NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–A recent New York Times article carried the headline “Divorce Rate: It’s Not as High as You Think.” The text went on to explain that the figure often tossed around, which claims half of all U.S. marriages end in divorce, is based on a flawed calculation.
The rate is typically determined by comparing the annual marriage rate per 1,000 people with the annual divorce rate, but researchers say it is misleading because the people who are divorcing in any given year are not the same as those who are marrying, The Times noted April 19.
When calculated properly, studies indicate the divorce rate has never reached one in two marriages and probably never will.
“The method preferred by social scientists in determining the divorce rate is to calculate how many people who have ever married subsequently divorced,” The Times said. “Counted that way, the rate has never exceeded about 41 percent, researchers say.”
But Tom Elliff, pastor of the Oklahoma City-area First Baptist Church in Del City, and leader of the Southern Baptist Convention’s “Kingdom Families” initiative, told Baptist Press the divorce rate percentage — whether 40 or 50 percent — should not be the focus when discussing the tragedy of divorce sweeping the nation.
“As someone has said, statistics are like people, in that if you put enough pressure on them, they’ll say almost anything you want them to say,” Elliff said. “Statistics on marriage and divorce can be reported in such a way that at any given time it can look like things are drastically improving or things are getting worse and worse.”
More striking to Elliff than what percentage of marriages end in divorce, he said, is that an average of 3,571 divorces occur per day in America.
“If 3,571 divorces take place each day, that means on that same day, 3,571 marriages are starting out without what they needed to last, and 3,571 marriages are getting in trouble, and 3,571 couples are deciding to go to a lawyer, and 3,571 couples are in an estranged position and 3,571 couples are also going to divorce court that day,” Elliff noted.
“So you can take that 3,571 figure and multiply that by five or 10 to get the number of families that are in trouble. That changes the whole picture.”
Elliff, a former SBC president, said any breakup of a marriage is a funeral of a home, which is something more Christians need to take seriously.
“It’s one thing to grieve over the 3,000 people who died in the World Trade Center, and I did grieve over that, but if that day was like every other day in America, more than that many homes died,” he said.
Too often, the seriousness of the problem goes unnoticed because America has become saturated in a “divorce culture,” Elliff said. A person would be hard-pressed to examine a typical mainstream media family hour and find anything resembling the portrayal of a traditional family, one in which a mother and father are at home in a marriage that functions properly and both have respect for each other, he said.
“People mock that and say, ‘Well, that’s ‘Leave It to Beaver.’ That’s ‘Ozzie and Harriet.” Well, that happened to be very much how society was in those days. You know, art is a reflection of society and that was a reflection of the society in those days.
“[As long as] the media portrays it as being normal that families divorce, then I think those who are impacted by that assume that they’re not in that bad a situation if their family is going through a marital breakup,” Elliff said.
A society that doesn’t value the institution of marriage is a society headed toward destruction, Elliff said, which can already be noted in the way many children from broken homes perform once outside those homes.
“We know that approximately half of our children in public schools come from single-parent families. We know that children who come from single-parent families often have a much higher incidence of what we would call a negative life outcome than children who come from families where both the mother and father are in the home,” he said. “It especially makes a difference if it is the biological mother and father at home. The idea that, ‘Well, if it’s just a man, a step-dad …’ sometimes a situation like that is not as healthy as we might want to think it is.
“So whatever the statistic, as far as I’m concerned — even if it were low, even if it were 10 percent or 1 percent — to me it would still indicate a serious problem which needs to be addressed because God’s plan is one man for one woman for life,” Elliff added. “There are enough serious things that happen to people in this world anyway, and having a broken home or being reared in a single-parent family just seems to create some difficulties for the children or even for the parents that we certainly wouldn’t want to happen.”
Elliff said Christians need to grasp the significance of the high divorce rate because societies find it very difficult to sustain themselves once they move toward a disrespect for authority and a lack of appreciation for God’s principles. If children don’t learn the great principles of life at home, Elliff said, where will they learn them? Schools are increasingly less willing to teach such principles, but that was not God’s primary intention anyway.
“Even church was not God’s first institution,” Elliff said. “It was the family. That’s where we’re supposed to learn the great principles of life, in our homes. Unfortunately, it’s just not happening.”
Too many marriages today are getting off to a bad start, Elliff said, or never starting at all in light of the divorce culture.
“One of the things that is taking place in our nation is that well over half of the people who get married now have cohabited before they’re married,” he said. “And another factor is that many people are just choosing not to marry but simply to live together. Another thing that is as serious is that many people are putting off marriage to later and later in life, and so they may go through several partners before they get married.
“To me, instead of solving a problem, that creates a problem. As a matter of fact, people who cohabit before they get married do not find that they’re better equipped when they get married,” Elliff said, referring to a 2004 study by Rutgers University called “The State of Our Unions.”
The study reported that the number of unmarried couples living together in America increased by more than 1,100 percent between 1960 and 2002, so that now more than half of all first marriages are preceded by living together, compared to virtually none 50 years ago.
“For many, cohabitation is a prelude to marriage, for others, simply an alternative to living alone, and for a small but growing number, it is considered an alternative to marriage,” the study said, adding that cohabitation is more common “among those who are less religious than their peers, those who have been divorced, and those who have experienced parental divorce, fatherlessness, or high levels of marital discord during childhood.”
No evidence has yet been found to suggest that those who cohabit before marriage have stronger marriages than those who do not, the study said.
Elliff said that as he counsels couples preparing for marriage in the midst of the divorce culture, he doesn’t speak with them as if they’re destined for destruction given the high divorce rates. Instead, he informs them of the statistics and then asks to partner with them as they prepare for marriage so that they do not become victims of divorce. The statistics, he said, are often an incentive for couples to follow through on counseling.
“God’s got a good plan, and if we stick with His plan, I think that’s the key issue,” Elliff said.