Divorce Drops, Long-Lasting Marriages Rise: U.S. Census Report

77 percent of U.S. couples married since 1990 reached 10-year anniversaries.

May 19, 2011, 11:41 AM

May 19, 2011 -- Maria Shriver and Arnold Schwarzenegger, Al and Tipper Gore -- these are the exceptions, not the rule, according to a new report from the U.S. Census Bureau. The report says that fewer Americans are getting married, and more marriages are lasting longer.

"Many Americans have ... heard this idea that one in two marriages will fail and that marriage is on the ropes," said Bradford Wilcox, Director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. "Marriage is actually becoming more stable in America and divorce is becoming less common."

Seventy-seven percent of couples married since 1990 reached their 10-year anniversaries, according to census figures. That's a slight increase from 74 percent in the 1980s, when divorce rates where at an all-time high.

"Most divorces have always occurred within 10 years of marriage because most people who are unhappily married figure that out quickly," said Andrew Cherlin, a sociology professor at Johns Hopkins University.

Despite the perception that divorce is common place, most Americans marry once and make it work.

Fifty-five percent of all married couples have been married for at least 15 years, according to the census report, while 35 percent have celebrated their 25th anniversaries and a special 6 percent have made it more than 50 years.

Kathy Rogillio Birt says she has been married 27 years and shared the secrets of her success on the World News Facebook page.

"You must put the other person first, be a good listener, communicate, start and end the day with a kiss, don't go to bed mad, laugh a lot, keep up the romance, be spontaneous, and be quick to forgive," she wrote.

Martha Sturtz, a retired school teacher from Mexico, N.Y., wrote that the secret to her 34 years of marriage was "communication, and being each other's best friend." She added that there were also three important words.

"Of course knowing the three words any women loves to hear helps," she wrote. "Not 'I love you,' but 'Let's eat out,' or, 'Let's order in!'"

Wilcox said one of the primary reasons marriages are lasting longer is that people are postponing marriage. "Couples that get married in their mid-twenties or later than that are more likely to avoid divorce court," he said.

"There is sort of more of a soul mate model of marriage today. ... Fifty years ago, this was one of the things you did when you became a young adult. You found a boyfriend or girlfriend and if you were pretty happy you'd go ahead and get married," said Wilcox. "Today the bar for marriage is much higher because people want a soul mate, not just a spouse. And a soul mate should be someone who is capable of providing you with emotional fulfillment, an intense relationship -- and, by the way, a decent bank account helps."

For many the soul mate model of marriage is less accessible, and while marriages on the whole are lasting longer, in many social strata, instability is on the rise.

"Americans who don't have a college degree and who are less affluent, working class and poor Americans. They are seeing increases in divorce, they are seeing increases in childbearing, and we're seeing a kind of growing marriage divide in American life," said Wilcox. "More and more couples are having kids outside of marriage in a cohabiting context, and that's why 41 percent of kids today are born outside of marriage in large parts. ... Their kids are more likely to be exposed to a carousel of romantic partners and to suffer as a consequence."

Marriage by the Numbers:

The Associated Press contributed to this report.