Sunday, July 15, 2012

Statistical Pet Peeve - The Divorce Rate

Since I was in highschool and talked to friends about various social issues, the "divorce rate" in America is brought up at some point to discuss social issues.

The "divorce rate" is a statistical pet peeve for me. The reason is that the statistic makes no sense. What is the divorce rate? Is it

  • The divorce rate of currently married couples?
  • The divorce rate of married couples in the past year?
  • The divorce rate of 1000 people over the first 5 years of marriage?

It's terrible. The major issue is that there is no time limit or length of time over which these statistics are measured. A "successful marriage" is normally considered one in which one spouse eventually passes away (i.e. "Til death do us part"). So if a couple gets married, then one partner dies the next day, it's considered a successful marriage because it did not lead to divorce (technically, I suppose it's a successful marriage even if someone is murdered by their spouse). However, a couple married for 50 years before deciding to get divorced is a failed marriage.

One of the most cited statistics in divorce is "50% of marriages end in divorce", which is a completely miscalculated statistic. Apparently, the statistic was generated by the fact 1.2 million divorces occurred in 1981, while 2.4 million marriages occurred in 1981. [reference]

I'm not a statistics person by trade, so I don't know what the best statistic would be. I think a statistic measuring average marriage length would be a pretty good one. Or perhaps just statistics that inform you of time frames. For example, "X% of marriages end in divorce within 1 year" or "Y% of marriages last greater than 10 years" would be far better statistics.

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