What Leads to Divorce? Some Economic Findings

In our previous blog post, we introduced 3 common measures of divorce. Both the crude divorce rate and the refined divorce rate of the United States show that the number of divorces in the U.S. has been declining. We now look at some factors affecting divorce.


Domestic Violence

Bowlus and Seitz (2006) show that women who suffered from domestic abuse are more likely to divorce. In their study, they collected the categorical data from the Violence Against Women Survey (VAWS) conducted between February and June of 1993, and also telephone interviews of 12,300 women aged 18 and above in all Canadian provinces. This data set contains information about the first marriage and the current marriage of the women surveyed, including the length of their first marriage, when did the abuse in the current marriage began and ended, and whether their first marriage ended in divorce. After analyzing the data, they set up a dynamic model to study a woman’s preference on the marriage. By using the model, they first estimated the probabilities that a women would divorce in the next period if she did and did not experience domestic abuse in the current period. Then, they calculated the difference in probabilities of women’s choice on divorce who were in non-violent and violent marriages.

The results showed that, in general, women are more likely to divorce if they are in violent marriages, and the probability depends on which age group the woman is in. In particular, women in the age group of 30-44 who have experienced domestic violence are 565% more likely to divorce, which is the highest among all age groups.


Income Earning Potential

Burgess, Propper and Aassve’s research (2003) study the impact of income earning potential of young people on divorce. They worked this out by first collecting data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth from 1979 to 1992, which is a panel data set of 12,686 respondents aged between 14 and 22 when being first interviewed in 1979. It includes the age of first marriage, the marriage duration, and the current income of the respondent. They then constructed a new variable, the long run earnings. It replaces current income as an unbiased measure for income earning potential of the respondent, who were all young people just entering the workplace. Next, they constructed a hazard model to estimate the effect of the increase in income earning potential on the probability of divorce for both male and female.

The results showed that when the income earning potential of men increases, they are less likely to divorce. On the other hand, an increase of the income earning potential of women do not have any impact on the probability of divorce. This might be explained by the ‘self-reliance’ effect, which says that females prefer not to rely on others when they have a higher potential to earn more income.



Alola et al (2020) examine how changing the level of unemployment affects the crude divorce rate in the long run. They used the panel data of the OECD countries, which include GDP per capita, male unemployment rate, female unemployment rate, crude marriage rate and crude divorce rate, in their study. To estimate the effect of increase in unemployment on the crude divorce rate, they constructed a forecasting model to analyze how increasing unemployment rate in the current period affects the crude divorce rate in the next period.

The results showed that the rise in male unemployment rate and female unemployment have completely opposite effects on crude divorce rate. While the rise in male unemployment rate will lead to an 8% increase in crude divorce rate in the long run, the rise in female unemployment rate will lead to a 7% decrease in crude divorce rate in the long run. They suggested that it is because the majority of females prefer staying at home as housewives, while male’s self-esteem is greatly affected if they cannot play a role in the family’s financial sustainability.


Divorce Law Reforms

Since the mid-20th century, there are more and more countries started to ‘liberalize’ their divorce laws. It means the requirements of people to file for divorce has been less stringent in many countries. Both the unilateral divorce law and the no-fault divorce law are common reforms in divorce law.

Friedberg (1998) asks how the introduction of the Unilateral Divorce Law in the United States affected the crude divorce rate across different states. He used the longitudinal data on state divorce rates covering all 50 states in the U.S. and the District of Columbia from 1968 to 1988 for his study. In order to investigate this state-level time series data, he constructed a model to study the effect of the unilateral divorce on different states and in different years of study. The results show that in general, the divorce rate in those states that have adopted unilateral divorce law were about 6% higher than those that had not adopted unilateral divorce.

Gonzáleza and Viitanen (2009) ask the same question. They covered more issues on the divorce laws in the European countries, including the legalization of divorce, as well as the introduction of the no-fault divorce and unilateral divorce. They also modified the model constructed by Friedberg such that the effect of law reforms on divorce rates can be studied in a dynamic way. The dataset they used was the annual number of divorces, total population and married population of 18 European countries between 1950 to 2003. They found that the legalization of divorce in a country causes an increase in divorce by about 0.4 per 1,000 population 2 years after the reform. The number then falls moderately to around 0.3 at 8 years after the reform. It then rebounds to 0.5 at 15 years after the reform. Therefore, this reflects that the legalization of divorce has a permanent impact on the crude divorce rate.

The effect of introducing the no-fault divorce law on the crude divorce rate grew over time. There is an average increase in 0.5 divorces per 1,000 population 2 years after the introduction of the no-fault divorce law. The number further increases to approximately 1.7 at 15 years after the introduction. On the other hand, the introduction of the unilateral divorce law has a weaker impact on crude divorce rate than no-fault divorce law. The introduction of the unilateral divorce law causes an 0.15 increase in the number of divorces per 1,000 population after 2 years. The number then slightly increases to 0.47 about 8 years after the introduction. The effect eventually becomes insignificant after the first decade.



Alola, A., Arikewuyo, A., Akadiri, S., & Alola, M. (2020). The role of income and gender unemployment in divorce rate among the OECD countries. Journal of Labor and Society, 23(1), 75-86. Retrieved from: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/wusa.12460

Bowlus, A., & Seitz, S. (2006). Domestic Violence, Employment, and Divorce. International Economic Review, 47(4), 1113-1149. Retrieved from: https://www.jstor.org/stable/3877455

Burgess, S., Propper, C., & Aassve, A. (2003). The role of income in marriage and divorce transitions among young Americans. Journal of Population Economics, 16, 455-475. Retrieved from: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00148-003-0124-7

Friedberg, L. (1998). Did Unilateral Divorce Raise Divorce Rates Evidence from Panel Data. The American Economic Review, 88(3), 608-627. Retrieved from: https://www.jstor.org/stable/116852

González, L., & Viitanen, T. (2009). The effect of divorce laws on divorce rates in Europe. European Economic Review, 53(2), 127-138. Retrieved from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0014292108000561