U.S. divorce rate sinks to lowest level since '70

Published May 11, 2007

NEW YORK - By the numbers, divorce just isn't what it used to be.

The national per capita divorce rate has declined steadily since its peak in 1981 and is now at its lowest level since 1970.

Yet Americans aren't necessarily making better choices about their long-term relationships. Even those who study marriage can't decide whether the trend is grounds for celebration or cynicism.

Some experts say relationships are as unstable as ever - and divorces are down primarily because more couples live together without marrying.

Other researchers have documented what they call "the divorce divide, " contending that divorce rates are indeed falling substantively among college-educated couples but not among less affluent, less educated couples.

"Families with two earners with good jobs have seen an improvement in their standard of living, which leads to less tension at home and lower probability of divorce, " said Andrew Cherlin, a professor of public policy at Johns Hopkins University.

America's divorce rate began climbing in the late 1960s and skyrocketed during the '70s and early '80s, as virtually every state adopted no-fault divorce laws. The rate peaked at 5.3 divorces per 1, 000 people in 1981.

Since then it has dropped by one-third, to 3.6. That's the lowest rate since 1970.

The number of couples who live together without marrying has increased tenfold since 1960, and the marriage rate has dropped by nearly 30 percent in the past 25 years.

Adding such factors together, some researchers see a bad situation. Other experts, however, are heartened by what they view as the increased determination of many couples to make marriage work.