When a Myth Actually Matters

Most myths that pervade our Facebook feeds don’t really matter. Sure, they’re annoying, you maybe wonder how people can be so gullible, and you have Snopes bookmarked to deal with the silliness, but the myths don’t actually affect an entire society’s opinion on something. But there are commonly-accepted myths that actually impact people’s lives.

It happened again today.  I heard someone say, “Well, with more than half of marriages ending in divorce, I don’t believe married people are really that much better off anyway.” More than half of marriages end in divorce. 50% of marriages don’t make it. We’ve all heard that, read it, seen it. We’ve heard it so often and for so long that we all believe it without question, don’t we?

Well, guess what: the statistic that 50% of marriages end in divorce is a myth.

A myth. A myth! A myth that everyone believes, and that has done incredible harm to our society. I’ve heard people say, “Why get married? It’s just going to end in divorce anyway. I mean, 50% of marriages end in divorce…” I’ve heard others say, “Why stay married? It’s not like I’m unusual in getting divorced. Half of marriages end in divorce anyway; I’m just normal!” Granted, someone who would let statistics sway him or her in their decision about marrying someone probably shouldn’t be marrying that someone, and someone who is using statistics to justify their divorce probably would do so anyway, but as a cultural attitude adjustment, the rate of divorce myth has had immeasurable negative impact.

But, in the immortal words of LeVar Burton, you don’t have to take my word for it. What does the New York Times say?

How many American marriages end in divorce? One in two, if you believe the statistic endlessly repeated in news media reports, academic papers and campaign speeches.

The figure is based on a simple – and flawed – calculation…

But researchers say that this is misleading because the people who are divorcing in any given year are not the same as those who are marrying, and that the statistic is virtually useless in understanding divorce rates. In fact, they say, studies find that the divorce rate in the United States has never reached one in every two marriages, and new research suggests that, with rates now declining, it probably never will.

Or some psychology website I’d never heard of till now with a fantastic summary about it?

A false conclusion in the 1970s that half of all first marriages ended in divorce was based on the simple but completely wrong analysis of the marriage and divorce rates per 1,000 people in the United States. A similar abuse of statistical analysis led to the conclusion that 60 percent of all second marriages ended in divorce.

These errors have had a profound impact on attitudes about marriage in our society and it is a terrible injustice that there wasn’t more of an effort to get accurate data (essentially only obtainable by following a significant number of couples over time and measuring the outcomes) or that newer, more accurate and optimistic data isn’t being heavily reported in the media.

It is now clear that the divorce rate in first marriages probably peaked at about 40 percent for first marriages around 1980 and has been declining since to about 30 percent in the early 2000s. This is a dramatic difference. Rather than viewing marriage as a 50-50 shot in the dark it can be viewed as having a 70 percent likelihood of succeeding. But even to use that kind of generalization, i.e., one simple statistic for all marriages, grossly distorts what is actually going on.

Oh, and the thing about the divorce rate being as high among Christians as among non-Christians? Also a myth – at least if we’re talking Christians who attend church regularly.

When comparing Christians to the general population, Feldhahn said that asking the question nominally presented some problems. For instance, if someone says they are a Christian, it doesn’t necessarily mean that person is a practicing believer.

So, Feldhahn partnered with Barna and re-ran their data to focus in on church attendance in the past week — one of the clearest indicators of how deeply one practices his or her faith. While the divorce rate was similar for nominal Christians and the general public, she found something profound among practicing believers.

“The divorce rate dropped by 27 percent between those who went to church last week,” Feldhahnsaid. “The theory is that attendance in other worship faiths would have a similar impact — being part of a community where people are around you will notice when something is going wrong.”

Do a quick search and you’ll find more and more articles about how this commonly-held belief is a myth. (Or you can read the book.)

So how can we get the truth out there and stop this myth? I think the easiest is that when you hear or read someone say, “50% of marriages end in divorce,” correct them. Do a quick Google and give them a link or two like the ones quoted above. Snopes hasn’t covered this topic, but the Snopes-like site TruthOrFiction has. Maybe by getting the truth out there we can help change our society’s negative opinion of marriage and give some hope to those in the trenches of a tough marriage that haven’t given up yet. Most people don’t give up. Most people do stay together in the tough times. You can do it too.*

While you’re at it, throw in a link or two about about studies show married people have more and better sex. That’ll really throw ’em for a loop.

* I realize that not all situations are alike. Many people “give up” after years of trying to fix things, among many other reasons for divorce. I’m talking about the general consciousness of hope caused by the truth overtaking the general consciousness of pessimism caused by the myth in our society.


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