Says "67 percent of marriages now wind up in divorce."

Stephen Sweeney on Friday, February 10th, 2012 in an interview on WNYC’s “The Brian Lehrer Show”

Steve Sweeney claims two-thirds of marriages end in divorce

Senate President Stephen Sweeney talks with WNYC's Brian Lehrer on Feb. 10. Go to 17:30 to hear Sweeney's comments on divorce.

Marriage ends in divorce sometimes.

In fact, it happens two-thirds of the time, according to Senate President Stephen Sweeney.

And if same-sex couples are allowed to wed in New Jersey, they would face the same marital woes heterosexual couples do, Sweeney (D-Gloucester) said in a Feb. 10 interview on WNYC’s "The Brian Lehrer Show."

A caller asked Sweeney whether he has considered what would happen to the children of a gay or lesbian couple in a divorce. Sweeney said it’d be no different than when a man and a woman divorce.

"You would go through the same process and a court would make a decision. You know, because sometimes courts do rule the father is the better parent than the mother. So, you know, each case is just like any divorce," Sweeney said. "And you know something, divorces will happen, absolutely, just like they happen for heterosexuals and probably, what's it, 67 percent of marriages now wind up in divorce."

PolitiFact New Jersey found Sweeney’s claim is off. But as Skip Burzumato, assistant director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, put it: "divorce rates are such slippery statistics," which can vary dramatically depending on age, sex, race and education.

Spokesmen for Sweeney did not respond to five e-mails and two phone calls requesting comment. Burzumato, who called the 67 percent figure an "odd number," said if Sweeney’s statistic was true for all marriages, "I think we would feel that and we would all know that. We would not see as many married people as we do."

One measure of divorce rates is the number of divorces in a given year per 1,000 people. The United States had a divorce rate of 3.4 by that measure in 2009, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, an arm of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Another approach cited more often is to estimate the likelihood a marriage will end in divorce.

Generally, experts we spoke with and studies we consulted agreed that the likelihood of marriages ending in divorce fell somewhere between 40 percent and 50 percent.

"Estimates of divorce are around 45%. When you throw in a few percent of couples who separate but never get around to divorcing, the figure of 50% is close," Paul Amato, a professor of family sociology and demography at Pennsylvania State University, wrote in an e-mail. "The probability of divorce is unlikely to rise further. In anything, it appears to be going down slightly."

"I think there is some truth to the fact that half of marriages end in divorce," Casey Copen, an associate service fellow with the National Survey of Family Growth, said. But, she said, "it’s just so dependent on the population you’re looking at."

For example, studies show couples with higher levels of education are less likely to divorce.

Burzumato put the likelihood of marriages now ending in divorce slightly lower, between 35 percent  and 45 percent, but said "it might be in the 50s, it’s hard to tell."  

"What we have found is that divorce rates are coming down," he said. "Cohabitation is on the rise. So those who do select marriage tend to be more committed."

The U.S. Census Bureau reported similar findings.

"As marriage rates have decreased and cohabitation has become more common, marriage has become more selective of adults who are better off socioeconomically and have more education, and divorce rates have leveled," a May 2011 report said.

Our ruling

In a radio interview, Sweeney said that 67 percent of marriages end in divorce.

We found no data to support Sweeney’s claim and his office did not return multiple requests for clarification.

The chance of a marriage ending in divorce varies depending on a number of factors, including education and race. But overall, experts told us and reports show the overall probability of marriages now ending in divorce falls between 40 percent and 50 percent.

We rate the statement False.

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