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  • Print publication year: 2005
  • Online publication date: July 2009

5 - Historical Developments


The divorce boom is common knowledge. Between the mid-1960s and 1980, rates of marital dissolution skyrocketed from ten divorces per thousand married women to almost twenty-three per thousand by 1979. Less dramatic but still important is the fact that divorce rates rose constantly throughout the twentieth century. The Depression and wars interrupted the overall trend, but the basic story is one of ongoing increase. This is quickly apparent when we consider crude divorce rates over the last eighty years (see Figure 5.1). Only since 1979 have divorce rates stabilized.

In this chapter I consider how the rising level of marital dissolution in the twentieth century has shaped the relationship between parental divorce and offspring marital behavior. The basic story is this: As divorce has become more common, its effects on children have changed dramatically, mostly in a positive direction. In particular, teenage marriage rates have plummeted. Furthermore, the children of divorce now are less likely to get married than are people from intact families, whereas they used to be more likely to marry. The disparity in divorce rates between people from divorced and nondivorced families has considerably narrowed, a development that largely can be attributed to the changing message about marital commitment that parental divorce sends to children. Taken together, these results show that the divorce boom has paradoxically benefitted some of the children caught in its wake.

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