It would be great to know more about everything, but if you ask just these five questions of enough people, you can learn an awful lot about marriage and divorce.
First the questions, then some data. These are the question wordings from the 2013 American Community Survey (ACS).
1. What is Person X’s age?
We’ll just take the people who are ages 15 to 59, but that’s optional.
2. What is this person’s marital status?
Surprisingly, we don’t want to know if they’re divorced, just if they’re currently married (I include people are are separated and those who live apart from their spouses for other reasons). This is the denominator in your basic “refined divorce rate,” or divorces per 1000 married people.
3. In the past 12 months, did this person get divorced?
The number of people who got divorced in the last year is the numerator in your refined divorce rate. According to the ACS in 2013 (using population weights to scale the estimates up to the whole population), there were 127,571,069 married people, and 2,268,373 of them got divorced, so the refined divorce rate was 17.8 per 1,000 married people. When I analyze who got divorced, I’m going to mix all the currently-married and just-divorced people together, and then treat the divorces as an event, asking, who just got divorced?
4. In what year did this person last get married?
This is crucial for estimating divorce rates according to marriage duration. When you subtract this from the current year, that’s how long they are (or were) married. When you subtract the marriage duration from age, you get the age at marriage. (For example, a person who is 40 years old in 2013, who last got married in 2003, has a marriage duration of 10 years, and an age at marriage of 30.)
5. How many times has this person been married?
I use this to narrow our analysis down to women in their first marriages, which is a conventional way of simplifying the analysis, but that’s optional.
I restrict the analysis below to women, which is just a sexist convention for simplifying things (since men and women do things at different ages).*
So here are the 375,249 women in the 2013 ACS public use file, ages 16-59, who were in their first marriages, or just divorced from their first marriages, by their age at marriage and marriage duration. Add the two numbers together and you get their current age. The colors let you see the basic distribution (click to enlarge):
The most populous cell on the table is 28-year-olds who got married three years ago, at age 25, with 1068 people. The least populous is 19-year-olds who got married at 15 (just 14 of them). The diagonal edge reflects my arbitrary cutoff at age 59.
Now, in each of these cells there are married people, and (in most of them) people who just got divorced. The ratio between those two frequencies is a divorce rate — one specific to the age at marriage and marriage duration. To make the next figure I used three years of ACS data (2011-2013) so the results would be smoother. (And then I smoothed it more by replacing each cell with an average of itself and the adjoining cells.) These are the divorce rates by age at marriage and years married (click to enlarge):
The overall pattern here is more green, or lower divorce rates, to the right (longer duration of marriage) and down (older age at marriage). So the big red patch is the first 12 years for marriages begun before the woman was age 25. And after about 25 years of marriage it’s pretty much green, for low divorce rates. The high contrast at the bottom left implies an interesting high risk but steep decline in the first few years after marriage for these late marriages. This matrix adds nuance to the pattern I reported the other day, which featured a little bump up in divorce odds for people who married in their late thirties. From this figure it looks like marriages that start after the woman is about 35 might have less of a honeymoon period than those beginning about age 24-33.
To learn more, I go beyond those five great questions, and use a regression model (same as the other day), with a (collapsed) marriage-age–by–marriage-duration matrix. So these are predicted divorce rates per 1000, holding education, race/ethnicity, and nativity constant (click to enlarge)**:
The controls cut down the late-thirties bump and isolate it mostly to the first year. This also shows that the punishing first year is an issue for all ages over 35. The late thirties just showed the bump because that group doesn’t have the big drop in divorce after the first year that the later years do. Interesting!
Here’s where the awesome data let us down. This data is very powerful. It’s the best contemporary big data set we have for analyzing divorce. It has taken us this far, but it can’t explain a pattern like this.
We can control for education, but that’s just the education level at the time of the most recent survey. We can’t know when she got her education relative to the dates of her marriage. Further, from the ACS we can’t tell how many children a person has had, with whom, and when — we only know about children who happen to be living in the household in 2013, so a 50-year-old could be childfree or have raised and released four kids already. And about couples, although we can say things about the other spouse from looking around in the household (such as his age, race, and income), if someone has divorced the spouse is gone and there is no information about that person (even their sex). So we can’t use that information to build a model of divorce predictors.
Here’s an example of what we can only hint at. Remarriages are more likely to end in divorce, for a variety of reasons, which is why we simplify these things by only looking at first marriages. But what about the spouse? Some of these women are married to men who’ve been married before. I can’t how much that contributes to their likelihood of divorce, but it almost certainly does. Think about the bump up in the divorce rate for women who got married in their late thirties. On the way from high divorce rates for women who marry early to low rates for women who marry late, the overall downward slope reflects increasing maturity and independence for women, but it’s running against the pressure of their increasingly complicated relationship situations. That late-thirties bump may have to do with the likelihood that their husbands have been married before. Here’s the circumstantial evidence:
See that big jump from early-thirties to late-thirties? All of a sudden 37.5% of women marrying in their late-thirties are marrying men who are remarrying. That’s a substantial risk factor for divorce, and one I can’t account for in my analysis (because we don’t have spouse information for divorced women).
Divorce is complicated and inherently longitudinal. Marriages arise out of specific contexts and thrive or decay in many different ways. Yesterday’s crucial influence may disappear today. So how can we say anything about divorce using a single, cross-sectional survey sample? The unsatisfying answer is that all analysis is partial. But these five questions give us a lot to go on, because knowing when a person got married allows us to develop a multidimensional image of the events, as I’ve demonstrated here.
But, you ask, what can we learn from, say, the divorce propensity of today’s 40-year-olds when we know that just last year a whole bunch of 39-year-olds divorced, skewing today’s sample? This is a real issue. And demography provides an answer that is at once partial and powerful: Simple, we use today’s 39-year-olds, too. In the purest form, this approach gives us the life table, in which one year’s mortality rates — at every age — lead to a projection of life expectancy. Another common application is the total fertility rate (watch the video!), which sums birth rates by age to project total births for a generation. In this case I have not produced a complete divorce life table (which I promised a while ago — it’s coming). But the approach is similar.
These are all synthetic cohort approaches (described nicely in the Week 6 lecture slides from this excellent Steven Ruggles course). In this case, the cohorts are age-at-marriage groups. Look at the table above and follow the row for, say, marriages that started at age 28, to see that synthetic cohort’s divorce experience from marriage until age 59. It’s neither a perfect depiction of the past, nor a foolproof prediction of the future. Rather, it tells us what’s happening now in cohort terms that are readily interpretable.
The ACS is the best thing we have for understanding the basic contours of divorce trends and patterns. Those five questions are invaluable.
* For this I also tossed the people who were reported to have married in the current year, because I wasn’t sure about the timing of their marriages and divorces, but I put them back in for the regressions.
** The codebook for my IPUMS data extraction is here, my Stata code is here. The heat-map model here isn’t in that code file, but this these are the commands (and the margins command took a very long time, so please don’t tell me there’s something wrong with it):
logistic divorce i.agemarc#i.mardurc i.degree i.race i.hispan i.citizen