Growing Trends: Divorce vs. Separation

Last week the New York Times featured an article on the increased divorce rate in the rural U.S., particularly Sioux County, Iowa.  Where once upon a time here, back in 1980, there were 52 married people for every 1 divorcee, there is currently a shocking 14 to 1 ratio.  The reason behind this jump?  A huge gap between expectations and reality.

Time has had an important impact on marriage in rural America two ways.  First, blue-collar husbands cannot offer their wives the same standard of living they once could 30 years ago (which is where the higher expectations came from).  And second, more and more women in rural communities have received a college degree and entered the workforce, allowing them to leave the marriages that no longer meet those expectations.  Naturally, the higher divorce rate has led to an ease in stigma over divorce in the rural communities as well.

So then, in lieu of this general acceptance of rising divorce rates, what makes an indefinite separation so appealing even today?  What else but economic benefits?  Several states, including New York, treat separated couples exactly like married couples: you still get covered under his medical insurance, you are still entitled to an elective share of his will if he dies, and you still file a joint tax return.  Needless to say, the recession has had a big influence on the decision to get a divorce or just become separated for married couples who have found it impossible to live together (hint: whatever’s cheaper).

Should Americans be concerned over the increased shift in divorce and separation rates?  Probably not.  According to June Carbone, a law professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and co-author of “Red Families v. Blue Families,” college-educated Americans are now more likely to get married and stay married as opposed to those with only a high school level diploma.  (In rural America, 1 in 6 people have a college diploma while in urban areas it’s 1 in 3.)  This statistic makes sense if the divorce rates in rural America truly have gone up due to unmet expectations; the more educated one is, the more realistic she’ll be about what to expect from marriage with her beau.  I would not be surprised if the marriage rate bounced back up for high school level educated Americans in about 20 years – enough time for the current generation of disappointed ex-spouses to instill more realistic marriage expectations in their children.  Or for those same children to think of the 1970’s model of marriage as “archaic” and not base their expectations on it anyway.