In this chapter, we'll quickly dispose of the tedious main topic your odds of getting divorced and then move on to the more interesting sidebar the odds of celebrities getting divorced!
As for boring old you, the odds are a bit in dispute. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the odds are 1.3 to 1 that a first marriage will survive without separation or divorce for fifteen years. (Put another way, the probability of divorce or separation within fifteen years is 43 percent.) The study was based on the National Survey of Family Growth, a nationally representative sample of women age fifteen to forty-four in 1995.
According to the Census Bureau, however, your odds are not as good. The Bureau believes that the odds of divorce for newly married couples are about even money, 1 to 1. Why the discrepancy? Determining divorce odds is actually very difficult, because divorce patterns vary significantly by generation, and there is always a significant lag in the data. Thus, it's difficult to predict how the present generation of couples will behave.
Long-term divorce rates can be calculated, by definition, only for couples who were married a long time ago. So we can't calculate the odds of a marriage from the 1990s surviving a lifetime, or even twenty years, because we haven't had sufficient time to measure. The best we can do is calculate the five-year or ten-year odds; compare them to those odds from earlier times; determine if there has been an upward or downward trend; and then assume that any such trend will hold true over longer periods. Thus, what is significant about the chart is that for just about every anniversary that can be compared (with the fifth anniversary being the one that can be compared for the most five-year groups), the percentage of surviving marriages is in steady decline, with only a slight uptick for those married in 1980-84. Thus, for example, the percentages of male first marriages surviving until a fifth anniversary declined steadily from 95 percent to 88 percent between 1945-49 and 1985-89, and the percentage of marriages surviving until the twentieth anniversary declined from 83 percent to 58 percent between 1945-49 and 1970-74.
Thus, the pessimistic Census Bureau estimate for today's married couples is based on the assumption that the percentage of marriages surviving forty years likewise has declined appreciably since 1950-54 (the last available data set), when it stood at 67 percent. Declined all the way to even money odds.
Improving the Odds
There is no shortage of books providing advice on how one can have a successful marriage. Most of the leading indicators, though, are outside our power to control. For example, the fact that your parents were divorced is a particularly bad sign. But you can't divorce your parents (and, even if you could, that would probably be a leading indicator, too). And while numerous studies and books tell us that the greatest chance of divorce comes in the first seven years of marriage, that's hardly a great reason to remain together "Honey, I know you despise me and are sleeping with my best friend, and I shouted obscenities at you on the Ricki Lake show, but statistically, if we could just hang on until the second quarter of next year, our odds of divorce will decline appreciably."
Divorce rates vary significantly by state. The divorce rate in Massachusetts is half that of Delaware and about a third of that in Arkansas; Nevada, not surprisingly, is the divorce capital of the Nation.*
* To be fair, the data are by state of occurrence rather than by state of residence, so if a Massachusetts resident gets a quickie divorce in Nevada (which certainly happens more than the reverse), the divorce counts against Nevada's record.
So what explains the wide variation in states? Cold weather states seem to keep people together a little better, though Hawaii does well (18th) and Alaska poorly (37th). Wealthier states seem to do somewhat better, though not universally so. The best indicator of a state's divorce rate appears to be political though surprisingly, the left-leaning states have far lower divorce rates than the conservative, "family value" states. If you look again at the chart, you'll see states that were won by Al Gore in bold. These include nine of the ten states with the lowest divorce rates, and only one of the ten states with the highest divorce rates.
So, if you renounce that estate tax repeal, sell the SUV, and pick up a copy of Earth in the Balance, the odds are you'll start racking up the anniversaries!
The Odds of Celebrity Divorce
Read the tabloids and you'll hear every week about celebrity divorces, with the emphasis on divorce recidivists the Elizabeth Taylors, Kelsey Grammers, and Lisa Marie Presleys. But is that an accurate picture? Or is the silent majority more like Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, happily yet quietly married for decades?
Well, because we thought you had a right to know, we conducted a comprehensive first-of-its-kind study of celebrity divorce. The study focused on Golden Globe award winners, who should fairly represent celebrities as a whole. (The Golden Globe categories include both television and motion pictures.) All 2001 and 2000 Golden Globe nominees and winners in the acting categories were included in the database, for a total of 151; due to multiple nominations and awards, the final yield was 127 unique celebrities.
Of the 127 celebrities listed, 68 percent had been married at least once. Billy Bob Thornton takes the honors of having the most marriages with five (as well as the most divorces, also with five of course, by law it had to be at least four divorces, but you never know with Billy Bob).
Of the celebrities who had been married, the average number of marriages was 1.4, while the average number of divorces was 0.65. The probability of a celebrity marriage surviving is only 35 percent, so the odds are 1.9 to 1 against the marriage.
As bad as these numbers look for celebrity matrimony, they are almost certainly biased significantly downward. Most Golden Globe recipients are younger celebrities, some of whom have yet to ditch their loyal first wife or husband for the trophy wife or boy-toy husband befitting their newfound stature. (Jennifer Garner, a Golden Globe winner for her role in Alias in 2002, ditched her husband within a year. No word on a replacement.) Conversely, they have yet to suffer the inevitable descent into prescription painkillers (or worse) that tends to coincide with the cancellation of their hit show, which inevitably ends with a divorce and quick remarriage to a drug counselor, key grip, or other "stand by your celebrity" type. (Bear in mind: Jennifer Garner turns forty in nine years.) So, assuming that the odds thus far have been akin to what we saw at the tenth anniversary mark in the Census Bureau table, then the odds of a celebrity marriage surviving for a lifetime are probably 3 to 1.