We hear about the economic hardships for businesses and employees during Covid-19 regularly. Its toll on relationships is little explored, though, despite its substantial impact. The divorce of Bill and Melinda Gates after 27 years together with three kids, a charity foundation, and billions of dollars of wealth, prompted me to dig deeper for the data on this very topic.
To be honest, the Gates couple is probably the least of all the couples I imagined would end up divorced. A rock star or a celebrity divorce wouldn’t surprise me as these groups have a very high probability of divorce (between 52% and 69%) more so than the general population.
Before delving deeper, let’s look at the global trends on divorce. Contrary to the stereotype, the global divorce rate for married couples is not as high as 50%. It’s approximately 35%. Yet this number doesn’t do justice on the huge variations between nations and cultures. Over time, since the mid 1900s divorce has been increasing. For the US the divorce crude rate peaked in 1980s (5.3 divorce per 1,000 people in the general population) down to 2.9 per 1,000 in 2018, which is still higher than almost every country.
Of more interest is the divorce rate for married couples in different nations. The Quad countries (AUS, NZ, UK, US, CAN) have a similar rate of about 45%, but nations like Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Chile, Iran, and Vietnam have much lower divorce rates from the low 7% in Vietnam to 28% in Singapore. This is interesting. It tells me that, on average, developed economies with greater women rights have more divorce than Asian countries with less developed economies and more traditional gender roles. (To be sure, religion and values play a part.)
The era you married has a huge effect (cohort-generational effect). Couples married in the 1950s had fewer divorces; after 25 years together only 20% divorced. By contrast couples married in the 1970s-1990s had 30% divorce just after 10 years together. In other words, your grandparents are more likely to stay together than your parents’ generation. Why? Less taboo, greater women’s rights, more women in the workforce, and more freedom in general are the trend’s drivers.
Occupation-wise, you are more likely to get a divorce if you are bartender, dancer, casino gaming worker, telemarketer, and flight attendant. The lowest risk occupations are scientists, clergy, optometrist, surgeon, and chemical engineer. Obviously, occupation is tied to income and education. Greater income level is associated with lower risk of divorce.
The above trend’s drivers also fit nicely with global marriages statistics. Marriages are decreasing, people are marrying later, and cohabitation is on the rise. Put it another way, people want to build up their career, want greater freedom and flexibility. With greater legal rights for cohabitated couples (living and raising kids together but don’t tie the knot), more young couples are choosing this option, delaying or bypassing the marriage institution.
Does Covid-19 affect relationships? You bet. From Google analytics, New Yorkers have been searching for keywords: “Divorce lawyer” and “Divorce attorney” during Covid-19 more so than any other period. The main reasons for divorce are: money matters, arguments/conflicts, infidelity, and domestic violence/drug abuse. When couples cooped up during the lockdown, it puts pressure on the existing strains in their relationship. Work routines that have masked previous tension resurfaced during the lockdown, and indeed exacerbated it over domestic chores and financial stress. Little things get under each couple’s skin, ensuring a large supply of conflicts and arguments. Today’s generations, unlike our grandparents, will have less tolerance to put up in an unhappy marriage. Which is why cohabitation suits them more.
A larger point here is that we are living increasingly in the “Tinder age.” Swipe right if interested; swipe left uninterested. There is no better example of this than in Las Vegas – the marriage capital of the world, where 120,000 weddings are performed each year, for as little as $600. Did you know you can get a marriage license at $77 in 15 minutes and get married in another 15 minutes, even before breakfast in Las Vegas? The Marriage Licensing Bureau is open 365 days a year from 8am until 12am. Starting from $129, you can rent a wedding gown, tuxedo, fresh bouquets, photography, limousine and get a customized wedding in Las Vegas. There is even a drive-thru wedding! You can hire a witness to make the wedding legal. After the wedding, off you go straight to a Black Jack table at MGM Grand Las Vegas, if desired.
The irony is that Las Vegas state has the highest divorce rate in America.
A broader question: Is “McMarriage” sending the right message to society? When marriage is as simple as ordering a Pizza, it also means there is a “McDivorce.” Easy in, easy out. To be sure, it is faster to get married than file for divorce. In the latter, you need a lawyer. Even in an uncontested divorce, the quickest, it takes up to five weeks to sort out all the asset arrangements. With a bitter divorce, however, it can take years as each couple fight to the last china tea cup and rug.
What will be the future of marriage and divorce? As far as the trend goes, greater economic independence will confer greater freedom to both men and women, which means more choices. More will choose cohabitation over marriage, as there will also be more people choosing to stay single. Will forming and ending a relationship be as simple as swiping left/right? Will there be “Zoom marriage and divorce?” Divorce with one click?
Will Bill Gates simply bypass another marriage and fall in love with a ‘Microsoft AI’?