Breaking Up Is Hard to Count: The Rise of Divorce in the United States, 1980-2010

Sheela Kennedy, Steven Ruggles

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

173 Scopus citations


This article critically evaluates the available data on trends in divorce in the United States. We find that both vital statistics and retrospective survey data on divorce after 1990 underestimate recent marital instability. These flawed data have led some analysts to conclude that divorce has been stable or declining for the past three decades. Using new data from the American Community Survey and controlling for changes in the age composition of the married population, we conclude that there was actually a substantial increase in age-standardized divorce rates between 1990 and 2008. Divorce rates have doubled over the past two decades among persons over age 35. Among the youngest couples, however, divorce rates are stable or declining. If current trends continue, overall age-standardized divorce rates could level off or even decline over the next few decades. We argue that the leveling of divorce among persons born since 1980 probably reflects the increasing selectivity of marriage.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)587-598
Number of pages12
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 2014

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Data preparation was supported in part by funds provided to the Minnesota Population Center from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Grants R24-HD041023, R01-HD043392, and R01 HD047283. The authors gratefully acknowledge helpful comments and suggestions of Susan Brown, Larry Bumpass, Andrew Cherlin, Joshua Goldstein, Kelly Raley, Jim Raymo, Robert Schoen, Duncan Thomas, and the anonymous reviewers.


  • Divorce trends
  • Union instability
  • Vital statistics


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