Report: Marriage and divorce rates during COVID

Divorce during a pandemic

What can revitalize a broken marriage? A pandemic, it turns out.

We analyzed data from the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics and found that divorce rates for nearly all states plunged in 2020 to their lowest in decades.

Divorce rates have been falling nationally since at least 1999, but the decline in 2020 was the most widespread and sudden so far. Have more couples managed to avoid divorce? Or were inevitable break-ups merely delayed?

Vertical bar chart of divorce rate changes for each state in 2020.
The change in divorce rate compares 2020 to the average of the previous three years. The divorce rate is how many people got divorced per 1,000 people living in that state. Some states, such as CA and HI, do not report vital statistics divorce data to the CDC. Data source. Download the full-resolution chart here.

We think that many divorces were simply put off.

Maybe people were shocked by the pandemic and reacted by seeking stability, putting up with a broken marriage because it was a familiar, albeit unpleasant, refuge from a chaotic world. Or, maybe it was due to courts processing fewer cases while they transitioned to remote hearings over video.

When the 2021 data is published, we expect divorce rates will climb.

At the same time, we’re confident that some divorces were prevented entirely.

The simplest argument for this is that out of all the people who died from COVID-19, surely some were planning on, or already in the process of getting, a divorce.

For others, the abrupt changes in lifestyle cause by the pandemic may have stabilized shaky marriages. It’s hard to have an affair when you’re sheltering in place. It’s easier to find time to communicate frankly with your spouse when you’re together 24/7. If one spouse’s constant business travel left the other wanting, that problem suddenly vanished.

It’s rare that something external to a marriage could prevent divorce, but when that something radically changes day-to-day behavior, then it’s got a chance. Intriguingly, some states saw an increase in divorce rates. Mississippi’s increase was so high that we wonder if there’s an issue with the data the state reported to the CDC. If you have an idea why Mississippi’s divorce rate shot up in 2020, please email us at [email protected].

Line chart comparing Mississippi marriage and divorce rates from 1999 to 2020.
Download the full-resolution chart here.

What about marriage rates?

Marriage rates also fell in 2020, though for a much more transparent reason. Many of us know or have heard of a couple who was going to get married in 2020 but chose to postpone until friends and family could attend the wedding in person.

Some people opted for weddings over Zoom, and SharkTank even funded a virtual wedding company, Wedfuly, but the vast majority of brides and grooms decided to wait.

States that host a lot of “destination weddings”, such as Hawaii, saw the largest declines in marriage rates. When the 2021 data is released, we’re going to see this chart reversed.

Vertical bar chart of marriage rate changes for each state in 2020.
The change in marriage rate compares 2020 to the average of the previous three years. The marriage rate is how many people got married per 1,000 people living in that state. Data source. Download the full-resolution chart here.

Like with divorces, a few states bucked the trend. Montana saw an increase in its marriage rate, and nearby states such as Wyoming, Utah and Idaho saw only small decreases. Are people in the mountain west in love and impatient? What’s going on?

Line chart showing Montana marriage rates from 1999 to 2020.
Download the full-resolution chart here.

Where the data comes from

Would you like to do your own analysis? You can download this data from eDivorce. The CDC publishes the data in PDF form each year and we converted it to a spreadsheet that includes easy-to-use tables plus one table formatted for inserting into a database. Let us know what you end up doing with it!