Want to avoid divorce? Here's when to get married

by Kelly Putter

You’re smart, right? You waited till your mid to late thirties to tie the knot after earning a post-secondary education, travelling some and getting a solid foothold in your career.

Better hang on to that pre-nup.

A new study flips conventional wisdom on its head by suggesting that those who marry older face a higher risk of divorce, according to a sociologist at the University of Utah whose data unearthed surprising results about marriage success and age.

Nicholas H. Wolfinger found that people who marry after their early thirties are more likely to divorce than those who wed in their late twenties. While his data confirms the commonly held belief that getting hitched in your late teens and early twenties is a sure-fire ticket for failure, the finding that older brides and grooms are more likely to split is an eye opener.

According to his numbers, once past the age of 32, the odds of divorce increase by five per cent per year of age at marriage. His analysis is from data compiled by the National Survey of Family Growth, a U.S. survey administered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention every few years.

Wolfinger thinks the reason may be Darwinian as those more strongly suited for married life survive, leaving behind those with weaker inclinations. He calls it the selection effect.

“The kinds of people who wait till their thirties to get married may be the kinds of people who aren’t predisposed toward doing well in their marriages,” he wrote in a blog for the Institute of Family Studies. “Consequently they delay marriage, often because they can’t find anyone willing to marry them. When they do tie the knot, their marriages are automatically at high risk for divorce. More generally, perhaps people who marry later face a pool of potential spouses that has been winnowed down to exclude the individuals most predisposed to succeed at matrimony.”

He may be on to something, according to Debra Macleod, a couples mediator and best-selling relationship author based in Calgary. She says by the time people reach their mid thirties, they may have experienced a number of relationships or perhaps lived with a partner. The failed relationships could leave them feeling bitter and resentful and those negative feelings mean they’re quicker to pull the plug on marriage. Add to that the fact that many people get set in their ways as they age.

Macleod says the 28-32 age range makes for optimal marriage material because couples are old enough to have lived but not old enough to have soured due to bad breakups and infidelity.

“That when we’re more open-minded, we’re feeling good about where we are, we’re feeling optimistic about our future, we’ve dated enough that we know a good thing when we see it,” Macleod said.

“Before that, we’re too young to recognize that and after that the negative experiences come into play.”

According to Statistics Canada, the average age for marriage is 29 for women and 31 for men, which means Canadians generally marry at Wolfinger’s most favourable time. As expected, those numbers have risen over the past decades from 1976, when men married at 25 and women at 22.

Still, before Canadian couples hit their 50th wedding anniversary, just over 43 per cent will divorce. Based on figures from 2008, the year Statistics Canada stopped recording national trends on marriage and divorce, women typically divorce for the first time at 41, while men wait till 44.

Canadian divorce rates peaked in the 1980s thanks to the introduction of no-fault divorce legislation with about 50 per cent of unions ending during that decade. The numbers see-sawed after that and eventually dropped to 40 per cent in 2008.

Oakville psychotherapist Andrea Ramsay Speers isn’t surprised by the findings. In her practice, she sees plenty of couples in their mid-30s to mid-40s who have put their relationship on the back burner so they can deal with kids, careers and finances. The challenges of raising children, paying off the mortgage and crazy-busy schedules with tight time constraints means the marital bond starts to unravel.

“They think the marriage is fine and that they’ll attend to that later and it starts to drift and they’re not putting energy into the relationship,” she said. “And they come to see me when they’re unhappy.”

The face of divorce in Canada is undoubtedly changing, says Nora Spinks, CEO of the Vanier Institute for the Family. That people are on average living longer factors into the overall divorce equation. Baby boomers, those roughly 50 to 70, are splitting up in growing numbers because the longevity of their lives, in some cases, outlasts their desire to stay together. With life expectancy reaching well into our eighties, it’s not uncommon for people to question whether they want to stay married until they die.

While grey divorce may be spiking for couples married 35 years or more, marriage breakdown is generally far less hostile than it once was, Spinks said. In fact, when it comes to elder care or end-of-life care, people often look to and receive support from their ex-spouses.

“What we’re seeing is modern divorce is less acrimonious and less Kramer vs. Kramer,” Spinks said. “That’s when divorce was relatively new in society and it carried a stigma and it was seen as a personal failure, whereas now it’s just another logical step in the life course.”

Logical or not, marriage-bound singles shouldn’t be deterred by Wolfinger’s analysis, says Peter Jon Mitchell, a senior researcher with the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada.

“I wouldn’t say people need to be scared off marriage because of the study,” Mitchell said. “This is a snapshot of a social trend and people need to evaluate their own situation. Don’t let it put you off.”