Canada’s divorce rate is the lowest in 50 years, but fewer people are getting married at all

Rates hit a low in 2020, according to a new report from the Vanier Institute of the Family

Half of marriages end in divorce — that’s the outdated and incorrect statistic that’s been thrown around almost as a warning for decades, influencing a generation of adults as they decide whether or not to wed.

Now a new report once again flips that assumption on its head. Divorce rates have actually been declining since the early 1990s and are the lowest they’ve been in 50 years, according to a new report released Tuesday from the national independent Vanier Institute of the Family, which is dedicated to understanding families and family life in Canada.

The divorce rate dropped to 5.6 per 1,000 married people in 2020, the lowest number since 1973, the institute said, citing data from Statistics Canada. In 1991, the rate was 12.7 per 1,000 married people. But at the same time, fewer people are getting married in the first place — just 44 per cent of people over age 15 in 2021 compared to 54 per cent in 1991. (The minimum age at marriage in Canada has been set at 16 since 2015.)

And the decline in the divorce rate also doesn’t mean couples who live together aren’t splitting up. In 2021, more than one in five (22.7 per cent) couples who live together in Canada were common-law, the institute noted — and when those relationships end, they’re not recorded in divorce data.

“Divorce statistics do not provide a complete picture of relationships ending,” the Vanier Institute noted in its “Family Structure” report, part one of its annual “Families Count” series.

“There’s a perception that divorce is high, but in actual fact because fewer people are getting married, by default, we have fewer divorces,” said Lisa Strohschein, a professor in the department of sociology at the University of Alberta and the editor-in-chief of the journal Canadian Studies in Population.

Love and marriage?

Over the past 100 years, the proportion of couples in Canada has remained pretty much the same, with about 57 per cent of adults reporting they’re in a couple, Statistics Canada reported in 2022.

Since Statistics Canada collects household data, it defines couples as those who live together.

Canada’s divorce rate increased starting in 1968, when the first federal Divorce Act was passed, and peaked in the late 1980s, right after an amendment to the Divorce Act that made it easier to get one.


Even then, it was never true that half of marriages in Canada end in divorce, Strohschein said. In fact, the closest we had was a prediction from Statistics Canada that around 38 to 41 per cent per cent of marriages started in the 2000s were projected to end in divorce within 30 years.

The “half” stat is more true in the U.S., and thrown around almost as a kind of fear mongering about the disappearing traditional family, she added.

Since the 1990s, the divorce rate in Canada has declined steadily. Part of this is due to the aging married population, the report notes, with older couples less likely to divorce than younger couples.

But declines are happening in the younger population, too, said Yue Qian, an associate professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia whose research focuses on gender and family. And there tend to be differences between couples who co-habitate and those who decide to get married that also help predict the divorce rate, she explained.

For instance, people with higher education levels are more likely to get married, Qian said, but at the same time, people with higher education levels are less likely to get divorced.

“In this way, those who are more prone to divorce are not getting married in the first place.”

Common-law unions, common-law breakups

Younger couples are also less likely to get married to begin with, choosing common-law unions instead. In 2021, nearly eight in 10 people aged 20 to 24 who were part of a couple — again, defined by living together — were living with a common-law partner, StatsCan said.

And Canada’s overall rate of common-law couples, 23 per cent, is the highest among G7 countries, according to Statistics Canada. That’s mostly due to Quebec, where this type of union is more popular.

“Still, marriage remains the predominant type of union,” with 77 per cent of couples married, Statistics Canada says.

Which is why the Vanier Institute says divorce statistics are still “valuable indicators.”

But Qian says we should be collecting data on the dissolution of common-law couples given how common they are, and the legal implications of the breakups. Some provinces have amended their laws to grant common-law spouses who are ending their relationships the same property rights as married couples, CBC News previously reported.

In B.C., for instance, couples who been in a common-law relationship for at least two years will generally share any property they acquire during the relationship, notes the provincial government website.

“In general our society needs to give more attention to helping to publicize the information, the regulations, the legal issues around common-law couples, including the formation and the dissolution of common-law relationships,” Qian said.

Strohschein notes that common-law unions tend to be more fragile than marriages and more likely to end, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. With younger people, it’s more of a “weeding” or “trial marriage,” and breakups are part of that, she added.

She also cautions against viewing divorce as inherently negative. Yes, it can be traumatic for the people involved, but it’s not a bad thing for society as a whole, she explained.

“We live in a society that prioritizes people’s ability to choose. Forcing people to stay in marriages that they’re unhappy in is probably a worse result than allowing people to part ways.”

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