds of divorce. The trend was in the same direction in most of Europe, but not as advanced. (In the U.S., incidentally, which was not included in the analysis, we have a curvilinear pattern, with the highest rates among the some-college population, and the lowest among those with advanced degrees. I have a preliminary paper here, and a subsequent version under review.)

Raising the question, how much divorce is the right amount? Some people treat divorce like child abuse — any amount is bad. But can’t we agree there was not enough divorce 50 years ago — meaning people who were in miserable marriages couldn’t get out of them? And, given it was concentrated among more privileged families, wasn’t that evidence of social class privilege? So, what’s the right balance? You might think no education effect is the best, with marriages equally likely to end in divorce regardless of social class. But what if the marriages of poor people have more problems, and they need or want divorce more?

The analysis further showed that the shift in the education gradient was correlated with the overall divorce rate (as divorce increased, it democratized) and with the labor force participation rate for women (the more employed women, the more divorce spread to the lower classes). Divorce laws had no effect.

We shouldn’t assume any increase in divorce is bad. Maybe it’s like living alone: the people who do it are often not happy with their situation, and it often means something has gone wrong for them, but having the option is better than not.

6 thoughts on “Hell in a handbasket, or the democratization of divorce?

  1. I wonder how rates of relatively committed cohabitational break-ups (3years or more) are affected by education level, and whether the likely higher rates of cohabitation among the less educated/less well-off would add to the effect that education has overall on relational instability.


  2. “But can’t we agree there was not enough divorce 50 years ago — meaning people who were in miserable marriages couldn’t get out of them?”

    Why? Is there any basis for this statement? Was it really hard to get a divorce in 1963? Were there millions of women in miserable marriages seething to be free in 1963? I think this line has no basis.

    Comparisons between US and Nordic countries are often made, regarding unmarried childbirth and divorce. However, racial, and social and economic differences are not given enough consideration. 10o% of Nordic marriages can end up in divorce, and 100% of children can be born out of birth in Nordic counties, without affecting thing. The same statement cannot be made in the US. Divorce and out-of-marriage childbirth (two completely different things) have significant impacts on society in the US because of racial composition and differences in socio-economic setup.


    1. So…divorce is ok in lily white Norway but bad in US because of our “racial composition”? WTF?
      Also, conservatives usually blame “no fault” divorce laws for all the evils of modern society so I think you are being a bit disingenuous by asserting that it was just as easy to get a divorce in 1963. You can’t have it both ways….


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