So Much for Undermining Marriage: Fewest Divorces in Marriage-Equality States

by Peter Cassels

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday August 8, 2011

One would think that the liberal Northeastern states, which include five of the six where marriage equality is legal (including, that is, the federal District of Columbia), would have the highest rate of divorce because they are perceived as more freewheeling. In addition, the main argument against gay marriage has been that it undermines the state of marriage. So it would follow that, in states that have embraced gay marriages, heterosexual marriages are in a perilous state of collapse.

Except that the opposite appears to be true.

At first glance, it looks counterintuitive -- at least, if you pay attention to the rhetoric of religious conservatives, who frown on divorce because they believe heterosexuals shouldn't engage in premarital sex and once married, should remain so for the rest of their lives.

Here's the really surprising part: It's the Bible belt, the swathe of religious ultra-conservatives that swings from West Virginia down through Dixie that has by far the highest proportion of divorce rates among the general population.

Massachusetts, the first state to legalize same-sex marriage, for years has had the lowest number of divorces in the nation. In 2009, there were only 1.8 divorces per 1,000 population. Marriages also are legal in Washington, D.C., which closely trails Massachusetts with 2.1 divorces per 1,000 residents.

New York, the largest and most recent state to legalize marriage equality, has a divorce rate of 2.5 per 1,000. That ties the rate in Iowa, the sole non-Northeastern state to allow same-sex marriages. The other states with marriage equality also all have low divorce rates compared to the national median: Connecticut, New Hampshire and Vermont.

Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey and Rhode Island have legalized civil unions. They, too, experience relatively lower numbers of divorces. Nevada, which along with California, Oregon, Washington and Wisconsin offer domestic partnerships, may prove the exception. It has the nation's highest divorce rate, at 6.6 per 1,000 residents. But then, Nevada has been the nation's quickie divorce state for over a century. (Remember the women in the movie "The Women" who were on their way to be "Renovated" from their husbands?)

Rounding out the top ten lists of divorce-crazy states are Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, Kentucky, Maine (the only state on the list in the Northeast), Oklahoma, West Virginia and Wyoming. Besides Arkansas and Kentucky, states in the Deep South with rates higher than the Northeast include Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina and Tennessee.

Why Such High Divorce Rates in 'Family Values' States?

Ironically, experts say, those values increase the risk of failed marriages.

"Many of the people in Southern states oppose divorce but they also oppose premarital sex," said Stephanie Coontz, professor of history and family studies at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., in an interview. "A big risk factor is marrying at a young age."

The author of several books, Coontz is co-chair and director of public education at the Council on Contemporary Families at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "The longer a woman postpones marriage into her early 30s decreases the chance of divorce," she said. "Marrying at an older age is a protective factor."

According to experts, several other factors affect the risk of divorce among heterosexual couples.

The level of education and income are closely intertwined. A few years ago, Kalman Heller, a psychologist who specializes in divorce, wrote a paper on divorce myths.

"No wonder the divorce rate in Massachusetts is the lowest in the country," he wrote. "[It has] the highest percentage of college graduates."

While there's a relationship between education levels and marriage longevity, toleration of diversity also is a factor, Coontz pointed out.

Not Religion, but Tolerance that Produces Stable Marriages

"The same things that produce higher acceptance of diversity are the things that tend to lower divorce rates," she explained. "This is one of the ironies. People who are higher educated and who have experience outside marriage because they have delayed getting married and have a higher degree of economic security and sophistication tend to be more acceptable of same-sex marriage and have lower divorce rates."

College graduates, of whom there are many more in the low-divorce states, have higher incomes, which tend to make marriages last. "Those in the South have much lower income and education levels," Coontz reported. "Low income is a stressor."

She said children are still a protective factor against divorcing, "but much less than it used to be."

Although there's a "big wave" of divorce among starter marriages (those with a duration of one or two years), there also are bumps around the eighth and 15th years, when children are teens. "Then, couples feel freer to divorce.

The one age group showing a dramatic surge in divorces is the over-50 crowd. "As more marriages last longer, there's a whole other group who have their kids raised and look forward now with medical advances of another 30 years of healthy living are unprepared to keep going," Coontz indicated.

"For couples who have grown apart or have simply put their differences on the back burner or are doing the parenting and not paying attention to their own relationship accounts for later-life divorces," she continued. "Knowing that pattern is a real wakeup call for parents to not do everything for the kids but to pay attention to their own relationship while they are doing things for the kids."

There Are Lessons Here for Same-Sex Spouses

Studies show that they are better at avoiding conflict and using humor and affection to repair relationships. "They don't take the arguments quite as personally as heterosexual couples," according to Coontz.

Conversely, if they don't have children, gay and lesbian couples may have more problems later in life because they don't have the security of being taken care of in old age. According to Gary Gates of the Williams Institute at the UCLA Law School and a leading researcher in the demography of U.S. LGBTs, only a third of lesbian couples and 10 to 15 percent of male couples have children.

In an interview, Gates reported that a 2010 survey showed about 50,000 couples in the U.S. have married. Adding another 30,000 who married outside the country brings the total to about 80,000.

Civil unions and domestic partnerships represent another 85,000. "Some of those, in fact, could be married," he cautioned. "We have no way to delineate. There may be some double counting."

Lately, Gates has been studying dissolutions of same-sex unions, but says it's too early to draw any conclusions. "I'm not aware of any data on married couples," he reported, but about 2 percent of those in civil unions and domestic partnerships have split.

"That's about the same as for heterosexual couples," he said. "A study in Europe suggested dissolutions were slightly higher and women had a higher rate, but we have not seen that pattern yet in the U.S."

Lesbians are more likely to be in a relationship, but gay male relationships last longer, according to Gates' research.

A study of California male couples showed that those not in a registered domestic partnership had an average duration of about 9.6 years. Among those in a domestic partnership, the figure rose to almost 12 years. For female couples, it was eight years and nine years respectively.

Gates' research challenges some assumptions about gay and lesbian couples. While males in same-sex couples have higher education levels than their straight counterparts, "they should earn a lot more, but they don't," he said.

About 46 percent of male and 44 percent of female couples have college degrees. About a third of married straight men and 31 percent of married women have degrees.

Census data show a mean household income of $120,000 for male and $95,600 for female same-sex couples, he reported. "But if you look at personal income it's about $68,000 for men and $51,500 for women."

The mean household income among straight married couples is $93,500 but personal income shows married men earning $61,000 and women $28,000.

Where same-sex couples live is a factor in how much they earn, Gates reported.

"Male couples are more likely to be urban," he pointed out. "Female couples are slightly more urban than straight couples. Men with two incomes who don't have children can better afford to live in cities."

Peter Cassels is a recipient of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association's Excellence in Journalism award. His e-mail address is [email protected].