The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Breaking Up in the City

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

Couples living in urban areas are significantly more likely to divorce than are couples living in rural areas. But theorists who would explain this pattern as a consequence of economics or demographics face a tougher task than they might suppose. For it would appear that the problem is neither economic nor demographic but rather cultural. Such is the conclusion advanced by sociologist Torkild Hovde Lyngsta of the University of Oslo.

Drawing on data from various Norwegian administrative registers, Lyngstad tests a number of theories of how community context may affect divorce rates. To see if the health of a local economy affects divorce rates, Lyngstad searches for statistical correlations between the divorce rate and average earnings and regional unemployment. But no such correlations emerge. Indeed, the data indicate that the hypothesized “link between the economic situation in the community and the divorce risk” may actually be “ignorable.”

The data prove just as resistant to what Lyngstad labels the “macro-structural-opportunity theory of marital dissolution,” a theory which holds “the likelihood of divorcing is affected by the supply of alternative partners for remarriage.” But Lyngstad must report as “a solid finding from the statistical analysis . . . that the availability of potential partners, when defined as an age-staggered sex ratio, is not associated with an increase in the divorce rate, but with a small decline.”

Noting further that the distinctively high divorce rates found in urban areas appear “unrelated to population density,” Lyngstad finds himself left with this “possible explanation”: “urban areas are culturally liberal environments where acceptance of divorce is high.”

Of course, not all couples are equally susceptible to the influence of liberal, divorce-fostering urban values. Lyngstad reports that couples are particularly divorce-prone if husband or wife has experienced parental divorce (p<.001 for both husbands and wives). Wives’ income also predicts vulnerability to divorce, with wives earning less than 100,000 Norwegian kroner being statistically less likely to divorce than wives earning more than 150,000 Norwegian kroner (p<.001). Not surprisingly, couples with children—especially young children—prove significantly less likely to break up than couples without children (p<.001 for eight of nine analyses of the presence of children).

The implication of Lyngstad ’s study is clear: policymakers seeking to reduce our high national divorce rate will make little headway if they suppose the problem is chiefly one of economic or population dynamics in the city. The disease appears to be in the permissive urban culture.

(Torkild Hovde Lyngstad, “Does Community Context Have an Important Impact on Divorce Risk? A Fixed-Effects Study of Twenty Norwegian First-Marriage Cohorts,” European Journal of Population 27.1 [February 2011]: 57–77.)