In Conversation: Nora Galbraith on Divorce Trends in Canada

Nora Galbraith from Statistics Canada discusses new data on divorce in Canada.

April 21, 2022

Nathan Battams

In March 2022, Statistics Canada published new data on divorce in Canada that explore trends in divorce over the past half-century and include the agency’s first analysis on divorce trends since 2011.

Nora Galbraith, Senior Analyst at the Centre for Demography at Statistics Canada, recently joined Nathan Battams from the Vanier Institute to discuss this release, its background, and what it reveals about divorce and families in Canada.

 


Why do you feel data on divorce and divorce trends are valuable for our understanding of families and family life in Canada?

At a very broad level, I think information about trends in divorce is a key aspect in “setting the stage” for discussions about what is happening with families. Divorce trends are an important part of the foundation in our understanding of trends related to family complexity and family diversity. For individuals, the experience of divorce or of the divorce of one’s parents is a major event in one’s life.

What unique insights do they provide that are not captured in other data sources, such as the General Social Survey (GSS) on Families and Households?

It is only with administrative records – specifically, the Central Registry of Divorce Proceedings (CRDP) database – that we can obtain comprehensive information on the number of divorces being granted each year, also known as divorce flows. It is possible to estimate divorce flows from other administrative data sources like tax forms. However, there are challenges involved with this, as marital status is self-reported in tax data, and there appear to be some issues of under-coverage of the divorced population, in particular, according to some important recent studies by Dr. Rachel Margolis and her colleagues.1

The GSS is a rich source of information on the conjugal history of individuals, and its scope is not limited to legal marriages and divorces. It also covers other things, such as cohabiting and Living Apart Together (LAT) relationships, which aren’t legally registered.2 It also has excellent content on parental arrangements following separation or divorce, and why people choose to marry or live common law. For examining divorce flows, however, it is limited somewhat by its sample size and its target population, since it covers only the 10 provinces.

With the Census of Population, we can obtain information about the size and characteristics of the population that is currently divorced, but we don’t know when these people were divorced – some may have been divorced for 30 years, others just two years. Also, if a person has remarried, their previous divorce is not captured, as the Census collects information about current marital status only.

How is this data used, and what kinds of organizations, sectors, and professions use it for their work related to families?

The use of divorce data is quite wide-ranging. From the academic world, we have heard that this information is needed to help research related to family demography, economics, sociology, health, social work, and more. Divorce rates are an important signifier, or launching point, for discussions and explorations of various types of research – family is truly a cross-cutting topic.

We hope that the data on divorce will be useful to policy and program development aimed toward improving the lives of Canadians and their families, particularly those who have experienced divorce or are the children of divorced parents. For instance, through a better understanding of the overall prevalence of divorce and average ages at divorce, the relevant policy-makers and decision-makers could better understand needs related to things like poverty reduction, social isolation and support networks, housing, and childcare. We have heard from federal, provincial, and territorial partners that information on divorce would be helpful for planning purposes – everything from public pension plan beneficiary projections to anticipating the future demand for family court services.

Many provinces and territories also find it very useful to compare and situate trends for their jurisdiction with other parts of Canada – something they can’t do without a national compilation of this nature. We can also now situate Canada’s divorce trends internationally. Again, this is important contextual information when making various types of cross-country comparisons. Information on divorce is also useful to various private sectors, as divorce is likely to impact housing demand and consumer spending, among other individual behaviours.

This data also has many potential benefits to us internally at Statistics Canada. The divorce data is an important source of information for the validation of other data sources on marital status. It can be used to support various initiatives across our agency to investigate the quality of marital status content in other administrative data. It is also possible that in the future the divorce data could be incorporated within the Social Data Linkage Environment being developed at Statistics Canada, which would open up a whole new world of research possibilities to examine the socioeconomic, health, and wellbeing trajectories leading to and following divorce, as well as differences in the propensity to divorce across different population groups in the country.

Are there common misunderstandings and/or misinterpretations related to data on divorce that people should be aware of?

It is important to understand the difference between divorce flows versus the stock of the divorced population. As mentioned earlier, flows refer to the number of divorces that are granted in a given year, as provided by vital statistics. Stock refers to the size of the divorced population at a given point in time, as provided by census or survey data. We sometimes see reports that, for instance, 2.7 million Canadians divorced in 2020. This is a mix-up of concepts – while it is estimated that about 2.7 million Canadians had a legal marital status of “divorced” in 2020, the number of divorces that were granted in Canada in 2020 was much, much smaller, being about 42,900.

Another somewhat confusing issue is the difference between legal marital status versus “de facto” marital status. The Census of Population collects information on both, but it is important that users take note of which concept is being used and the underlying conceptual differences. A divorced individual could be currently in a common-law relationship – therefore, their de facto marital status is “living common law,” but their legal marital status is divorced.

It is also important to understand the difference between “currently divorced” versus “ever divorced.” Most survey data, as well as the census, capture current marital status. So, someone may have been divorced three times in the past, but if they are currently married, we won’t have any idea about those past divorces.

This release was the first to provide data and trend information with Vital Statistics in the last decade. How did this come about, and how are these analyses done?

We heard from our stakeholders and data users that there was a demand for timely information about divorce. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the interest in this topic grew even more. Given this, we undertook a pilot project to publish a “catch-up” of data and analysis on divorces for Canada, provinces, and territories.

This pilot project would not have been possible without the cooperation and collaboration of our colleagues at the Department of Justice Canada. They are the data-holders of the most comprehensive data source on divorce – the Central Registry of Divorce Proceedings (CRDP), which I mentioned earlier. The CRDP was created following the original Divorce Act of 1968, with the objective to identify and eliminate duplicate divorce proceedings. People seeking a divorce in Canada must first complete a divorce application and file it with a court. The critical information from that application – location of the court, date the application was filed, date of marriage, dates of birth of applicants, date divorce granted – is incorporated into the CRDP dataset.

The CRDP data are used to calculate basic indicators on divorce, such as counts and average age at divorce. Information from this database is also combined with population estimates to calculate a variety of divorce rates.

We have a very thorough vetting and approval process that is undertaken when we intend to acquire administrative data such as the CRDP. Once all the approvals were in place internally and on the part of the data provider, Justice Canada, the data were transferred to Statistics Canada. As luck would have it, shortly after we acquired the CRDP, we also welcomed David Pelletier to the Centre for Demography. David has extensive experience in his academic career working on the topic of divorce, and he led the process of cleaning and editing the CRDP, building indicators, and analyzing trends for the subsequent Daily article and new series of data tables published on our website.

Looking at the recent data and trends, what were you surprised – and not surprised – to see, based on what we already know or knew about divorce and divorce trends in Canada?

Since the start of the pandemic, there have been a lot of anecdotal reports of a big surge in divorce because of the pandemic – divorce lawyers saying they have to hire new staff and have never been busier. And a lot of academic studies have found that the various challenges and stressors of the pandemic have largely had a negative impact on the relationship quality of couple relationships.

However, patterns in previous periods of economic downturn would predict instead a decrease in divorce, as individuals tend to avoid making major life changes during periods of uncertainty and the process of divorce, in particular, is quite expensive.3 But, of course, the economic downturn in the context of COVID-19 has been very unique, accompanied by so many other new difficulties for individuals. So, given all of this, we weren’t totally sure what to expect with the data!

In reality, at least for 2020, the data appears to go against anecdotal reports, with a sharp drop in the number of divorces granted, representing a record annual percentage drop in the number of divorces between 2019 and 2020. As explained in the article published in The Daily,4 this largely reflects barriers to accessing courts services, at least in the early months of the pandemic. Additionally, even if someone wanted to divorce after the pandemic, in most cases they would need to first be separated for a minimum of one year. As a result, the full impact of the pandemic on the number of divorces granted cannot be entirely assessed based on 2020 data alone.

There were a couple of other surprises, as well, one of which is in relation to age-specific divorce rates. Prior to the new release in early March, the last year for which we had published data on divorce was 2008. We know from other data sources that, in those interim years, families and living arrangements continued to evolve; so, we expected this would also be the case for divorce. It was nonetheless surprising to see the trends among different age groups, in particular the accelerated reduction in divorce rates among young adult, and the sort of levelling off in rates among older adults ages 50 and over. I was also somewhat surprised to see how low – in a relative sense – Canada’s crude divorce rate5 is in comparison with many other countries.

While Canada has a relatively high share of common-law couples, which in theory would bring down the crude divorce rate, other countries, especially the Nordic ones, have an even higher prevalence of common-law unions than Canada, yet they have higher crude divorce rates. Also, Canada has a relatively young population, and younger populations tend to have higher crude divorce rates, given the age patterns of divorce. Taken together, this suggests that some other, unmeasured characteristics might be driving Canada’s relatively low crude divorce rate in an international perspective.

The data show a gradual decline in the number of divorces and the refined divorce rate since 1991. Could you explain the “selectivity of marriage” and how this affects divorce rates?

The growing “selectivity of marriage” is often pointed to as one of the possible explanations for the decrease in the divorce rate in recent years. The idea is that, as living common-law has grown in popularity over time as a prelude, alternative, or postscript to marriage, those persons who do choose to marry today are a distinct subgroup that has some underlying characteristics that make them less likely to divorce than married cohorts of the past.

In other words, they are sort of “pre-selected” to have a longer-lasting marriage. What exactly those underlying characteristics are is not totally understood, nor are they easy to measure. This seems to be particularly salient for young adults, who have seen the fastest decrease in their divorce rates over the last decade.

This release notes that the increase in “grey divorce” has levelled off since 2006. What were some of the factors that led to the initial increase in grey divorce, and what changed?

It’s important to keep in mind that divorce among persons ages 50 and older was and remains a relatively rare event. Divorce rates for this age group did rise slightly between 1991 and 2006, and this appeared to coincide with the arrival of the baby-boom cohort into this age group. The baby-boom cohort has had very different circumstances than previous generations. This is particularly the case for women boomers, who have had greater labour force participation rates and higher individual income than the cohorts immediately preceding them, which could facilitate or make feasible the reality of separating from their spouse and living independently.

As to why these divorce rates have largely plateaued, I think to some extent this reflects the greater selectivity of marriage as mentioned earlier, a factor that likely influences all age groups. We know that while living common law is most prevalent in young adulthood, this arrangement has grown in popularity among seniors and may play a role in the trends we’ve seen in recent years with respect to divorce. This is one of many reasons why I look forward to the forthcoming results of the 2021 Census – we’ll be able to see to what extent common-law unions versus married unions are growing among the senior population in Canada.

What’s next for Statistics Canada’s analysis and coverage of divorce in Canada?

Following the recent pilot project that culminated in the March 9 release on divorce, we will be undertaking an evaluation in collaboration with our partners to determine whether it is feasible to establish a permanent divorce statistics program within Statistics Canada’s Centre for Demography, which could include, for instance, an annual publication on divorce flow data and analysis. At this time, no decision has been made.

In addition to our recent pilot on divorce, Statistics Canada is also currently undertaking a similar pilot project related to marriage registration data. As with divorce, it is our goal to produce a catch-up publication with key marriage flow indicators for Canada, province, and territories, to provide timely relevant information on marriage trends. Unlike for divorce, there is not a central data provider for marriage data – so this project is taking a bit more time to execute.

Nora Galbraith is a senior analyst at the Centre for Demography at Statistics Canada.

Nathan Battams is a knowledge mobilization specialist at the Vanier Institute of the Family.


Notes

  1. See In Conversation: Rachel Margolis on Divorce Trends in Canada (The Vanier Institute of the Family, 2021).
  2. Learn more about LAT relationships in In Focus 2019: Couples Living Apart in Canada (The Vanier Institute of the Family, 2019).
  3. Learn more in COVID-19 IMPACTS: Couple Relationships in Canada (The Vanier Institute of the Family, 2020).
  4. Statistics Canada. (2022, March 9). A fifty-year look at divorces in Canada, 1970 to 2020. The Daily.
  5. Crude Divorce Rates are a calculation of the number of divorces in a given year divided by the total population in that same year. While the accuracy of this measure can be affected by demographic shifts within the population, it is nonetheless useful for exploring broad trends in divorce, and its widespread use around the world make it valuable for international and historical comparisons.
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