Photo Credit: ianmunroe
Divorce. DIVORCE. It’s one of those things America is known for around the world, along with Hollywood and blue jeans. I’m sure most of you have heard the statistic that “half of all marriages in America end in divorce”. And it’s commonly thought that it’s even worse if you marry outside your race, culture, or religion – if the average American couple has such a difficult time staying married, wouldn’t marriages where the husband and wife seem to have major differences (a built-in area of conflict, if you will) be even more prone to divorce?
With a reputation like that, it’s understandable that a non-American family – one which strongly values familial ties (like many Indian families) – may hear the 50% divorce statistic and be a bit panicked when a son or daughter announces plans to marry an American. The logic, I suspect, goes something like
This American, growing up among divorce – perhaps even having divorced parents or other family members – probably has different expectations about how marriages work and how long marriages last. Thus, if we want our son/daughter to have a good marriage for life, they shouldn’t get married to an American, since that means they’ll have a 50% chance of getting a divorce! Fifty percent!
There’s enough concern about the issue of America’s pesky divorce rate that there’s even a thread in the forum here on family divorces, and how, if, or why they ought or ought not be disclosed to Indian family members.
Truth is, however, the statistics of divorce are rather complicated, and it’s very easy to misinterpret what they mean for individual marriages. And that 50% divorce statistic? Not true . Especially for interracial, intercultural, or international couples, where things get a bit more complicated.
Conditional Probability and What It Means For Real Life
No, don’t panic. I’m not going to start throwing mathematical equations up onto the page. But to understand how to correctly interpret divorce statistics (or any statistics, really), it’s important to understand the concept of conditional probability. In simple terms, conditional probability is about how the likelihood of an event occurring changes depending on what subgroup of the larger population you fall into.
As an example, let’s consider the unemployment rate for people in the US. Perhaps some of you have heard that there’s this recession thing going on? Looking at this nifty graph from the New York Times, we can see that the average unemployment rate for all people in the US from September ’08 to September ’09 was 8.6%. However, this does not mean that everyone has an 8.6 out of 100 chance of being unemployed. Playing with the graph, you can see that for the group of Americans with college degrees, the average unemployment rate was only 4.5%, which is not much higher than you’d expect to see from the usual frictional unemployment that all economies, good and bad, have. If I add in my race, sex, and age into the calculator, I can see that for the group that best fits me the average unemployment rate is a mere 3.6%! And that’s without factoring in the geographical area I live in, which has extremely low unemployment rates generally (ah, the life of a government contractor!).
This is what conditional probability is all about. Yes, the average unemployment rate (for the time period we’re considering) is 8.6%, which is pretty worrying. But, once we take into account my specific characteristics – i.e. calculate the probability of unemployment conditional on the fact that I’m a mid-twenties, college-educated, white woman – we can see that, all other things being equal, it’s not really that likely that I’ll end up unemployed.
Divorce in the US and You
As you can see from the example in the previous section, employing conditional probability to figure out the likelihood of something occurring for people similar to you can really change how bad (or good) a situation looks. This is why I’m typically very skeptical about applying general statistics to myself, or most of the people I know – it’s just unlikely that any individual is “average enough” for a statistic to be very meaningful. (Of course, this also goes for most generalizations – as I wrote in my post on categories, generalizations, and stereotypes, they’re only useful in extremely limited circumstances.)
The situation is no different with divorce in America – the divorce rate for different sorts of people varies dramatically. Luckily for us, a “probability of divorce” calculator for Americans (similar to the New York Times’ unemployment graph) has been developed by a very cool economist. Strangely, it’s called a marriage calculator, but, well, whatever. If you enter in your details (don’t worry, I don’t see them), you can find out the divorce rate statistics for Americans much more similar to you than the “average” American population. Play around with it a bit – the numbers can really vary dramatically depending on what subgroup you target.
Pretty neat, huh?
Interracial Divorce Statistics
Of course, the widget above doesn’t take into account whether you’re in an intercultural or interracial or international marriage – which, theoretically, should matter quite a bit. Unfortunately, the United States hasn’t been keeping great statistics on interracial related things (it was only in the last census that choosing mixed race was even an ethnicity option!). However, there is some data that has become available, and I recently found an article (spurred on by a post over at My Life in Brown (and White)) that discusses divorce probabilities - “But Will It Last?”: Marital Instability Among Interracial and Same-Race Couples (pdf) by Jenifer Bratter and Rosalind King, published in 2008. I highly encourage you to read the article yourself if you’re interested in this topic, but I’ll give you guys a basic summary (with a few simplifications for clarity) of it’s findings:
- Historically, the research regarding interracial divorce rates has been mixed, and has only dealt with all types of interracial marriage (white-black, white-Asian, black-Hispanic, etc, etc). This is problematic because, theoretically, you’d expect different sorts of pairings to have different divorce statistics, just as different sorts of same-race couples (white-white, Asian-Asian, etc) have different rates of divorce. What little data there is suggests that interracial marriages are more likely to end in divorce (13% more likely, according to one study) compared to same-race marriages. However, the interracial factor did not seem to have as much of an effect as things like age when married and education level.
- It does seem like interracial couples, taken as a whole, are more “mixed” in regard to other socio-economic factors, such as class, education level, age, etc, than same-race couples. Since these other factors are also correlated with divorce, there’s a bit of chicken-and-egg problem in the correlation versus causation area: do interracial couples end up divorcing because they’re too different, or are people more prone to divorce to begin with also more likely to marry interracially? Right now we just don’t have the data to tell.
- Overall, interracial marriages account for about5% of marriages in the United States - but this statistic doesn’t include some marriages that most people would think interracial, such as a marriage between a Korean and an Indian (since they’d both fall into the category of Asian) or the marriage of a person identifying as Hispanic white with a person identifying as a European white (since they’d both fall into the category of white). Here’s a breakdown of the percentage of various interracial marriages in the study:
- The study did show elevated levels of divorce among interracial couples (taken as a whole) compared to same-race couples, just as previous studies have reported. The authors only considered marriages as “intact” if the couples made it to 10 years of marriage – this is because, if a marriage ends in divorce in the US, on average it ends by the eighth year. So if a couple makes it to ten years, it’s reasonable to say that they’re unlikely to divorce. If a couple was still married at the time the data was collected (2004), but hadn’t been married for ten years their information “censored” in the study in order to not bias the results (there are statistical techniques available to account for this).
Marriages were also censored if they ended in the death of the partner.
- The likelihood of divorce for intermarriages is greatly affected by the type of interracial marriage.
- Marriages that do not cross a race barrier, but do have different ethnicities (i.e. white/Hispanic white) have a rate of divorce just a little higher than white/white marriages.
- Interracial marriages that have one white person and one person of another race mostly only show higher divorce rates when the white spouse is a female (i.e. white guy + other race girl don’t show particularly high divorce rates compared to same-race couples).
- Black husband/white wife marriages are twice as likely to divorce as white/white marriages, and Asian husband/white wife marriages are about 60% more likely to divorce as white/white marriages. Which, I suppose is an unfortunate statistic for Aditya and me (and one I didn’t expect at all)!
- White husband/black wife were nearly 50% less likely to divorce than white/white couples, and white husband/Asian wife couples had pretty much the same divorce rate as white/white couples
- Compared to Hispanic/Hispanic couples, Hispanic white/white couples showed a higher likelihood of divorce (not surprising). Likewise, Asian/white couples were more likely to divorce than Asian/Asian couples. However, black/white couples only show a higher rate of divorce compared to black/black couples if the white person in the relationship is a woman.
- The researchers were unable to evaluate other sorts of interracial marriages, such as black/Asian, because of the low number of such couples in the sample data.
The Bottom Line
So, by looking through these various statistics, you can probably get a better idea of the likelihood of divorce for people more similar to you than the general American population. In the case of my marriage, for example, I get bonus points for the generation I belong to (the Baby Boomers were the big divorcers in America), for being pretty well educated, and for making it (so far) to three years of marriage. On the negative side of the ledger, Aditya and I seem to belong to some riskier groups, since we married relatively young (for Americans) and are an Asian male/white female couple. But how much should we care for these more accurate statistics? The bottom line is that these statistics are meaningful and important, but not the end all & be all.
It’s a very common impulse to dismiss these statistics by saying that your marriage is above-average, and the statistics just don’t hold for your individual case. Frankly, while that may be true, it’s more likely that, like the 93% of American drivers who think they’re above-average drivers, you’re overestimating yourself. These statistics do matter. If you seem to have ended up in a particularly high-risk group, I think it’d be valuable to think about ways you can work to strengthen your relationship. The point here is not to think that you’re doomed to divorce because you fall into a high-risk group – but that you can learn from the (sad) examples of others similar to you, and do your best to avoid their fate.
That being said, do note that there are a lot of factors being left out of these statistics. While the marriage divorce calculator above and the study on interracial couples do hit on many of the key characteristics that have been shown to predict divorce, there are other variables in play. For example, researchers think that interracial couples (as a whole) are more prone to divorce largely because they often lack support from their families, friends, and local community. So if you’ve got a great group of supportive friends, or your families are welcoming of your marriage, or you live in an area where there are lots of interracial marriages, you may be better off than other interracial couples that lack those things. (And if you don’t have those things, well, no one’s stopping you from moving or developing a better support network of friends.)
In the end, I firmly believe that we’re all in control of our own destinies. If you and your spouse are a great fit for one another, then there’s no reason why your marriage can’t last. If you’re looking forward to an interracial marriage, you certainly shouldn’t change your mind because of these statistics. Yes, we shouldn’t leap before looking – but, once you’ve looked and become mindful of the risks, don’t let fear keep you from taking a plunge.