Everybody knows that half of all marriages end in divorce, and couples often cite that statistic as an excuse for not tying the knot.
But it’s not true.
"I don’t know where the 50-percent myth came from," says Amanda Miller, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Central Oklahoma. "But the divorce rate isn’t that high and it never has been."
It peaked around 40 percent in the 1980s and has declined since — meaning that, when couples get married, "the odds are on their side," she says.
Nonetheless, a record low percentage of American adults — barely half of all men and women — are currently in a marriage, according to a recent Pew Center report that cited Miller’s research on marriage and divorce.
The Pew study has received a lot of national press in recent weeks, with most of the analysis concluding that the institution of marriage is in deep trouble.
Miller, however, takes a more nuanced view.
"Most people still believe in marriage and want to be married," she says. "They want to get it right the first time and avoid divorce, but they aren’t sure they can do it."
Only 51 percent of adult Americans are currently married, down from 72 percent in 1960, according to Pew.
Divorce and cohabitation have taken a toll, but so-called "delayed marriages" seem to be the biggest factor.
The median age has never been higher for first-time marriages — 26.5 years old for brides and 28.7 for grooms.
Fear of divorce — both the emotional toll and economic hardship that comes with it — makes young couples reluctant to walk down the aisle, according to Miller’s research.
"It’s exaggerated," she says, "because a lot of people are afraid when they have nothing to be afraid of."
If you have a college degree and a steady income, and if your parents are still married, your chance of getting divorced drops below 1 in 5, she says.
If you don’t have a degree, however, or a reliable income, the prospects look bleak.
"There are almost two different cultures of marriage," Miller says.
"One for the middle class, where marriage is still the normal way of life; and one for the working class, where it’s almost taken for granted that relationships won’t be stable."
Among college graduates, 64 percent of adults are currently in a marriage. But it drops to 47 percent for adults who never went past high school.
The Pew study notes that nearly half of working-class people describe the institution of marriage as obsolete, an adjective that only 27 percent of college graduates would use.
But Miller wonders what people really mean by obsolete.
"They still see marriage as the ideal goal, what a relationship should be," she says.
"But it’s like a Ferrari, the standard of excellence, and what you would really want to have.
"But nobody needs a Ferrari. Maybe I have to settle for a Toyota."
The irony is that couples won’t necessarily avoid the agony of divorce simply by avoiding marriage.
Cohabitation means sharing property and intertwining families.
So when cohabitating couples break up, it can look an awful lot like a divorce.
"It’s going to hurt just as much, isn’t it?" asks Charlene Giles, director of care and marriage ministries at Asbury United Methodist Church.
"Maybe you don’t have that piece of paper, but is it the piece of paper that makes it hurt when somebody leaves?"
What really counts is the sincere commitment to stick together, for better or worse, no matter what.
"Marriage is supposed to be a safe haven," says Giles, who’s been married for 40 years.
"Where you are loved unconditionally, you never have to worry that one day you’ll wake up and not be loved anymore."
By the numbers: (Adults ages 18 and older)
Married: 72 percent
Divorced: 5 percent
Widowed: 9 percent
Never married: 15 percent
Married: 51 percent
Divorced: 14 percent
Widowed: 6 percent
Never married: 28 percent
Source: Pew Research Center
(c)2011 Tulsa World (Tulsa, Okla.)