From the Singles Column: Singles and Statistics

Originally Published in the San Diego Jewish Journal

Last month, one of my readers sent me a lovely letter expressing, in part, her concern about a disturbing statistic: 50% of marriages end in divorce. I’ve heard this number before from many sources, and wouldn’t have thought too much of it… if it wasn’t for a fantastic video blogger named Hank Green, who, at one point, called random people, told them an encouraging fact, and hung up (part of a trend called “positive pranking”). One of these encouraging facts: The actual divorce rate is much lower than most people think.

I did a little digging, and found several articles in some tiny publications like “Time Magazine” and the “New York Times,” which confirmed that the statistic is murky, at best. Depending on how you calculate it, the overall divorce rate has been estimated at anywhere from 12-41% (give or take). This got me thinking about the surprising number of statistics we rely on in our dating lives. The act of going to places and doing things that we think give the best chance of finding a suitable partner, and then getting to know potential partners, is itself playing statistics. Numbers seem to be a solid starting point for decisions. But they are always far more complex than they appear. And if we’re not careful when playing the numbers… the numbers can start playing us.

So, here are my top three things to keep in mind when thinking about statistics.

  1. Beware flawed data: Even the most ethical of data-collectors must contend with all kinds of bias, which can mess up results — from the way questions are worded, to where and how a survey gets distributed.
  2. Keep in mind the Tree of Life… er… the tree of statistics: I will never forget a quote from my high school health book: “Over 80% of sexually active adults have some form of herpes.” Oy va voi! That’s a scary number, especially to singles braving the already terrifying world of dating. But it becomes a lot less scary when we realize that every statistic can be broken down into an ever-expanding tree of sub-statistics. In this case, the quote said “some form of herpes,” not “genital herpes”. That means that this 80% includes not only every sexually active adult with the STD form of herpes (which is actually 20-30%), but also every sexually active adult with a cold sore.
  3. Be careful with your conclusions: Once we’ve got our (hopefully good) data, we start to draw conclusions. That’s the easy part, right? Wrong! Let’s consider the common report that couples who live together before marriage have a higher rate of divorce. The immediate and easy conclusion: living together before marriage makes you more likely to get a divorce. And that immediate and easy conclusion is what the media tends to pick up and propagate because it’s, well, easy and immediate. Of course, it’s also completely incorrect. More recent studies suggest that, in fact, the higher divorce rate happens when couples settle down too young, either by living together OR getting married… which is also an extreme oversimplification.

So, with all that complexity, how can you ever hope to make a decision again? Start by recognizing that you don’t need all the answers to have a rich, full romantic life… which is good, because none of us will EVER have all the answers. You and your partner are people, not numbers, and only you can truly know what is right for your life. Embrace complexity, allow statistics to inform your decisions, but always remember that your decisions are exactly that: Yours.

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