Love Factually

Our Marriage Rates and Divorce Rates Are Falling. Why?

Fewer people are getting married today in part because fewer people are getting divorced.

By Cooper Levey-Baker January 24, 2019 Published in the February 2019 issue of Sarasota Magazine

Image: Shutterstock

If you’re not getting as many wedding invitations in the mail these days, don’t be offended. It’s not that people don’t like you anymore. It’s that fewer and fewer people in Sarasota are getting married.

The marriage rate in Sarasota County (which is measured by how many wedding licenses are issued per 1,000 residents) has dropped over the past 40 years, dipping from 9.2 per 1,000 in 1977 to 7.3 in 2017. In Manatee County, the decline is even more pronounced. There, the rate has plummeted from 10.7 in 1977 to 6.4 in 2017. During that same timespan, the statewide rate has decreased from 10.1 to 8.

Those fall-offs are part of a broader national trend. For starters, young people are waiting longer to get married. The average age for women for a first-time marriage rose from 20 in 1960 to 28 last year; for men, the average age has gone up from 23 to 30. Young Americans also have less money. According to a Pew Research Center study, 69 percent of adults who have never been married say they don’t feel ready for marriage because they’re not financially stable.

Men and women in their 20s are also more likely to live with a partner without tying the knot, and women, who now rely less on men financially than in previous decades, are having more children outside of marriage. “It’s less stigmatized to have children outside of marriage and to have sexual relationships outside of marriage,” explains Constance Shehan, a professor of sociology and women’s studies at the University of Florida. “It was changing in the late 20th century and it’s even more pronounced now.”

Another factor: Fewer people are getting married today because fewer people are getting divorced. The divorce rate in Sarasota County has been cut in half over the past 40 years, dropping from 6.8 per 1,000 residents in 1977 to 3.4 in 2017. In Manatee County, the divorce rate has sunk from 6 per 1,000 in 1977 to 2.8 in 2017. During that same time frame, the statewide divorce rate has dropped from 7 to 3.7.

As people continue to wait until their late 20s or early 30s to get married for the first time, they have a greater “readiness for marriage,” says Shehan. “People have completed their education and they are probably now getting established in a career, so they have more financial stability than people who get married 10 years younger. A lot of it is maturity. You have a better sense of your own values. You know how to communicate with other people more effectively and you have more experience in close relationships.”

The speed at which people get remarried after a divorce has also slowed. “It used to be that people who got divorced would remarry within three years,” says Shehan. “That re-marriage rate has dropped significantly. A lot of divorced people who form new relationships don’t marry, even though they live with a partner.”

Divorce and marriage statistics are also closely tied to socioeconomic status, educational attainment and race, according to Shehan. Divorce rates are higher among Latinos and African-Americans than whites, and are higher among those who don’t have a college education and those less affluent. Among poor Americans, economic stress is a major factor in divorce, Shehan says.

Age also matters. The median age in Sarasota has ticked up over the past decade, from 50.7 in 2009 to 55.1 in 2017. In Manatee County, it’s increased from 44.3 in 2009 to 47.6 in 2017. Fewer young people means fewer marriages.

Might these trends reverse? Shehan says one trend to keep an eye on is what she calls “gray divorce.” The rate of divorce among people over 50 has been climbing, she says, often driven by couples who stay together until their children are grown and then split. Given our older population, that could affect our region more than others.

But even as marriage trends fluctuate, some things never change. According to one recent Pew survey, most Americans remain hopeless romantics. Nearly nine in 10 say they marry for love, well ahead of other factors like companionship, having children, financial stability or legal rights.

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