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The history of American divorce since 1867

The Washington Post has some interesting data on the history of divorce in the United States. Everyone has their own reasons for splitting up, of course, but looking at general trends can show how major societal events shape people’s tendency to start and end marriages.

The Post article is based on research done by a “data tinkerer” and posted on his blog. It is based on marriage and divorce data from the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics, going back to 1867, when divorce was quite rare.

When adjusted per capita, we see that the U.S. divorce rate barely increased after the Civil War, while the marriage rate remained fairly steady until shortly before World War I, when the marriage rate spiked, and again after the war ended in 1919.

Ten years later, the Great Depression began, causing a sharp drop in the marriage rate, as well as a slight decrease in divorces after a decade of modest growth. As the economy slowly recovered, both the marriage and divorce rates increased until the U.S. entered World War II, when the marriage rate jumped.

The marriage rate shot up after World War II ended, paving the way for the Baby Boom generation. But so did the divorce rate. The Post speculates that divorcing couples in 1945 may be those who married before the war, and realized their mistake when reunited in peacetime.

The divorce rate quickly dropped, but remained higher than before the war. Then, around 1970, as views of women’s rights began to change, divorces quickly rose, peaking in about 1980 before beginning to drop again.

Today, the divorce rate is lower than any time since the ‘70s. Meanwhile, the marriage rate is the lowest it has been since 1870. This surely affects the country’s divorce rate; the fewer marriages there are, the fewer couples there will be who need a divorce to end their relationship.

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