ATLANTA -- Most people believe only half of U.S. marriages make it. But a leading researcher is announcing the true divorce rate is much lower and always has been.
Shaunti Feldhahn received her research training at Harvard. She and her husband Jeff help people with their marriages and relationships through best-selling books like, For Women Only and For Men Only.
This Atlanta-based couple often quoted in their writings and at conferences what they thought was accurate research: that most marriages are unhappy and 50 percent of them end in divorce, even in the Church.
"I didn't know," Feldhahn told CBN News. "I've stood up on stage and said every one of these wrong statistics."
Then eight years ago, she asked assistant Tally Whitehead for specific research on divorce for an article she was writing. After much digging, neither of them could find any real numbers.
That kicked off a personal, years-long crusade to dig through the tremendously complicated, sometimes contradictory research to find the truth. The surprising revelations are revealed in her new book, The Good News About Marriage.
The Real Divorce Rate
"First-time marriages: probably 20 to 25 percent have ended in divorce on average," Feldhahn revealed. "Now, okay, that's still too high, but it's a whole lot better than what people think it is."
Shaunti and Jeff point out the 50 percent figure came from projections of what researchers thought the divorce rate would become as they watched the divorce numbers rising in the 1970s and early 1980s when states around the nation were passing no-fault divorce laws.
"But the divorce rate has been dropping," Feldhahn said. "We've never hit those numbers. We've never gotten close."
And it's even lower among churchgoers, where a couple's chance of divorcing is more likely in the single digits or teens.
Hopelessness = Divorce
As the truth about these much lower divorce rates begins to spread, Feldhahn said she believes it will give people hope, which is often a key ingredient to making marriage last. She said hopelessness itself can actually lead to divorce.
"That sense of futility itself pulls down marriages," Feldhahn said. "And the problem is we have this culture-wide feeling of futility about marriage. It's based on all these discouraging beliefs and many of them just aren't true."
Christian psychotherapist Angel Davis has also written about marriage in her book, The Perfecting Storm. The Athens, Georgia-based therapist agreed with Shaunti Feldhahn's warnings about hopelessness.
"The Bible says hope deferred, it makes a heart sick," Davis said. "And we are so influenced by numbers and by culture."
Jeff Feldhahn said anytime he tells people about his wife's findings about how incorrect the 50 percent divorce rate actually is, they're stunned.
"Their mouth drops open and they're just shocked," he said. "They go, 'I can't believe I believed this all these years. And I've heard it so many times. And I've heard it from the pulpit so many times.'"
Shaunti added, "This is a great chance to stand up and say. 'We were all fooled. Not anymore.'"
Spreading the Good News
To that end, Feldhahn has been working to spread the news to pastors and other leaders as fast as she can. The news is changing Pastor Daniel Floyd's counseling because he had bought into fictional research, he admitted to Feldhahn.
"I told her, 'I've said this. I've taught this,'" the pastor at Lifepoint Church in Fredericksburg, Virginia, recalled.
Floyd said he's sure this news will change a generation of marriage counseling.
"I think it's significant," he said. "And (it) could change the conversation from one that is 'Wow, it's just the way it is, and half of you are going to make it, half of you are not,' and change the conversation to know historically, an overwhelming majority have made it and you can make it."
Psychotherapist Davis said this belief can change lives and marriages.
"We know in psychology that what you believe affects how you feel, and then it leads to action," Davis stated. "So when other people are accomplishing something we think is hopeless, it gives us hope. And then we start feeling different and start acting different."
Feldhahn has more shocking research: four out of five marriages are happy. That number flies in the face of the popular belief that only about 30 percent of marriages are happy.
"Most people think most marriages are just kind of 'eeh'…just kind of rolling along," she said. "And they're shocked when I tell them that the actual average is 80 percent: 80 percent of marriages are happy."
Not knowing the true statistics often leads couples to avoid marriage and just shack up instead.
Feldhahn said that couples who avoid marriage do so based on wrong assumptions.
"Like, 'if I'm just going to get divorced and I'm not going to be happy, why bother getting married, right?' And it's based on a lie," she said. "That feeling is based on a lie."
Pastor Floyd said these new facts can be a game-changer for married couples.
"I think it really helps people in the challenging moments to say, 'If I'll just stick with it, then there's a good chance I'm going to make it the distance,'" he said.
"With hope you feel you can make it through, even though you're in a tough patch," Jeff Feldhahn said.
His wife also pointed to other research that proves most of the unhappily married can turn it around.
"The studies show that if they stay married for five years, that almost 80 percent of those will be happy five years later," she said.
The Good News About Marriage also reveals the divorce rate among those active in their church is 27 to 50 percent lower than among non-churchgoers. Feldhahn's hope is that once people learn the truth that they will spread it far and wide.
"We need to change the paradigm of how we talk about marriage -- from marriage being in trouble and all this discouraging stuff to saying, 'No, wait. Most marriages are strong and happy for a lifetime,'" she told CBN News. "That makes a total difference to a couple who can now say, 'You know what? Most people get through this and we can, too.'