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The Cost of Marriage and Divorce

Monday, 7 May 2012 | 9:33 AM ET

For many of us, marriage and divorce are the bookends of life; yes, there's a before and an after, but when it comes to the convergence of emotion and money, the two events really define quality of life and standard of living.

Marriage and divorce also happen to dovetail with the other big life event — children.

For these reasons and more, we decided to focus entirely on marriage and divorce in our latest edition of Life Changes .

Better andWorse

Though much has been made of America's 50 percent divorce rate, experts say there is little statistical truth to it. In fact, the source of what is now considered folklore is unknown.

Some say it's based on an odd comparison of divorce and marriage rates.

For instance, in 2009, the per capita divorce rate was 3.4 per 1,000, according to the National Center for Health Statistics , which was exactly half the marriage rate. The divorce rate, by the way, is down from 4.0 in 2000.

A more accurate rate is 36 percent, which applies to both men and women between ages 50 and 69 who have been divorced at least once in their lives.

Though the U.S. is often cited as having the highest divorce rate in the developed world; for the last three decades, however, it has also had the highest marriage rate (even if that, too, is declining).

Demographic and social trends aside, sometimes there's a bit of pragmatism and survival instinct at work as people make decisions about marrying and divorcing.

For instance, a 2009 survey by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers found that 57 percent of attorneys noted fewer divorce filings in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis.

Household creation also slowed in recent years amid high unemployment and economic uncertainty, with more young adults living at home.

According to a Pew Research Center report, just 26 percent of what it calls "twentysomethings" were married in 2008, versus 68 percent in 1960. For the overall population, the numbers are 52 percent and 72 percent, respectively. (The median age was 28 for men and 26 for women.)

For women, the change has been more profound. As more women entered the workforce, more delayed marriage, according to the Pew report. In 1960, 32 percent of married women worked; by 2008 the rate had almost doubled, to 61 percent.

At the same time, some sociologists have cited the two-income household as a contributing factor — because of the stress on both parents — to the rise in divorce rates in the post-war period.

Fighting Over Money

Money, then, is clearly a factor, and it can drive data in both directions.

The latest Census Bureau data show that 32.6 percent of divorced men in 2009 had annual incomes of $75,000 and up — more than any other group. The rate for women was 23.4 percent .A greater number, 29.9 percent, were in the $25,000-$40,000 income group.

Money can't buy you love, but it can often fund independence.

The University of Virginia's expansive 2009 "Marriage and Money" report yielded a wealth of interesting findings.

One study, "Bank On It : Thrifty Couples are the Happiest," by Jeffrey Dew of Utah State University, concluded:

  • Rising consumer debt after a couple's wedding contributes to the instability of unions among newlyweds.
  • Couples with assets of $100,000 or more have lower divorce rates than those with less money.
  • Couples who reported disagreeing about finances more than once a week were 30 percent more likely to divorce than couples who reported disagreeing about finances only a few times a month.

If some of this sounds familiar, you'll want to check out our special report. We'd like to think "Life Changes" is balanced between marriage and divorce (there's that 50 percent statistic again).

You might want to start with our story about whether it's worth it to hire a wedding planner and end with how to hire a divorce lawyer . And for all you optimists out there, we have a bonus story — the marriage tax penalty and whether it's a deterrent to getting remarried.