The 50% Lie

by Steven Ingino, from The Cripplegate

You’ve heard it repeatedly on radio, podcasts, and TV. You’ve read it in various books and articles. You’ve even heard it in your pastor’s sermon. The problem: it’s a lie.

50% of all marriages end in divorce.

It’s simply not true and never has been. As has been said: “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” In this case, the lie made it all the way around the world before the truth even got out of bed.

While getting my haircut the other day, the young lady who was cutting my hair said, “I don’t ever want to get married. My dad told me when I was 15 years old that half of all marriages end in divorce. So, I figured, why try?” I tried explaining to her that that statistic is incorrect, but she had heard it so many times from so many places, she couldn’t believe otherwise. 

How many couples threw in the towel and defaced God’s beautiful design of marriage because they had heard that most couples “won’t make it”? It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. How many couples divorced, thinking that just about everyone else was doing it, when in fact, they weren’t? How many young people are afraid to commit to marriage because they believe it will most likely end in failure?

Researchers have shown that a mindset of futility toward marriage has an adverse effect on persevering in marriage or desiring to marry. The 50% lie has done more damage than we might suspect, but it can only be remedied with the truth.

The facts are actually contrary to what you normally hear:

  1. The divorce rate has never even come close to 50%. It is actually closer to 20-25% or lower.
  2. The vast majority of marriages are very happy.
  3. The rate of divorce in the church is not the same as the world. It is much lower (anywhere from 25-50% lower according to various studies). That means divorce in the church may be closer to 10-15% and not 50% as we often hear from misinformed pulpits.

Satan is the father of lies and he has many children. I believe the 50% lie is a lie and not just a mistake because of the obvious ways in which the evil one has sought to destroy and denigrate the family.

Shaunti Feldhahn has written an entire book devoted to debunking the 50% myth. It’s entitled, The Good News about Marriage: Debunking Discouraging Myths about Marriage and Divorce. Shaunti, with a Master’s degree from Harvard, had a career as an analyst on Wall Street, but then moved into social research, where she is esteemed as a careful and thorough analyst. I’ll let her tell the story, which is part of her 8-year investigative study:

In 2006 I was writing one of my newspaper opinion columns and referencing the high prevalence of divorce. I wanted to correctly cite the most recent divorce rate but was confused by conflicting sources and articles. After trying to figure it out for two or three hours (a lifetime in the newspaper business), I tossed it to my then research assistant (now senior researcher) Tally Whitehead, so I could keep working on the column. But after several more hours, Tally came back even more perplexed than when we started.

It can’t be this difficult, I thought. We quickly called a respected expert on marriage and divorce and asked, “What’s the exact divorce rate?” Her unexpected answer: “No one knows.”

Huh? Before I could say anything, she continued, “And it depends on what you mean by the ‘divorce rate.’ There are many different types of divorce rates. There are also many different surveys, of different groups of people; there are different ways of tracking the rate of divorce today and projecting it in the future. They all say different things. There’s no way to know one ‘exact’ rate.” [To understand the complexity surrounding different types of divorce rates, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Divorce_demography]

“Well …” I tried to gather my flustered thoughts. “Just an estimate, then. Roughly what percentage of marriages will end in divorce? Like, what does the Census Bureau say?”

“The Census Bureau stopped projecting divorce rates in 1996. And even those projections were based on divorce increasing, and it’s decreased instead. That won’t help you.”

“The divorce rate has decreased? Really? But it is still around 50 percent, right?” After all, I’d heard for years that half of all marriages end in divorce.

“Actually, the divorce rate has never hit 50 percent. It has never even gotten close. Again, it depends on what you mean by the divorce rate, but no matter what definition you use, we’re significantly below 50 percent right now. It is maybe closer to 30 to 40 percent [it’s not], but again, no one knows.”

My first thought was Nuts! I’m going to have to edit my column. My second thought was But wait a minute. What? The divorce rate has never gotten close to 50 percent? Why haven’t we heard this before? That’s a really big deal! That was eight years ago. And only gradually over the next few years did I begin to realize what a big deal the truth actually was— not only about that, but about several other marriage and divorce myths. Myths that are very discouraging and very common.

Feldhahn continues,

Right now, according to one of the most recent Census Bureau surveys, 72 percent of people who have ever been married are still married to their first spouse. In other words, more than seven out of ten people are still married to their first spouse. Can we conclude the remaining 28 percent are divorced? Nope! They could be either divorced or widowed, since that percentage includes everyone who was married until a spouse died!”

In addition, the number is smaller because in some studies, a second and third divorce are counted multiple times. Those who’ve divorced multiple times inflate the number of how many different people have divorced. One survey may discover that there were 1000 divorces out of 2000 couples surveyed. However, that doesn’t take into account how many have remained married over the last 10-50 years. Or they may be counting new marriages vs. divorces in a year, but again, that doesn’t account for those who’ve remained married. How people measure divorce makes all the difference.

And then:

According to the most recent Family Needs Survey… of the marriages that were no longer intact, 8% of that number were due to death rather than divorce! So theoretically, starting from our 28% of non-intact marriages, the average first-marriage divorce rate could be closer to 20%.

Other surveys, such as ones done by the U.S. Census Bureau or The University of Texas show that 23-28% of marriages end in divorce. Not great news, but it’s better than the 50% lie/myth. Feldhahn concludes:

Looking at how vastly different this truth is from what society believes, imagine the difference to our collective consciousness about marriage and divorce if we began to say ‘Most marriages last a lifetime’ [8 out of 10] rather than ‘Half of marriages end in divorce.’ And how encouraging it would be for people to know that, even better, the picture is only improving.

In many groups (what Feldhahn calls “low risk categories”), the divorce rate is even lower than 20%. One study, although not complete due to various time constraints, showed that among college-educated couples, only 11% divorced.

What are some takeaways from all of this?

  1. Pastors: teach your flock that marriage was created by God, has been sustained by God, should be held in honor by all (Heb 13:4)), and that the truth of marriage is found in His Word, not fallacious and misleading statistics.Listening to the lies of the world has caused tremendous damage, maybe because couples are not being discipled in the truth of God’s Word which can counter the lies and myths. Husbands and wives need to be reminded of biblical teachings on marriage, sex, divorce, and relationships in general to help them reject lies and embrace truth. I would also add that we must have faith in God’s Word and in His promises to help us. No statistic can hinder God’s intervention or sustaining grace.
  2. Husbands: loving your wife as Christ loved the church (Eph 5:25) can only be done in response to the grace of God and in the power of the Holy Spirit (indeed, the command to be filled by the Spirit is grammatically connected to the next section on marriage, indicating that loving like Christ an submitting like the church can only be done as a result of being filled by the Spirit).Christ loved us on the cross, and our love must be sacrificial as well. When we realize that marriage is about the glory of God and picturing the union of Christ and the church, we will become more selfless and divorce will become less prevalent.Seek to become the man and husband God created and redeemed you to be by immersing yourself in the Word and in biblical fellowship (and read some great books on biblical manhood and marriage).
  3. Wives: following the leadership of your husband is counter-cultural, but it’s a blessing and a redemptive symbol of the church’s relationship with Christ. Encourage your husband and know that your work as a wife and mother is a part of fulfilling the Great Commission as well as advancing the kingdom agenda.
  4. Husband and Wife: commit to banning the d-word (divorce) from your home. But in case of an emergency, any discussion about divorce must be done with your pastor and should not be discussed in isolation.
  5. Divorcees: Divorce is not the unpardonable sin, and in many cases, when one person commits adultery and reconciliation may not possible due to their long-term hardness of heart, divorce may be unavoidable (as is also true in the case of abandonment [1 Cor. 7]). Recognize that pastors have a difficult time walking the tightrope between upholding the ideal while at the same time not wanting to shame or discourage those who’ve divorced.

You may need to repent of a divorce that had no biblical grounds. Or, you may need to take hold of God’s assurance of forgiveness and grace and the finished work of Christ on the cross. I would encourage you to read Feldhahn’s book because there is a section in it on the successes of remarriage that also debunks various myths about remarriage.

Marriage is a precious, God-designed, gift. We dishonor it when we echo the lies of the culture. A pastor should never step into the pulpit, quoting a statistic that he hasn’t vetted. And couples must stand firm on the Word of God, knowing that the sword of the Spirit will ultimately slay all lies.


Steve Ingino has pastored for ten years in Tucson, Arizona. He has a D. Min. from The Master’s Seminary, and he speaks at various conferences and preaches at churches around the United States. He is married to Bridgett and they have three children.

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There are 8 Comments

ScottS's picture

Thanks for sharing that book/study and its conclusions.

Scott Smith, Ph.D.

The goal now, the destiny to come, holiness like God—
Gen 1:27, Lev 19:2, 1 Pet 1:15-16

Bert Perry's picture

I've noted since the 1980s that the "standard statistics" are incorrect, noting the difference between the failure rate for first marriages and the overall # of divorces vs. # of marriages contracted, but I think it's an overstatement to call it a lie, which is a falsehood made despite knowing it is false with the purpose of having the hearer believe you.

Reality as well is that when you're looking at the success rate for marriages contracted in a given year, you really won't know until 50 years have passed what the overall success rate is with any degree of accuracy.  How to fix the matter?  You can't completely, but it strikes me that a Weibull analysis might be helpful.  You are going to divide the statistics into first marriages, second marriages, and >2 marriages, and then you're going to plot out "infant mortality" (marriages ended within, say, 10 years), "random mortality" (marriages ended from 10-50 years), and then "end of life" mortality of marriages ended in one's "golden years".

Even that would be convolved with the age of those getting married, but it would give us a better picture of what is happening and why.  After all, even 25% or so is too high, no?

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Aaron Blumer's picture

When experts who ought to know the truth don't go to the trouble to find out what the truth is and keep repeating falsehood instead, what should we call that? True, it's not exactly intentional effort to deceive, but "reckless disregard for the truth" isn't exactly pithy. Smile To get to nouns, "irresponsible falsehood" is pretty clunky, too. 

I probably would have used the word "myth" myself.

Bert Perry's picture

Methodological weakness, falsehood, myth, oopsie, and a number of terms all work.  I just don't think it was intentional, hence not a lie.  This is especially the case when, as I noted above, you can only get the methodology halfway "right" after 50 years, a little bit late for working the numbers in a meaningful way to people today.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Aaron Blumer's picture

It has been deconstructed many different ways by many analysts, though some of them seem to take the view that it was once true but no longer is.

More info...

Do Half of All Marriages Really End in Divorce?

The Myth of the High Rate of Divorce

The 50% divorce rate stat is a myth, so why won’t it die?

The common statistic that 'half of marriages end in divorce' is bogus

The Divorce Surge Is Over, but the Myth Lives On

This one is helpful also for nutshelling the problem...

The crude divorce rate [CDC data] is helpful in determining state-by-state and average US trends over time, but most people just want to know what actual percentage of marriages end in divorce each year. Typically, this number is computed by taking the number of marriages in a year and comparing it to the number of divorces in the same year, thus resulting in a "percentage of divorce" calculation. However, most people getting married one year are not the same people getting divorced in that same year.  https://www.divorcewriter.com/divorce-rate-usa

dmyers's picture

Whichever statistics are more accurate, Al Mohler was right to say that, "Divorce is now the scandal of the evangelical conscience."  Or perhaps the scandal is that it's not really seen as a scandal.

Bert Perry's picture

To argue that we're "OK" with a 25% divorce rate because it's not 50% is akin, in my view, to arguing that it's not idiotic to play Russian roulette because there is only one round in the wheel instead of two or three.  One big thing that would be very helpful, really, is to understand why these people are getting divorced.

For example, I've seen studies that indicate that about 30% of married people of both sexes commit adultery.  Now if we assume that adultery of one spouse is statistically independent from the adultery of the other, that results in 51% of marriages being eligible for divorce.  

Now obviously not 51% do divorce, and quite frankly it's dubious to believe that adultery on the part of one spouse would never be connected with adultery by the other, but interesting, no?  And what portion of divorces involve physical abuse, and what portion involve other issues?  How many of them are simple "act in haste, repent at leisure" events?  

Watching my brother-in-law's marriage hit rocky shoals now, not an entirely academic exercise for me.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

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