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preaching article Everything We Think We Know About Marriage and Divorce Is Wrong

Everything We Think We Know About Marriage and Divorce Is Wrong

based on 10 ratings
Feb 5, 2015


Have you ever quoted the facts about the 50 percent divorce rate?

Yeah? So have I.

Have you ever lamented the fact that the divorce rate was the same in the church? Or that most marriages are just hanging in there, not vibrant and happy?

Have you seen or shared the sobering statistic that most second marriages don’t make it? Or talked about marriage being hard?

Perhaps, like you, I have said every one of those things—whether just to friends or from the stage at marriage conferences. I felt like I had to exhort people to work hard in their marriages, to get them to realize just how seriously they needed to take their vows. And while that goal is incredibly important, I had no idea that my means of getting there was having the opposite effect.

Without realizing it, those of us who have shared that information have been, as Andy Stanley put it in the foreword to my new book The Good News About Marriage, “a small part of a very large problem.” We have been both accepting and adding to a deep sense of cultural discouragement about marriage. A discouragement that instead of motivating people, leaches hope from marriages. A discouragement that, it turns out, is based more on myth than reality.

Indiana Jones and the Divorce Stats of Doom

In 2006 I was a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist writing a routine piece about marriage and divorce. I wanted to accurately cite the numbers, but my senior researcher and I were soon really confused by contradictory statistics about what the divorce rate actually was. In the end, a question we originally expected to answer in two minutes took eight years of investigation to unravel. I felt a bit like Indiana Jones as we waded into the deep jungle of complex statistical projections and feuding demographers in search of great treasure: the truth that surely had to be in there somewhere.

Along the way, we kept unearthing encouraging facts not just about the divorce rate but about marriage overall. Facts we felt urgently needed to come to light, to bring balance to the national conversation and encourage individual marriages! Yes, we also saw plenty of very real concerns. And we quickly found that this field is so complicated, there is often no way to nail down one “right” answer. But we can get a lot closer.

Here are just a few examples of the truths we cover in The Good News About Marriage.

The Good News

Perhaps most surprising, half of all marriages are not ending in divorce. According to the Census Bureau, 72 percent of those who have ever been married, are still married to their first spouse! And the 28 percent who aren’t includes everyone who was married for many years, until a spouse died. No one knows what the average first-marriage divorce rate actually is, but based on the rate of widowhood and other factors, we can estimate it is probably closer to 20–25 percent. For all marriages (including second marriages, and so on), it is in the 31-35 percent range, depending on the study.

Now, expert demographers continue to project that 40–50 percent of couples will get divorced—but it is important to remember that those are projections. And I’m skeptical because the actual numbers have never come close, and divorce rates continue to drop, not rise! Even among the highest-risk age group—Baby Boomers—seven in ten are still married to their first spouse. Most of them have had 30 years’ worth of chances to get divorced … and they are still together.

Now any amount of divorce is still too high! But still, knowing that most marriages last a lifetime is good news that urgently needs to be part of our conventional wisdom.

Another myth that is begging to be debunked is the notion that “Barna found that the rate of divorce is the same in the church.” Actually the Barna Group found no such thing, and George Barna himself told me he would love to correct this misunderstanding because he wasn’t studying people “in the church.”

The Barna Group studies were focusing specifically on the divorce rates of those with Christian and non-Christian belief systems and didn’t take worship attendance into account. So I partnered with the Barna Group, and we re-ran the numbers. If the person were in church last week, their divorce rate dropped by 27 percent. And that is one of the smallest drops found in recent studies; overall, regular church attendance lowers the divorce rate anywhere from 25–50 percent, depending on the study you look at.

“The Implications Are Enormous”

A few years ago, when I first shared these facts and others at a conference of marriage and family pastors, one ministry leader came up to me with a stunned look on his face. “If this is true,” he said, “the implications are enormous.”

Since then I have heard similar statements from hundreds of pastors, counselors and average men and women. They have felt as though for too long they were—as one put it—“held hostage to bad data that we couldn’t contradict.” And they see the dramatic difference it will make to know the truth … and be able to share it.

Imagine the difference for pastors to know that they can stand on stage and tell their congregations with confidence that going to church matters for your marriage.

Imagine the difference to be able to tell a struggling couple, “Most people get through this, and you can, too.”

Imagine equipping the average young person with the ability to counter the cynical statements of his college professors or the “why bother getting married” comments of friends who are living together, with the solid truth that, actually, most marriages last a lifetime. (And are happy! We cover that in The Good News About Marriage, too.)

Those of us who work with marriages may secretly wonder whether there is reason for our ministry, if the news about the divorce rate is better than we think. And the answer is a resounding yes. Because I have seen in the research what every marriage counselor knows intimately: divorce isn’t the greatest threat to marriage. Discouragement is.

What marriages need today is hope. And of all people, we in the Body of Christ should be the most ready to offer hope—not just for our spiritual life but for our marriages. And now, we can.



Shaunti Feldhahn is a Harvard-trained social researcher, popular speaker and best-selling author of For Women Only, For Men Only and The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages, which have sold more than 2 million copies in 22 languages worldwide. Her research is regularly featured in media as diverse as The New York Times and Focus on the Family, Cosmopolitan Magazine and The Today Show. With The Good News About Marriage, Shaunti is eager to support leaders in moving marriages from discouragement to hope. 

Talk about it...

Russell Hopkins avatar
Russell Hopkins
0 days ago
Excellent news - as a pastor, I have found the original "facts" to be very discouraging - thank you for enlightening u!
Keith  B avatar
Keith B
0 days ago
Good information I will be sharing as I do some premarital counseling for some upcoming weddings this summer.
Rodney Shanner avatar
Rodney Shanner
0 days ago
Thank you for this stunning information. I am grateful for the research that has gone into your conclusions: Enlightening, encouraging, and empowering!
Jamie  Page avatar
Jamie Page
0 days ago
Enjoyed the read. I would suggest two other books that shed additional light on this and other "myths" we've learned from the secular and Christian media. Both books are by Bradley R.E. Wright, PhD. "Christians are Hate-Filled Hypocrites...and Other Lies You've been Told" and "Upside."
Como Mensajero avatar
Como Mensajero
0 days ago
'Everything We Think We Know About Marriage and Divorce Is Wrong'...But of course there is...religious leaders, even more protestants leaders,,,do not talk about, do not address, Leviticus...'if a man has emission of his seed,,,he will be impure for...' So, Not to spill the seed is the base for the second being born. And for a happy and sacred matrimony.
Stephen Ventura avatar
Stephen Ventura
0 days ago
Actually correct that statement... Going to church does little to nothing for your marriage, it's your devotion to Christ that does it. Stats that say churchgoers have less divorce is really based on "Followers of Christ" and not mere churchgoers. So a pastor should not stand in the pulpit and tell the congregation that coming to church helps your marriage; the pastor needs to say "Your combined commitment to following Christ first and foremost helps your marriage." However it is still GREAT NEWS because I've heard and always thought the stats were somewhat higher. Great article.
Mwila Ernest avatar
Mwila Ernest
0 days ago
Good comment. In mat 5:20 our Lord advised that our righteousness should exceed that of the scribes and the pharisees. We should not allow people to settle as church goers, but to be followers of Christ. In the church real believers do not divorce, but church goers do.
Andrew Moffatt avatar
Andrew Moffatt
0 days ago
Statistically good news. But as a person who has previously been divorced points people quote like "Going to church does little to nothing for your marriage, it's your devotion to Christ that does it." and "I felt like I had to exhort people to work hard in their marriages, to get them to realize just how seriously they needed to take their vows." Imply that divorced people are neither devoted to Christ or took their marriage vows seriously. I am and did, in the age we live in with postmodern thinking in society there are many more dynamics involved in divorce a rate that from 1963 has risen in my country, New Zealand from 1.5 to 51. Marriage like any partnership requires complete by in from both parties.
Andrew Moffatt avatar
Andrew Moffatt
0 days ago
1.5 percent to 51 percent
Paul Porter avatar
Paul Porter
0 days ago
Andrew, would you agree that among all divorces, at least some of them are avoidable? That a greater commitment to Christ and to the covenant of marriage would resolve many of the problems leading to divorce. Not necessarily all of them, but at least some? Maybe even a large percentage? Some couples are simply not equipped to resolve disputes or don't know where to turn for help. I think the article is suggesting that a strong devotion to Christ will in turn lead to stronger and healthier marriages. Some of the dynamics of divorce might make this nearly impossible in some cases. But those situations probably do not make up the largest percentage of divorces.
Andrew Moffatt avatar
Andrew Moffatt
0 days ago
Paul, I think that it quite possible that some divorces are avoidable. I also think that while many may enter into marriage fully committed to their spouse and to God some walk away, in the same light that some abandon their faith some abandon their marriage. What disturbs me is that we get glib comments made about peoples "lack of commitment to Christ" as being the cause of divorce. People who are strongly devoted to Christ and to marriage still get divorced. As I said the partnership requires buy in from both parties. I think what is required is for people to show the same love for every person that Jesus would have done. It's all well to talk about statistics but what those statistics are is real people, with real pain, who are trying to make their way through an extremely difficult and damaging situation. I'm also pleased that you recognise that some are not equipped to resolve their issues or know where to turn for help, I would pick that God has put that on your heart for a reason, where do you go with that?
Andrew Moffatt avatar
Andrew Moffatt
0 days ago
Paul, I think that it quite possible that some divorces are avoidable. I also think that while many may enter into marriage fully committed to their spouse and to God some walk away, in the same light that some abandon their faith some abandon their marriage. What disturbs me is that we get glib comments made about peoples "lack of commitment to Christ" as being the cause of divorce. People who are strongly devoted to Christ and to marriage still get divorced. As I said the partnership requires buy in from both parties. I think what is required is for people to show the same love for every person that Jesus would have done. It's all well to talk about statistics but what those statistics are is real people, with real pain, who are trying to make their way through an extremely difficult and damaging situation. I'm also pleased that you recognise that some are not equipped to resolve their issues or know where to turn for help, I would pick that God has put that on your heart for a reason, where do you go with that?
Stephen Belokur avatar
Stephen Belokur
0 days ago
Thank you for the excellent article! "Church going" covers such a broad spectrum that it is actually a meaningless term. It would be interesting to see a study done of marital success rates in churches where the Bible is believed and taught versus churches where the Bible is not taken as God's Holy Word and is treated as merely symbolic. I believe that Barna does attempt to differentiate between nominal Christians and those who are saved and live their lives to honor the Lord. Thanks again.
Andrew Oribhabor avatar
Andrew Oribhabor
0 days ago
I find it difficult to accept Andrew Moffatt's statement that "People who are strongly devoted to Christ and to marriage still get divorced" While I agree that there are so many variables that are contributory to divorce, they all, more often are expressions of man's carnal nature that has not been regenerated in Christ. We can not be devoted to Christ, and strongly so according to Andrew, if we have not been transformed by the knowledge of Him.There is only one condition acceptable for divorce given by Christ and that is marital infidelity. Otherwise, husband, love your wife as Christ loves the Church and gave His life for her. This is devotion to Christ.
  avatar
0 days ago
We ll, not in a spirit of rock-throwing, but the fact is that the Madam General of The Salvation Army, declared, kind of like the Pope,that there, would now be a recognition that there were in some cases, "irreconcilable differences" that would leave divorce as an option.How modern. Mr. Moffatt's comments don't surprise me
Don Jones avatar
Don Jones
0 days ago
Jesus said that it is the "hardness of hearts" (Matthew 19:8
Don Jones avatar
Don Jones
0 days ago
(Not sure what happened to previous post, but it wasn't posted as typed) Jesus said that divorce was caused by the hardness of heart. That hardness might be on the part of one party or both parties. Hearts need to softened by the Holy Spirit of God. (Matt 19:8
Mike Spencer avatar
Mike Spencer
0 days ago
Thanks for debunking the myth, but our hope is not in the fact that the statistics are right or wrong, or that darkening the doors of a building will place us in a better category statistically. Our hope is in Christ, and Him alone. The fact is, Christ is the one that will hold our marriage together, and our commitment to obedience to His word will further embolden us to trust in Him through the great difficulty that is marriage. Churched and unchurched is not a Biblical category and bears no correspondance to the reason marriages succeeed. Let's not replace bad interpretation of the statistics with poor reasoning.

So, what did you think?


Thank you.