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What Boosts Risk of Divorce/Marital Success?

There are a number of factors social scientists consistently find that are regularly associated with increased risk of divorce for a couple. It is important that couples, before they decide to marry, be aware of the factors associated with greater risk of divorce.

Some of them are mildly associated with greater divorce risk, while others are dramatically associated. It is important to note that having such factors in one’s life is not destiny! Many, many couples overcome the increased likelihoods associated with these factors every day. My wife and I did in terms of age of marriage, education and income. We had everything against us on those measures. But we beat the odds. Again, these are not destiny.

The greatest factor helping a couple succeed is their determination to make their marriage work is having friends and family around them who cheer them on and offer help when things seem dark. These factors are not a death notice, but can serve as a rucksack full of rocks on the back of a couple, or simply ankle weights, making their journey toward marital longevity, not impossible, but certainly more difficult. And marriage is sometimes hard enough by itself without the added weight these various factors can bring to a husband and wife.

So let’s explore the most important factors contributing to increased risk of divorce.

Cohabitation: Individuals who live together outside of marriage are from 50 to 80 percent more likely to divorce if they do marry than their non-cohabiting peers. And individuals, who cohabit more than once, face double the risk of divorce compared with those who only cohabit once. In fact, Professor Jay Teachman explains that one of the most “robust predictors of marital dissolution that has appeared in the literature” is cohabitation itself, making living together actually one of the worst things you can do for your marriage, rather than something to help it. [1]

Premarital Sexuality: Experiencing a premarital sexual relationship with someone other than your spouse is also associated in many studies with increased risk of divorce. An early study explained that “women who are sexually active prior to marriage faced considerably higher risk of marital disruption than women who were virgin brides.” And this is especially true for those who engage sexually in their teen years, with greater than double the risk of those who marry as virgins.[2] Likewise, premarital birth has a dramatic effect on marital durability.

Age at Marriage: Research consistently shows that age at marriage plays an important role in marital stability. So what’s the optimal age for marriage? Generally, marrying older than 18 years of age is associated with a 24 percent reduction in risk of divorce in the first 10 years of marriage. One of the leading scholars on this topic, Norval Glenn from the University of Texas, explained in a recent published study, drawing from five different American data sets,

“The greatest…likelihood of being in an intact marriage of the highest quality is among those who married at age 22-25.”[3]

He further explains that waiting longer doesn’t improve one’s chances of avoiding divorce,

“The findings of this study do indicate that for most persons, little or nothing in the way of marital success is likely to be gained by deliberately delaying marriage beyond the mid-twenties.”[4]

W. Bradford Wilcox (U of Virginia) concurs with these two findings from his own analysis of the National Survey of Family Growth data, explaining, “Couples who marry in their mid-twenties tend to do best, when you combine a consideration of quality and stability.”[5] Wilcox adds though, “But I think couples can marry somewhat earlier than this if they are embedded in a supportive church community that gives them direction, support and healthy role models.”

Dr. Mark Regnerus (UT, Austin), who wrote the popular cover story for Christianity Today (August 2009), “The Case for Early Marriage,” jokingly encourages that marrying after “you’re 80 is probably the best way to guarantee that you’ll stay married the rest of your life!”[6]

Regnerus says he would push the age-number a bit lower than other sociologists “to 22’ish, because the data suggests it’s not a major risk of divorce over the next 10 years.” And “earlier” marriage in the 22-age window increases the likelihood of couples marrying as virgins, which is an important factor in marital stability and happiness, as we just saw.

Education: It is consistently shown that better educated individuals are more likely to enjoy greater marital success. Professor Timothy Heaton explains, “Marriages are more stable if the husband is older or more educated, but not if the wife is older or more educated.”[7] This increased education would include high school graduation and some college, which can reduce a couple’s divorce risk by up to 25 percent.[8]

Income: Clearly having money makes the struggles of life a bit easier. And couples that have a household income higher than $25,000 can benefit from up to a 30 percent decrease in divorce risk in the first 10 years of marriage.[9]

Divorce History in Family of Origin: Couples who come from intact families gain a 14 percent reduction in divorce risk compared to their peers who have any divorce history among either set of parents.[10]

Religious Faith: A couple sharing a serious commitment to a religious faith has a dramatic effect on marital health and longevity. They are also more likely to have happier marriages, face lower likelihood of domestic violence. However, a couple having different faith traditions and beliefs tends to increase their divorce risk. This would be very divergent faith, such as Jew and Catholic, rather than a Methodist and Pentecostal marrying.[11]

Conclusion: As the scholars at the National Marriage Project explain from years of careful study, “if you are a reasonably well-educated person [or soon to become one] with a decent income, come from an intact family and are religious, and marry after age 25 without having a baby first [or having cohabited] your chances of divorce are very low indeed.”[12]

But again, remember the primary indicator of marital success is the couple’s commitment to and attitude toward marriage. These other factors are not insignificant, but they are not marital destiny either. Couples should consider them as guides or indicators regarding the possibility of greater uphill battle their marriage might experience given the presence of a few of these in your marital story.

And this is the wisdom that social science community has to offer. These are not biblical truths about what contributes to divorce. In this regard, nothing short of infidelity or desertion contributes to divorce. Christ was quite “narrow-minded” on this topic. See Matthew 19:1-12 on this.


[1]  Jay Teachman, “Premarital Sex, Premarital Cohabitation and The Risk of Subsequent Marital Dissolution Among Women,” Journal of Marriage and Family 65 (2003) 444-455.

[2] Joan R. Kahn and Kathryn A. London, “Premarital Sex and the Risk of Divorce,” Journal of Marriage and the Family, 53 (1991): 845-855; Edward O. Laumann et al., The Social Organization of Sexuality: Sexual Practices in the United States, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), p. 503; Timothy B. Heaton, “Factors Contributing to Increasing Marital Stability in the United States,” Journal of Family Issues, 23 (2002): 392-409; Teachman, 2003, p. 454, Anthony Paik, “Adolescent Sexuality and Risk of Marital Dissolution,” Journal of Marriage and Family 73 (2011): 472-485,

[3] Norval D. Glenn, Jeremy E. Ueker, Robert W.B. Love Jr., “Later First Marriage and Martial Success,” Social Science Research 39 (2010) 787-800, p. 787.

[4] Glenn, et al., 2010, p. 799.

[5] Personal correspondence, 1.26.11

[6] Personal correspondence, 1.27.11

[7] Timothy B. Heaton, “Factors Contributing to Increasing Marital Stability in the United States” Journal of Family Issues, 23 (2002): 392-409.

[8] W. Bradford Wilcox, The State of Our Unions: Marriage in America 2011, (Charlottesville, VA: The National Marriage Project, 2011), p. 73.

[9] Wilcox, 2011, p. 73.

[10] Wilcox, 2011, p. 73.

[11] Margaret L. Vaaler, Christopher G. Ellison and Daniel A. Powers, “Religious Influence on the Risk of Marital Dissolution,” Journal of Marriage and Family, 71 (2009): 917-934.

[12] Wilcox, 2011, p. 74.


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About the Author

Glenn Stanton

Glenn T. Stanton is the director for family formation studies at Focus on the Family. He debates and lectures extensively on the issues of gender, sexuality, marriage and parenting at universities and churches around the country. Glenn is the author of four books and a contributor to nine others. He’s a huge Bob Dylan fan, loves quirky movies, and picked out and bought the first piece of clothing for himself when he was 28.

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