You might have heard divorce referred to as something of an “epidemic” recently, with the number of divorce cases each year allegedly rising quickly. In reality, divorce rates in the United Sates are the lowest they have been in decades. It is true, however, that the “moral acceptability” of divorce has risen quite sharply over the past decade or so. From 2001 to 2017, for example, the social acceptance of divorce has increased by 14 points according to data gathered by Gallup during their Values and Beliefs poll, an annual effort that this year was conducted from May 3rd to the May 7th. That translates to about 73% of adults in the United States saying they find divorce morally acceptable.
The moral acceptability of divorce has not always been so high. While many individuals have found it to be a perfectly acceptable action since 2001, according to Gallup’s annual, it was still an issue that created quite a bit social discord. Going back in time a bit, in 1954 just 53% of Americans found divorce a valid action, which 43% saying they did not find it to be a valid or acceptable option. In 1968, however, 60% of adults polled said they wanted divorce to be made “more difficult” by the government. Despite this, public policy continued to move towards making divorce as easy and quick as possible, with California permitting “no fault” divorces in 1970 (the first state to do so) and 48 additional states adopting this policy by 1985.
The number of divorces taking place in the United States peaked in the 1970s and 1980s, when as many as 50% of marriages would ultimately end in divorce. Dubbed the “divorce revolution”, there was much debate and hand-wringing at the time about what kind of impact this would have upon society. Despite these concerns, however, the increased numbers of individuals opting for divorce as well as the public discussion regarding the process served to make the idea much more publicly acknowledged than it had been in previous decades. This is probably why a majority of Americans found the option “moral” in 2001, when Gallup began asking about the morality of divorce. 59% of respondents found it to be a moral action.
2015 marks the first year that the percentage of adults in the United States who found divorce to be morally acceptable topped 70%. Note that this is the same year, according to researchers from Bowling Green State University, when divorce rates in the States actually fell to the lowest rates in 35 years. Data collected via the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offered the same takeaway – divorce rates were at a multi-decade low.
Social Acceptability of Divorce Increases Among Married Adults
The numbers above might give rise to some questions regarding exactly who has been polled. After all, it makes sense that individuals who have gone through a divorce would be very accepting of the process. And while that holds true, it is also important to note that historically, even unmarried adults who had never experienced divorce tended to be quite supportive of the process. The moral acceptability of divorce among individuals never married tends to be about the same as it is among divorced individuals.
The real news is that the number of married individuals who believe that divorce is morally acceptable has grown quite a bit over the past seven years. Traditionally, the moral acceptability of divorce among married individuals has trailed behind that of unmarried individuals. From 2001 to 2004, for example, only 60% of married people found divorce to be morally acceptable while 70% of their never married counterparts found divorce acceptable. From 2015 to 2017, however, the numbers have risen to 70% and 76%, respectively, showing that even married individuals are having a change of heart when it comes to whether or not divorce is a morally acceptable option.
Religion and Moral Acceptability of Divorce
Individuals deemed “very religious” have always been more opposed to the idea of divorce than others. And while that still holds true today, it is interesting to note that even their perspective has shifted quite a bit. From 2001 to 2004, only 43% of deeply religious individuals found divorce to be acceptable. In 2015 to 2017, however, that number shifted to 51% – marking the first time a majority of these individuals deemed divorce morally acceptable.
Older Americans and Divorce
Finally, it is interesting to see that the moral acceptance of divorce has increased the most among older individuals in the United States. From 2001 to 2004, just 57% of individuals aged 55 and older found divorce to be moral. From 2015 to 2017, that number rose to 71%, making the jump over the past decade or so quite significant.
What does this mean?
Overall, the divorce rates from the 1970s and 1980s have fallen significantly, a possible sign that the much discussed “divorce revolution” has ended. Despite this, moral acceptability of the act is higher than it has ever been before. These numbers are both likely due to a larger societal shift in attitudes regarding marriage, particularly as the fall in divorce rates comes at the same time that marriage rates among young adults has also hit historic lows. In addition, cohabitation among all age groups has increased according to Pew Research. Both of these numbers help explain the drop in divorce rates as they show that individuals who do decide to marry have likely lived together beforehand and have more life experience than they did in the past.
Ultimately, this shift in attitudes regarding divorce seems to imply that divorce is no longer a “moral” consideration, but rather strictly a legal one.