There’s nothing more romantic than the sight of two people wedding in holy matrimony. Between the pretty clothes, the cover band, and the open bar, there’s a lot to enjoy. But the flip side of a harmonious wedding is a cantankerous divorce.
Does the U.S. have the highest divorce rate in the world? The most reliable data with international divorce rates is from 2016 (actual rates can be found here). But even then, every nation has its own reporting criteria, which can create inconsistencies. But let’s take a look at contributing factors on a national level and explore why divorce happens.
The countries with the highest divorce rates, measured as number of divorces per 1,000 people, as of 2016 are:
- Russia (4.7) *Latest available Russian data is from 2013.
- Aruba (3.5)
- Belarus (3.4)
- United States (3.2)
- Latvia (3.1)
- Lithuania (3.1)
- Denmark (3.0)
- Kazakhstan (2.9)
- Cuba (2.8)
- Costa Rica (2.7)
Notable mentions: Guam (4.0) and Puerto Rico (3.2), which are U.S. territories.
Divorce in the United States
The U.S. had one of the highest divorce rates in the world as of 2016. Divorce reached its peak in the 1990s at a rate of 4.8 divorces per 1,000 people and then saw a steady decline to the 2016 rate of 3.2. These days, those pesky Millennials, who are blamed for killing casual dining restaurants and spiking the cost of avocados, are also credited for our lower divorce rates. There are two common explanations for this. The first focuses on delaying marriage to pursue careers and financial stability. And the second piggybacks on the first: Millennials are cohabitating longer before marriage, and in some cases, never making that union official.
So now you know why divorce is declining in the U.S, but why do some countries have higher divorce rates in the first place? To answer this question, we will begin by examining some reasons for marriage.
A Lasting Union
People often wax poetic about how “back in their day” marriage was a lifelong commitment and no one bailed at the first sign of trouble. But the truth is, the concept of marrying for love is a fairly young one. It wasn’t until the 1920s that choosing your own spouse for love gained traction in the Western world. Prior to this, arranged marriages were still a thing, and families were focused on extending the bloodline, forming alliances, and securing generational fortunes. In many parts of the world, arranged marriages are still common.
Couple this with stringent divorce laws, religious and social stigma, financial insecurity if a wife leaves her husband, and in some cases laws forbidding divorce, and it’s easy to see why divorce rates were so low in the past. When you take all of the above into context, it’s understandable why some nations, given their cultural and religious norms, still have record-low divorce rates. That’s not to say, however, that nations with lower divorce rates have happier marriages. It’s just that divorce is not an option.
With all this information, we still have to ask, why are divorce rates so high in some countries? While every marriage has its own personal issues and reasons for “irreconcilable differences,” experts have found that the following indicators underlie a nation’s divorce rate. (Try not to jump to conclusions with these statistics.)
Strong National Economies
Even if you ignore unexpected dips like the Great Recession, most of the countries that top the divorce list are industrialized and have fairly strong economies. It seems counterintuitive since financial problems tend to be a top cause for a split. But the more successful the nation and their gross national income per capita, the more likely it is for their citizens to divorce.
It’s hard not to read into this one, but when more women are in the workforce, a nation’s divorce rate is likelier to increase. There are various reason why this could be, and most are speculation:
- Working women are able to support themselves without being dependent on a husband's income, which eliminates income support as a reason to stay married.
- In many societies, men are seen as the breadwinners of the family. As working women's wages continue to increase, many households find the woman taking on that role, perhaps leading to insecurity in certain men, and, ultimately, leading to poor marriages that end in divorce.
Though there are many more possible reasons, the numbers don’t definitely answer that question.
For some reason, nations with more citizens who received a secondary education tend to have higher divorce rates. However, this isn’t a campaign to encourage people to avoid going to college in order to save a future potential marriage.
Smaller Religious Populations
Whether the nation practices Catholicism or Islam, there’s a clear correlation between deeply religious nations and low divorce rates. This can be attributed to the fact that most organized religions frown upon divorce. In reverse, nations that are more secular have higher divorce rates.
This is probably the most surprising common denominator, but when a nation is active on the global stage, their divorce rate is higher. Nations that are involved in international treaties focused on human rights and gender equality see more divorces than those that don’t.
So, does this mean that couples from poorer, less educated, and uninvolved countries have happier marriages? Certainly not. Plenty of rich, poor, educated, and less-educated people have found themselves in unwanted marriages. But now you know how science is working to understand divorce trends globally and the factors that predict its prevalence.