Everyone knows that divorce is a frequent problem, but measuring it exactly is not an easy task according to a report from Canada. The Ontario-based Vanier Institute of the Family published its 3rd edition of “Divorce: Facts, Causes and Consequences” earlier this month.
In it Anne-Marie Ambert, a retired sociology professor, looks at the Canadian situation and compares it to other countries. The common affirmation that one out of every two marriages will end in divorce is not as simple as it sounds, she observed.
Citing a 2008 report by Statistics Canada, Ambert noted that the risk of divorce by the 30th wedding anniversary for recently married couples is 38% for the country as a whole, but 48.4% for the province of Quebec. This compares with 44% in the United States.
There is some doubling-up of people, however, as this figure includes not only persons who are divorcing for the first time, but also those whose marriages end for a second time or more. In 2005, 16% of divorces included husbands who had been already divorced at least once. For women the figure was 15%.
This means that couples contemplating marriage for the first time need to keep in mind that the divorce rate for first marriages is lower than 38%, probably closer to 33% according to Ambert.
Further complications arise when inadequate methods of measuring divorce are used. Sometimes the number of divorces in a year is compared to the number of marriages in that same 12-month period. So if the number of marriages goes down, as it has in Canada in the past decade, the proportion of divorces to marriages will seem to automatically increase even if the number of divorces remains constant.
Another misleading approach compares the rate of divorce to the rate of marriage. If there were 2.7 divorces per 1,000 persons in the population and 5.4 marriages per 1,000, then the divorce rate is 50%. Not only is this wrong for the same reason as the previous method, but it can also be used to extrapolate, concluding that 50% who marry this year will eventually divorce.
The most common method used is the yearly crude rate for every 1,000 or 100,000 married couples in a population. In 2005 this rate in Canada was 2.2 divorced per 1,000, compared to 2.9 in 1990.
According to Ambert, the most accurate way to calculate is by using the Total Divorce Rate. This looks at people who marry in a given year and determines the proportion expected to divorce by the 30th wedding anniversary. This method also has its limitations, as it is a prediction based on actual divorce patterns of the recent past.
It also makes international comparisons more difficult, as such predictions require careful record-keeping and calculations that few countries do adequately.
Trends are also changing. Divorce greatly increased in Canada following a 1968 law that made it easier to obtain, and so there was a five-fold increase in the years that followed. Later, during the 1990s, divorce rates in both Canada and the U.S. have gone down.
Another variable is the increase in cohabitation before marriage. Both couples who cohabit and those who are children of divorced parents have a higher risk of divorcing, so there is a chance that divorce rates could increase in future years.
Another section of Ambert’s report looked at the factors contributing to divorce in Canada. In terms of cultural influences, she maintained that as secularization progressed and more space was given to individual choice, divorce rates gradually crept up.
“For many, marriage has become and individual choice rather than a covenant before God and this change has contributed to the acceptance of its temporal nature,” she explained.
Then, easier divorce laws led to its normalization and so it became socially acceptable and lost its stigma. The trend toward individualism and an emphasis on rights rather than duties also played a part, Ambert affirmed.
Today’s culture encourages people to be happy and fulfilled and marriage is less seen as an institution centered on mutual responsibilities than one based on the pursuit of happiness and companionship.
As a consequence of these trends, Canadians and most Westerners have developed a lower threshold of tolerance when their marriage does not meet with their expectations for personal fulfillment, Ambert continued.
She also examined the trend to cohabitation in recent times. It used to be believed, Ambert commented, that living together before marriage would enable people to avoid marrying the wrong person and to practice relationship skills.
It did not turn out this way, she observed. Cohabitation represents, particularly among males, a lesser commitment to marriage and to sexual fidelity. There is also less reason to work at maintaining a relationship that may never have been viewed as a life-long commitment to begin with.
Therefore, Ambert added, it cannot be said that cohabitation necessarily constitutes a sort of trial marriage, and as a result divorce may well follow when a cohabiting couple does eventually marry.
The experience of a less secure, and at times less faithful cohabitation, shapes subsequent marital behavior and such couples continue to live their marriage through the perspective of the insecurity and low commitment of their prior cohabitation Ambert commented, citing some studies.
Another factor is that couples who cohabit are generally less religious than those who marry without cohabiting. There is a correlation between religiosity and marital happiness, as well as stability, said Ambert.
Poverty increases the risk of divorce and in turn divorce increases the risk of poverty, the report pointed out. Once study cited by Ambert showed that within 2 years of a separation or divorce 43% of women had experienced a decrease in household income, compared to 15% of men. Even 3 years after divorce many women’s household income remains far below what it had been during marriage.
Divorce is also a strong risk factor for developmental problems among children. Although average differences are not huge, Ambert conceded, nevertheless children whose parents are divorced are more likely to suffer from psychological problems and to do less well at school. This is the situation even after their parents are re-married.
As well, the older children of divorced parents tend to leave home earlier than others. As a consequence it becomes too expensive for them to continue their education, leading in turn to lower skills and higher unemployment.
While poverty is a major factor in the negative impact of divorce on children, Ambert explained that even if there were a significant reduction in child poverty, the consequences of divorce and single parenting on children would not be eliminated.
The dissolution of average-to-good marriages represents not only a burden to children, but is also a significant cost for society as a whole, Ambert concludes.
“The Church cannot be indifferent to the separation of spouses and to divorce, facing the break-up of homes and the consequences for the children that divorce causes,” Benedict XVI said Sept. 25 to a group of bishops from Brazil.
“The Church is firmly convinced that the true solution to the current problems that husbands and wives encounter and that weaken their union lies in a return to the stable Christian family, an environment of mutual trust, reciprocal giving, respect for freedom and education in social life,” he recommended.
The Pope urged the bishops and priests of Brazil to support and encourage families and by building up family life to aid in the solution of social problems. A difficult task in today’s circumstances, but a vital one.