Divorce Statistics Are The New Relationship Quiz, But Morbid

The Daily Beast's "15 Ways to Predict Divorce" is a prime example of why the new fad for statistical explorations of marriage and divorce is so appealing — and so depressing.

According to Anneli Rufus's list, factors that raise your chance of divorce include living in a red state, having twins, contracting cervical or testicular cancer, being of "below average intelligence," and, if you're a woman, being two or more years older than your husband (this last also ups your risk of death). Some things that make you less likely to split: having parents who are still married, and being an evangelical Christian (at least "according to the evangelically affiliated Barna Research Group"). Some of these are depressing in themselves (especially the cancer one), but it's when taken together that the list achieves its full morbidity. There's something fatalistic about the idea that you can "predict divorce" based on a list of external factors, many as mundane as where a couple lives. Distilling this idea down to its number-crunching essence is hippest-economist-ever Betsey Stevenson's "divorce calculator," linked from Rufus's piece. For women, the tool calculates divorce risk based on just six questions (men answer five), which makes it even more chilling.

If ">coverage of Tara Parker-Pope's new book For Better: The Science of a Good Marriage (Rufus quotes Parker-Pope several times) is any guide, the public appetite for such a statistical approach is high. And it makes a certain amount of sense — "15 Ways To Predict Divorce" is the grownup, middlebrow version of the teen magazine relationship quiz, where you can find out if your eleventh grade crush is truly "the one" based on your ice cream preferences or astrological signs. Just as it's easier to speculate on whether your crush likes you based on a numerological analysis of his last name than it is to actually ask him out, it's simpler to plug your demographic information into an online divorce calculator than it is to seriously consider whether what seem like minor incompatibilities now will grow into marriage-enders down the road.

There's a flipside, though. As much as we might sometimes want a handy shortcut to help us avoid the painful soul-searching relationships can require, such as shortcut can also be really depressing. We — or least I — want to believe that relationships are more complicated than an aggregation of statistics. I'd like to think not only that couples can overcome the risks apparently associated with divorced parents or the birth of twins, but also that the most important things about relationships are the most difficult to measure — love, trust, mutual respect, an ability to fight about some things without hating each other afterward. Actually, some people have tried to measure these things — one psychiatrist, made famous in Malcolm Gladwell's Blink, claims to be able to predict divorce based on whether couples show contempt for each other. Still, it's distinctly possible that the success or failure of a marriage is influenced as much by circumstance as it is by the characters of those involved, and that "play[ing] the odds," as Rufus says, might actually be pretty effective. So as the science of marital dissolution becomes more widely known, will the divorce rate fall as couples plug their stats into online calculators and decide to forgo marriage if their risk is too high? Probably not — if there's one thing people like more than reading statistics, it's claiming they don't apply to us.

Image via stefanolunardi/Shutterstock.com.

15 Ways To Predict Divorce [Daily Beast]

Earlier: Low-Income Couples More Likely To Divorce, But Why?
Younger Husbands Shorten Womens' Lives