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Mixing Does Not Always Lead To Matching

Exploring divorce risks for immigrant-native couples in Germany
Copyright: lassedesignen

During the last two decades, most European countries experienced increased immigration and ethnic heterogeneity in their populations. Not surprisingly, marriages between natives and immigrants also increased, even in those countries where the barriers between ethnic groups have typically been high. However, European research on union dynamics is far from being complete.

In a recent study, Nadja Milewski and Hill Kulu explored how divorce rates of native/immigrant couples differ from the average divorce rates in Germany. The authors extended previous research in two ways: First, they focused on the European context, whilst most studies so far have been conducted in the US, a country with specific ethnic and racial relations. Second, they used a rich longitudinal dataset: the German Socio-Economic Panel (SOEP). These data allowed them to control for many individual and couple characteristics when investigating the effect of migrant/native marriages on divorce, including individual values.


A high risk of divorce for immigrant-native couples

The analysis of the divorce rates of 5,648 marriages shows that immigrant couples in total have a lower risk of divorce than natives. However, marriages between German-born individuals and immigrants have a higher likelihood of ending in separation than marriages between two German-born individuals or between two immigrants from the same country. This pattern largely persists when controlling for the socio-demographic and human-capital characteristics of the spouses. Moreover, the probability of getting divorced increases when cultural distance is high between the partners and when the spouses demonstrate differences in their social backgrounds.

Although these results show instability in ethnically mixed marriages, it does not necessarily suggest that the risk of divorce for inter-ethnic marriages in Germany and elsewhere in Europe will remain high in the future.


Scenarios for the future

As arguments for a future decrease in divorce, the authors mention the role of immigrant’s descendants and the increase in cohabitations. In many European countries, inter-ethnic unions are increasingly partnerships between ‘natives’ and descendants of immigrants rather than marriages between‘ natives’ and immigrants. Descendants of immigrants are generally better integrated than the first generation, and share the culture and values of their country of birth to a large extent. This should reduce the role of factors traditionally responsible for instability in inter-ethnic marriages. In terms of cohabitation, an increase in premarital cohabitation among ethnic minorities may contribute to a better match before getting married.

However, immigrants, particularly those who get married before or just after migrating, have usually missed out on the opportunity to form a ‘trial marriage’ and will likely also lack this opportunity in the future for legal reasons. Conversely, a growing portion of immigrant marriages will consist of second generation migrants who married a first-generation partner from their parents’ country of origin. Hence, divorce rates may also increase slightly in the future. As numerous studies show, divorce rates have generally increased across all social groups over the last decades because – among other reasons - women are less likely to stay due to financial dependency with the partner, if this marriage does not work out.

Which of these scenarios will be most realistic will likely depend on the extent to which immigrants adapt to the attitudes regarding gender equality and the family norms of their host society’s traditions and institutions.


This PopDigest is also available in French, Spanish and German.


*This PopDigest has received funding from the European Union's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) under grant agreement n° 320116  for the research project FamiliesAndSocieties.
FamiliesAndSocieties ( has the aim to investigate the diversity of family forms, relationships and life courses in Europe, to assess the compatibility of existing policies with these changes, and to contribute to evidence-based policy-making. The consortium brings together 25 leading universities and research institutes in 15 European countries and three transnational civil society organizations.

Author(s) of the original publication: 
Daniela Vono de Vilhena / Sigrun Matthiesen