New documentary tackles the divorce industry

DivorceCorp opens in January. It looks great — with one little caveat.

Image from the DivorceCorp web site,

Divorce is big business. Many people can have a hand in the divorce process: lawyers, mediators, custody evaluators, therapists, court systems, and others all say they want to help divorcing couples. And all want to be paid for their services. The entire system can suffer from what might rightly be called perverse incentives — strong pulls for people to act in ways that are more out of self-interest than the true long-term best interest of the couple they claim to be trying to help.

This is the thrust of the documentary DivorceCorp, opening in major cities January 10. The movie looks good and important. Dr. Drew narrates, and it features interviews with some well-known law experts, including Gloria Allred. Here’s the trailer:

More information on the film, including local theaters showing the film when it opens, can be found on the official DivorceCorp website.

One cautionary note, though: The opening statement in the trailer, “50% of all US marriages end in divorce,” is wrong. As you can read about in more detail over at the excellent DivorceSource web site, the US divorce rate probably never topped 41% and has been declining for several years. As Tara Parker-Pope documented quite well in her book For Better, divorce rates are especially low among those with at least a college education. Over Twitter, the film’s reps have said that there were bigger fish to fry, so to speak. I get that. They’re looking at an entire divorce industry, and my caution is with one statistic. I believe the social conversation about the divorce rate is one specific part of the larger social conversation about divorce that especially needs to change, for reasons I’ll save for a separate post, but don’t let that take you away from the big picture. I’m happy to support the film and eager to see it.

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Your comments are welcome. You can post them in the comments below, by email to ben[at]bencaldwell[dot]com, or on my Twitter feed.

How to get the divorce rate wrong

Do what a CNBC reporter did: Ask divorce lawyers.

Wedding ringsI’ve mentioned here in the past that estimates of the divorce rate are notoriously difficult to make well. There’s some inherent guesswork involved, unless you just wait for an entire annual cohort of marriages to reach either death or divorce. And that would take a long time. To simply compare a given year’s number of marriages with that year’s number of divorces is to compare different cohorts, making estimates of the divorce rate done that way wildly inaccurate.

Instead, demographers and social scientists do the best-educated guesswork they can based on past data and current trends. (Government data does not do forward-looking prediction, but rather focuses on divorces that have already occurred.) As new divorce-rate studies are released, you can keep up with them on the Divorce Statistics and Studies Blog. Reasonable people can disagree about the best scientific ways to determine the divorce rate, and there is probably some value to several different approaches. So news reporters, talking to scientists, will sometimes come up with different numbers, and that’s okay. They tend to wind up in that least the same neighborhood. (That neighborhood, by the way, projects the divorce rate for people getting married this year in the low 40s, percentage-wise.)

What is not okay — what shows rather extreme laziness in news reporting — is to ask a scientific question of someone who is in no place to answer it, and then not bother to check the accuracy of their statement. What’s even worse is when that person can directly benefit from providing misinformation.

So it went with in September, when reporter Cindy Perman opened her story about affairs (reprinted by USA Today) by providing an estimate of the divorce rate — a measurable, objective, scientific thing — helpfully volunteered by the director of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers.

The problems with this are so obvious that I’m stunned the article was printed. I don’t even blame the lawyer, at least not any more than I blame spokespeople from the National Association of Realtors for suggesting that any economic news, good or bad, means it’s a great time to buy a home. They’re lying, but that’s their job. I just wish reporters would subject those claims to actual scrutiny.

Like, fact-checking.

I’ll say it here again: The divorce rate in the US probably never got as high as 50%, and is currently declining. The best current estimates of the divorce rate place it in the low 40s, and the divorce rate is much lower for well-educated couples than for less-educated couples.

It’s a topic taken on quite well by Tara Parker-Pope in her book For Better, which dissects the science surrounding a number of elements of marriage and divorce.

Any time you see the lazy and wrong estimate that half of all marriages end in divorce, go ahead and — nicely — say something to correct it. I suppose as a couples therapist I might also benefit from inflating the divorce rate, but I’d rather let facts speak for themselves — and I think effective, widely-available therapy would bring down the divorce rate even further. It would save us all some money, too.

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If you know of egregious repeat offenders with the half-of-all-marriages-end-in-divorce nonsense, email examples to me at ben[at], post a comment below, or send me a link to it on Twitter. Of course, other comments are always welcome.

Wyoming bill would require counseling before marriage or divorce

With some exceptions, three hours of premarital or pre-divorce counseling would be required. For divorcing couples, it’s good policy, even though it is unlikely to reduce divorce rates. It is much harder to justify the premarital requirement, on either a clinical or policy level.

Boutonniere-whitesuitA bill introduced in this year’s session of the Wyoming state legislature, HB0065, would require couples to attend three hours of premarital counseling before obtaining a marriage license, and three hours of marriage counseling before obtaining a divorce.

While there is little data to suggest that any three-hour process for couples already planning to split up will make much of a dent in the state’s divorce rate, requiring divorce counseling is a good idea for other reasons. Divorce education reduces conflict in the divorce process, particularly where custody is concerned (see this summary of several studies on divorce education for parents), and saves the divorcing couple as well as the public a significant amount of money in the process. Three hours is not an unduly burdensome amount, and the a judge can waive the requirement if the court finds there is “clear and convincing evidence that marital counseling will not lead to a reconciliation of the parties” — an important consideration for victims of relationship violence. Several states have adopted such programs, often similar to one called “Children in the Middle,” with good results.

The premarital counseling requirement is harder to support, either on a policy or scientific level — and this is coming from a guy who specializes in couples work (San Diego marriage counseling) and loves premarital counseling.

There is ample evidence that these relationship education programs improve communication, but it is unclear whether premarital education actually improves relationship satisfaction or stability, and there is virtually no evidence to suggest they actually have a long-term impact on divorce. (That’s primarily due to a lack of data, not studies showing failure.) A recent, thorough review in the journal Family Relations described current research on the very basic question of whether these programs work as “not as settled as program developers and practitioners might assume or like it to be.” There are at least three large-scale, federally-funded demonstration projects of premarital education (Appendix 2) underway now that should provide clearer answers.

In the meantime, these programs continue to grow because they are, in the words of one report, “popular and valued.” And there is some evidence to suggest they have a greater impact on low-income families, who do suffer from higher long-term divorce rates.

But here’s the catch. In the studies that have been done, as well as the large studies underway now, few have suggested that just three hours of education would be enough to even expect an impact. The federally-funded studies use programs of at least 24 hours of education. Most programs utilize at least 12 hours. Anything under eight hours was considered in the Family Relations review to be a “low-dosage” program.

This is why it’s so hard to get behind the premarital requirement in the proposed Wyoming law. I could see requiring 12 hours, and I can certainly understand requiring none. But three hours? It adds a hurdle to marriage, without sufficient reason to believe it will have a lasting positive impact. And while I believe quite strongly that premarital education can be effective, I cannot support requiring an amount of it that is too low to have any likely effect. Wyoming and other states should either require enough premarital education to make a lasting difference, or none at all.

Update: The bill died in its first committee in February 2011.

Great new books on modern marriage and divorce

Quick, true or false: Half or more of the couples getting married this year will eventually divorce. We hear that statistic over and over and over again. It’s wrong. The divorce rate has been in significant decline since the 1970s. By the tenth year of marriage, by which time we know that more than half of those who will ever divorce have already done so, only 16% of college-educated women who married in the 1990s had divorced. That represents a drop of almost a third since the 1970s; 23% of college-educated women married in that decade had divorced by the tenth year of marriage. (The trend runs parallel for those without a college education, whose divorce rates are consistently just a few points higher.)

Marriage is changing in the US — and in many ways for the better. The divorce rate is definitely declining. Young people are putting off marriage, for a variety of reasons (some of which are likely economic). And therapists’ knowledge of how to strengthen weak marriages grows stronger by the day. This research, on marriage itself as well as how to improve it, is the focus of Tara Parker-Pope’s excellent For Better. Parker-Pope, who writes the Well blog for the New York Times, condenses current family-studies and family-therapy data into a well-paced, eminently readable and optimistic portrait of modern American marriage. Simply put, the book is fascinating. Parker-Pope is certainly a gifted writer; she is able to accurately communicate the finer points of research with a light touch, never coming across as wonky or technical. She also includes a number of self-tests researchers have designed to assess marriages, which makes the book even more valuable on a therapist’s shelf.

For those couples who do divorce, they should know that modern divorce is changing, too. When Americans divorce, they are more likely than people anywhere else to remarry, and they tend to do so more quickly. Even those who do not marry are more likely to bounce from one relationship to another in the US, forming the framework for Andrew Cherlin’s book, The Marriage-Go-Round. Cherlin makes a compelling case that the US is different from the rest of the world in how we think about marriage and divorce. Even better, he offers a compelling explanation, rooted in our nation’s social and religious history. It too is a great read. (It also can be occasionally frustrating; Cherlin briefly dissects the half-of-all-marriages-end-in-divorce myth early in the book, only to repeatedly reinforce it later. Parker-Pope does a much more detailed job of demolishing that myth.)

Ultimately the two books are both worthwhile on their own, but they are even better in combination. For therapists wanting a comprehensive and digestible understanding of the choices Americans make in marriage, divorce and the spaces in between — and how we can improve those choices — read them both.

Cohabitation not so harmful to marriage, new studies show

A trio of studies in the May Journal of Marriage and Family may be leading indicators of a fundamental shift in how cohabitation impacts eventual marriage. It may not be as harmful as previously thought.

It has been well-established for years that cohabitation before marriage increases eventual chances of divorce. (A good-albeit-old summary of this research, including possible explanations, is here.) This has been such a clear and consistent finding, in fact, that its opposite is featured in my 2008 article as a “myth about marriage” that research has convincingly debunked.

Now, all that may be changing. A study of marriages in Australia finds that the gap between cohabiting couples and non-cohabitors in later risk of divorce has been shrinking as cohabitation has become more common. The correlation may even have flipped. In one of the study’s predictive models, for couples married since about 1987, non-cohabitors have been more likely to eventually separate than those who cohabited prior to marriage. (In the study’s other predictive model, the lines have not yet crossed, but since the late 1990s there has been essentially no difference between cohabitors and non-cohabitors in risk of separation.)

There’s more. A separate national (US) study examining marital quality rather than simply separation looked at nearly 4,000 women born between 1957 and 1965. The authors found that

The negative correlation between premarital cohabitation and marital quality is largely driven by the nonmarital parents in the cohabiting population. […] Furthermore, marital quality is “locked in” at the start of marriage, with lower quality marriages neither catching up nor deteriorating more rapidly than others. (p. 313, emphasis mine)

In order to put meaning to these numbers, it is important to understand how couples today are looking at marriage and cohabitation. That’s exactly the purpose of a third study in the journal, titled “The Social Construction of Marital Commitment.” The researcher interviewed 75 women and men between ages 28 and 35, most in New York state. Based on their own descriptions, participants’ commitment to marriage was made of two parts: How they saw marriage as a “life style option” that had value compared with other options like cohabitation, and how (or whether) they saw themselves actually achieving married status. Speaking to the first element (value), most of those who were not in a relationship “were reluctant to assign a value to marital commitment that distinguished it from other forms of attachment” (p. 324, emphasis mine). Even among those who did place value on marriage, there appeared to be varying degrees of belief that the kind of marriage they envisioned was actually achievable.

Together, these three articles show in stark relief just how out-of-date our knowledge about marriage could be. Mind you, it’s not that we haven’t been doing the work. Rather, it appears that generational shifts in both attitudes and behavior toward marriage have been occurring much more rapidly than we’ve been able to effectively monitor. I wonder how many more of those supposed myths about marriage may be shifting to truth, and how long it would take for those shifts to be detected.