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As Two-Income Family Model Matures, Divorce Rate Falls

David Milstead, |Special to CNBC.com
Monday, 7 May 2012 | 9:33 AM ET
Tim Klein | Photodisc | Getty Images

You hear it nearly every day: There’s an epidemic of divorce, with one in two marriages failing. Except it's not the complete picture: The divorce rate is actually falling in America, thanks to economic and behavioral changes.

The big spike in divorce came in the postwar period, particularly the 1970s, a time when women entered the workforce in large numbers and divorce laws were liberalized.

But in the last couple of decades, even as women have continued working and divorce remains an easy legal procedure, the rates have fallenas couples marry later and, some say, are better managing the two-income life that may have been a stress point for past unions.

Changing Marriage Models

Betsy Stevenson of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business says that in the 1950s and 1960s, the benefits of marriage came from men specializing in “market skills,” or being in the workforce, while women specialized in home-making.

As more women entered the workforce, “we started transitioning to marriages with less stark specialization, but many people married the right person for the old model of marriage — which was the wrong person for the new two-earner marriage,” says Stevenson, an assistant professor of business and public policy. “So in other words, we are getting better at picking partners for two-earner marriages."

Divorce statistics bear this out.

TheU.S. Census Bureauproduces a periodic report called “Number, Timing, and Duration of Marriages and Divorces.” It classifies men and women by age group, then categorizes them as “never married,” or some form of “ever married,” including “ever divorced” or “ever widowed.”

In the 1996 survey, the proportion of men ages 40 to 49 who were “ever divorced” was 34.1 percent; by the 2009 survey, that number had dropped to 28.5 percent.

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The drop was similar for women ages 40 to 49, from 37 percent in 1996 to 31 percent. All age ranges below 50 years old showed the distinct drop; people over 50 in 2009 became adults in the 1970s, a period of great increase in the divorce rate.

Allen Montgomery Parkman of the Anderson School of Management at the University of New Mexico believes the liberalization of divorce laws coupled with the new earnings power of women created the divorce boom of the 1970s.

“We don’t realize today how hard it used to be to get a divorce,” says Parkman. “The reality of ‘fault’ divorce, the precursor of ‘no-fault’ divorce, was that it was mutual consent that was not easily obtained. Then, between 1969 and the 1980s, nearly all states passed some form of what we call ‘no-fault’ divorce, and the practical reality is that it made divorce unilateral.”

Income and Education

And, notes Parkman, "part of getting divorced is being financially able to do it, because two households are more expensive than one. If, in that period, you had been confronted with the difficulty of getting a divorce and now found it easy, if you have a two-income household, you can go your own ways more easily.”

Lloyd R. Cohen, a law professor at George Mason University, says the increase in wealth and income of the postwar period encouraged the termination of marriages because “divorce no longer meant living in abject poverty for many people; women's greater labor force participation and earnings has allowed both parties to bail out more easily.”

At the same time, though, the demographic evidence suggests, as Wharton’s Stevenson believes, that people are doing a better job of marrying the right person, and that includes deferring marriage until a better partner comes into the picture.

For one, data show people are marrying at older ages than they did in the past.

“This is in part a function of more education taking more time to complete, and in part because there is a greater sense of marriage as being a less secure institution," says Cohen.

According to the Census Bureau, the median age at first marriage has risen from 23 for men and 20 for women in 1950 to 28 for men and 26 for women in 2009.

“That older age is so pivotal, in terms of people being smarter about the characteristics they’re looking for, the kind of person they’re looking for, in terms of stability after they’re married, " adds Parkman.

And many marriages that might have ended in divorce are not occurring in the first place. Nearly 90 percent of men born from 1940 to 1944 got married by age 35; that rate fell 14 percentage points for the group born between 1965 and 1969.

Suzanne Doyle-Morris, author of “Female Breadwinners: How They Make Relationships Work and Why They are the Future of the Modern Workplace,” believes improved education levels and later-in-life marriages are the biggest factors in the divorce decline.

Bringing Home More Bacon

And that gives Doyle-Morris optimism for the ability of couples where women aren’t just in the workforce, but out-earning their husbands, to stay married.

In relationships where one partner earned at least 60 percent of the household income, women were the bigger earner only about 4 percent of the time in 1969, she says; now, women are the big earner in 25 percent to 30 percent of those relationships.

“Couples will become increasingly comfortable with ebbing and flowing economically in the relationship — a woman who says, ‘I’m supporting him now as he goes back for an MBA, because he supported me when I started my business,’” Doyle-Morris says. “Resentful males — and resentful females — will decrease with time.”