Marriage is an event that bonds two (or, rarely, more) people together for life, creating a legal, cultural, and/or religious connection between them that impacts everything from their name and address to their future family. Marriage is a cultural universal, an institution so fundamental to the human experience that there are no known examples of a society that functions without it. People marry for many reasons, including love, companionship, the desire to build a family, financial stability, social status, and religious fulfillment, and in nearly every case the marriage is considered a watershed event in the participants’ lives.
Sometimes, however, the bonds of marriage break. According to the United States' National Center for Health Statistics, approximately 4-5 million people get married every year in the U.S. ... and approximately 42-53% of those marriages eventually end in divorce.
Divorce has many possible causes, including infidelity, financial problems, loss of intimacy, substance abuse, domestic abuse, lack of commitment, moral or religious differences, and simply growing apart. Whatever the reason, divorce is not a uniquely American scenario. Divorce happens all over the world—in fact, it may be every bit as universal as marriage itself.
Divorce rates can be calculated multiple ways, but one of the simplest methods utilizes census data. Dividing the number of divorces in a given year by total population yields the crude divorce rate. This metric is typically expressed as a number per 1000 people. For example, if 100,000 people lived in a nation and there were 500 divorces in a year, the divorce rate would be five divorces per 1,000 residents.
According to data from the United Nations and other sources, the country with the highest divorce rate in the world in 2020 was the Maldives, which recorded 2984 divorces against a population of 540,544, resulting in a divorce rate of 5.52 per 1000 people. This is actually a notable step down from the country's widely publicized rate of 10.97 in 2002, which earned the country a Guinness World Record.
Why are divorces so frequent in the Maldives? One common explanation is that the island nation's citizens frown upon physical relations outside of marriage, but both marriages and divorces are quite easy to obtain, so they marry quickly and divorce with minimal complication if the relationship fails. What's more, a cultural shift is currently taking place in the Maldives, with women becoming more empowered and more able to fend for themselves financially, enabling them to leave marriages that aren't working.
The former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan endured the second-highest divorce rate in the world in 2020, with 4.6 divorces for every 1000 people. Close behind are Russia (3.9), Belgium (3.7), and Belarus (3.7). The United States lands in a four-way tie for spots 9-12 on the list, with an annual divorce rate of 2.7 per 1000 people. In the U.S., Nevada has the highest divorce rate of any state at 14%.
The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020-21 had a remarkable impact on nearly every aspect of everyday life, including rates of marriage and divorce. Overall, marriage rates dropped significantly in 2020, largely due to pandemic-related lockdowns and restrictions on public gatherings. What's more, divorce rates also dropped significantly, from .2 to .4 points in most cases, in nearly every country in the world.
For example, Slovenia's divorce rate dropped from 1.2 in 2019 to .8 in 2020. Similarly, Hungary dropped from 1.8 to 1.5, Seychelles went from 1.9 to 1.7, and the Dominican Republic plummeted from 2.5 to 1.2. Oddly, Denmark, considered one of the top 10 countries to live in, reversed the trend and saw its divorce rate leap from 1.8 to 2.7 during the 2020 pandemic.
*Data is most recent available per country, typically between 2017-2020.
On the other side of the coin, several nations have quite low divorce rates. Based upon available data, the country with the lowest divorce rate in the world is Sri Lanka, with a divorce rate of 0.15 divorces per 1,000 residents. Vietnam and Guatemala have the next lowest rate at 0.2 divorces per every 1,000 residents. Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Peru, and South Africa rank 4th through 6th, then a nine-way tie at .70/1000 creates a logjam that soaks up spots 7-15.
It should be noted that a low divorce rate does not necessarily mean that a country's citizens have blissful, thriving marriages. In some countries, divorces may be more difficult to legally obtain, or wives may be unable to leave a bad marriage because they fear for their safety, or for their children's safety, or because they lack the financial wherewithal (or societal opportunity) to support the family on their own. In fact, if one takes the top 6 countries with the lowest divorce rates and tracks their scores on the United Nations' 2019 Gender Inequality Index (GII), they rank as follows:
By comparison, all but three of the top 13 countries with the highest divorce rates placed within the top 50 in terms of gender equality. In light of these data, it is important to resist drawing conclusions about married life in a given country based upon its divorce rate alone.
In fact, divorce rate on its own cannot even give a clear idea of how frequent divorces are in a given country. This is because the divorce rate is a measure of divorces as a percentage of the total population, not in relation to the total number of marriages. Why does this matter? Because the United States' 2019's rate of 2.7 new divorces per 1000 people would be quite impressive if all 1000 of those people were married, but shockingly worrisome if only 50 out of 1000 were married. For that reason, divorce rates are often viewed alongside a country's overall marriage rate. They may even be combined to produce a rough marriage/divorce ratio or percentage.
For example, if one matches the United States' 2019's rate of 2.7 new divorces per 1000 people to the number of marriages that took place in 2019—6.1 per 1000 people—it works out to one new divorce for every 2.26 new marriages, a divorce percentage of just over 44%. These are arguably more insightful and relatable numbers than "2.7 divorces per 1000 people." Of course, even this calculation is not entirely precise—divorce rates should ideally be compared to the marriage rates from the year each dissolving marriage was initially created, not the current year. However, it is nonetheless a useful (and much easier to compute) ballpark estimate for times when more granular data is unavailable.
The Maldives Islands have the highest divorce rate in the world.
The US is tied for the 13th-highest divorce rate in the world, so its divorce rate is higher than most other countries.
Sri Lanka has the lowest divorce rate in the world.