Sunday, December 17, 2000

I Do, I Don't


Marriages are down; so are divorces.
The impact of change is profound.


By Richelle Thompson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        This is marriage in Cincinnati today:

        • Fewer people say “I do” than did 20 years ago — and far fewer people divorce.

        • People wait until their late 20s and early 30s to exchange vows, resulting in a stunning 85 percent drop in teen marriages.

[photo] First of five parts
Monday: Couples wait longer to marry
Tuesday: Immigration increases diversity
Wednesday: Some couples marry each other twice
Thursday: What's the most popular marriage month?

        • More than half the women who had babies in 1998 did it alone — forgoing marriage altogether.

        An Enquirer analysis of more than 14,000 Hamilton County marriage licenses in 1979 and 1999 reveals a dramatic shift in when and if people decide to enter the state of matrimony. At a time when family values top social and political agendas, the city that prides itself as a family kind of place is undergoing profound change.

        The analysis — the first of its kind in Hamilton County — found marriage rates fell 23 percent in two decades, compared to a 20-percent national decline. Divorce dropped 45 percent, three times faster than the decline nationally.

        These changing marriage patterns redefine the concept of the modern family in our neighborhoods and impact almost every part of our lives, from health and childcare to consumer spending and poverty levels.


[photo] Stoney and Bridget Scales, married one year.
   Like many young adults, the Kennedy Heights couple focused on their careers and establishing financial security before getting married. She says marriage is one of many options for her generation. She encourages people to experience the world before marriage, and believes maintaining a sense of independence after the wedding is a key to a healthy relationship. A child of divorced parents, he says he wouldn't have married if he considered divorce an option. “If you get married, and you even know the term "divorce,' it's like there's a back door. Here, the backdoor is locked.”

[photo] Deborah Owsley and son Edward, unmarried
   The Springfield Township woman discovered she was pregnant at age 39 and two months into a new relationship. She decided it was too early to marry. Like an increasing number of women, she says she didn't think she should get married just because she was pregnant. More than half the children born in Cincinnati in 1998 — and 40 percent in Hamilton County — came home to single mothers. “It was a conscious decision not to get married... I thought, "I can handle this.' Sure, it wasn't going to be easy. I was just willing to do it.”

[photo] Vernon and Barbara Hawkins, married 25 years
    The Woodlawn couple married a few years before the height of divorce in the early 1980s. In two decades, the divorce rate in Hamilton County has dropped 45 percent. The Hawkins celebrated their 25th anniversary Nov. 27. She's seen young people struggle with whether to exchange vows and how to sustain a marriage. Her advice for a successful marriage: “You really have to stay friends while you're being lovers for all those years.” She also follows words of wisdom from her grandmother. “Never go to sleep angry. You've always got to be able to say, "I'm sorry.' One of you might not wake up.”

[photo] Craig and Traci Abercrombie, married April 10, 1999
    The Colerain Township couple grew up surrounded by divorce. Many of their friends had divorced parents. So did Traci. Couples like the Abercrombies say they're more determined than ever to make their marriages work. She says, “We work it out by talking it out.” Still, the couple says they've already seen divorce hit their own generation. “It's hard for us to take,” says Craig. “I thought out generation would be different . . . because they had seen what happened with their parents.”

[photo] Dick and Joan Maier, married 49 years
    The Park Hills couple has seven children and 17 grandchildren. They have counseled newly-engaged couples in their church and seen some of the changes in attitudes toward marriage. Young people think of marriage “as moonlight and roses,” he says. “Sometimes it's dusk and dandelions.” But those times pass, he says. “There's never been any question between us of our love for each other.” She says it wasn't always easy. “You just knew you had to stay together, to depend on each other. Divorce wasn't an option.”

        “We're in the middle of a massive shift about what marriage means and what role it plays in people's lives,” says Dorian Solot, executive director of the Boston-based Alternatives to Marriage Project.

        “Images we have of what adult life is about often center on marriage,” she says. But as Americans increasingly postpone marriage — or skip it entirely — “we need to update these visions of adulthood.”
       

"Emerging adulthood'
       
Jennifer Suder's wedding was rich with tradition. She walked down the aisle Dec. 9 in a flowing white dress. She exchanged vows with Brian Frye, promising to love and honor, for richer and for poorer. The Miamitown couple celebrated with 300 of their family, friends and co-workers. The next day, they headed off for a honeymoon in the tropics.

        But like many of her peers today, Jennifer Suder Frye breaks with tradition as well.

        Mrs. Frye is 27, 3 1/2 years older than the average first-time bride in 1979. Before she married, she wanted to finish a paramedic class and feel secure in her job.

        “I'm glad I'm a bit older getting married,” she says. “We're both established in our careers. Our personalities are more established.”

        Mr. Frye adds: “We're not wet behind the ears.”

        The Enquirer's analysis found only 64 of 5,781 marriages in 1999 involved teens 15 to 19 years old. That's an 85 percent drop in two decades.

        Instead, many young adults across Hamilton County are postponing — or even shunning — marriage to compete in the work force. The changing labor market requires young adults to have more education, skills and work experience than previous generations to snag the best-paying jobs. They put in longer hours and frequently job-hop to the next bigger and better position.

        Dramatic changes in the lives of women also account for the shift in marital trends. Accessible contraception means they can delay pregnancy. More women than ever work outside the home, giving them financial success and stability that marriage formerly provided.

        Women don't have to marry to have the money to buy a house and car or even to raise a child. They're earning it themselves.

        “Women don't want some guy who's a slob who just brings home the bacon. Women don't have to put with that kind of guy today,” says Dr. David Popenoe, a sociology professor and co-director of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University in New York.

        As a result, the average age of a groom in Hamilton County last year was 33, up 4 1/2 years from 1979. Brides were an average of 31 years old, also a 4 1/2-year jump during the same period. First-time brides and grooms waited an average of four years longer.

        Marriage isn't what it used to be, says Barbara Hawkins, 62, of Woodlawn. She and her husband, Vernon, celebrated their 25th anniversary last month.

        “A lot of the young people don't even want to get married anymore,” Mrs. Hawkins says. “They value careers, and their freedom of coming and going. Some don't want to commit for the rest of their life.”

        Some psychologists have coined a phrase, “emerging adulthood,” to mean the time between living with your parents and running your own family.

        In 1950, only 2 percent of young adults 18 to 29 were not living within a family. Today it's closer to 25 percent.

        Stoney Scales of Kennedy Heights got married last year for the first time at age 36.

        In his 20s, marriage wasn't a priority; climbing the corporate ladder was. Like a nomad, Mr. Scales moved often to seize new employment opportunities and propel his career.

        When Mr. Scales came to Cincinnati for a marketing research position, he was 31 and never married.

        That was when he started to take stock of his life.

        “You begin to look at what you are chasing, and are you ever going to catch it,” Mr. Scales says.

        He met Bridget Kelly at a Mount Adams bar, and they began dating. A teacher at a private school, Bridget wasn't ready to get married — even though she was interested in Stoney.

        Top priority was finishing a master's degree in education and obtaining a Montessori certificate. She wanted to be established in her career and to follow her parents' advice.

        “They always said, "Go out and experience everything first,'” says Mrs. Scales, now 31. “You can still get married, but explore everything first.”
       

"Living together'
        Today the majority of couples who marry lived together first, says Dr. Steven Nock, a sociologist and statistician at the University of Virginia in Charlottsville.

        Census figures show cohabitation increased 164 percent since 1980. To better track the numbers, the census bureau added to its 1990 form a circle for unmarried partner.

        Young people are more realistic than their parents about the chances of a successful marriage, says Ms. Solot of Alternatives to Marriage.

        “They want to enter into marriages with care,” she says. “I think unmarried relationships are a way of slowing things down and making sure you're not rushing into something prematurely.”

        As a result, cohabitation has evolved into a major trend, Ms. Solot says.

        “There's a recognition that you don't need to be married to have a healthy or fulfilling life,” she says. “People see marriage isn't a magic cloak they can put on and be protected.”

        The Enquirer surveyed Xavier University students taking a course on marriage and family. Three-quarters of the 53 students who responded said they would consider living with an unmarried partner. Only seven felt living together was morally wrong.

        The students primarily were 19, 20 or 21 years old.

        Just under half of the students said living together is a good way to test whether a marriage will work. Experts say the notion of “trying out” a marriage is driving much of the increase in cohabitation.

        But Dr. Nock says it's a risky strategy.

        “There's no debate among anybody who does research ... living together increases chances for divorce,” he says. The most conservative estimates show people who live together before marrying are three times as likely to divorce than those who do not cohabit.

        The question researchers are still trying to determine, Dr. Nock says, is whether “people who live together also tend to divorce or does living together precipitate divorce?”

        Andrea Queale, 30, of St. Bernard believes a relationship should move from dating to living together to marriage. She thinks such a progression may eventually drive down divorce rates.

        “When you're dating, you're kind of on your best behavior,” says Mrs. Queale, 30. “It's hard to be on your best behavior 24/7. Your (true self) is gonna shine through.”

        The Scales lived together first — but for different reasons.

        For Bridget, it was a matter of convenience. They planned to marry. Living together simply gave them the opportunity to save money for the wedding and finish schooling.

        For Stoney, the issue was compatibility.

        “In order for me to totally commit, I have to know who (the person) is all the time, not just for a nice little visit,” Mr. Scales says.

        When they moved in, they discovered differences: He likes a baking-soda brand of toothpaste; she leaves a messy cap. But they found they not only loved each other, but they also could live with each other, an important distinction, Mr. Scales says.

        “Everyone's not compatible, even if they love each other.”

        Mrs. Gallagher strongly advocates marriage over cohabitation. Because of the sense of permanence intrinsic in marriage, couples can plan for a future, mesh their finances and share expectations of faithfulness and fidelity, she says.

        “When they're not marrying, they're holding out the possibility that someone else may come along,” Mrs. Gallagher says.
       

Single mothers
       

        When Deborah Owsley got pregnant, she thought about marriage. Then she dismissed it. It's not that the Springfield Township woman wouldn't prefer having a husband, but it hasn't worked out, she says.

        “I thought, "I can handle this.' Sure, it wasn't going to be easy. I was just willing to do it,” says Ms. Owsley, 42, a human resources professional. “I'm secure in who I am. I make a decent living, maybe not tons of money, but I can take care of a child.”

        In Hamilton County, 40 percent of the children born in 1998 were to unwed mothers. In the city of Cincinnati, the percentage was 58. And it's not teen pregnancy driving the increase. In Cincinnati, unwed mothers in 1979 accounted for only 23 percent of all mothers ages 22 to 34. By 1998, 45 percent of mothers ages 22 to 34 were unwed.

        Some women, like Ms. Owsley, make the choice to become a single mother. For others, it's a matter of chance, the result of a reluctant or absent father.

        What is clear is that marriage is less tied to child-rearing today than in the past. In the 1930s, if you conceived a child out of wedlock, you got married. Today, that's not a given. A 1999 U.S. Census report says the percentage of children conceived out of wedlock was nearly the same in the 1930s as in the 1990s. The difference: Children born out of wedlock increased fivefold.

        The combination of out-of-wedlock births and divorces translates into nearly 50 percent of white children and two-thirds of African-American children who are likely to spend some part of their childhood in a single-parent family, according to a report in the November edition of the Journal of Marriage and the Family. The latest census figures show nearly a third of children live with a single parent.

        As the number of single mothers increases, Dr. Nock forecasts a rise in poverty rates.

        “Divorce is one of the leading causes of poverty, along with out-of-wedlock births,” he says.

        In the census bureau's annual poverty report, 28 percent of female-headed households fall under national poverty guidelines. Nearly one in five children under the age of 18 also lives in poverty, figures show.

        For her book, Mrs. Gallagher interviewed several unwed mothers under the age of 25.

        “They all wanted to get married,” she says. “They just didn't see that a baby is a good reason to get married.”

        Women are marrying more for love than need, says Andrea Engber, who founded the National Organization of Single Mothers in 1991 in North Carolina.

        “Rather than settling for Mr. Adequate, women are waiting for Mr. Right,” Ms. Engber says. Women don't want to take care of an immature husband and a newborn baby.
       

Changing families
        The combination of postponing marriage, living together and having children out-of-wedlock has spurred tremendous change in the dynamics of the American family.

        Ms. Owsley struggles with “the storybook view of two parents, two kids and a dog.”

        She says, “I have to think of my unit as a family and not get so hung up on what is and what isn't. I need to instill the confidence that we are a family — even though it doesn't have all the players the media and world think it should.”

        As the family changes, Ms. Owsley believes attitudes should follow.

        “Let's recognize that there are different types of families, instead of saying it should always be this way,” she says. “I wish, in the perfect world, people wouldn't judge single parents.”

        Ms. Solot calls for new legislation to reflect changing families. Unmarried couples need protection from discrimination, she says. Health care is difficult to obtain for men and women who live together and, in many areas, landlords legally can refuse to rent to unmarried couples.

        “In this most recent presidential campaign, I heard a lot of talk about families,” Ms. Solot says. “We need to rewrite our definitions of family, given that a smaller and smaller percentage of families are structured around marriage.”

        A shift toward fewer married couples could alter the political landscape, Dr. Nock says. Married people tend to be more conservative. Consider the presidential election. A Portrait of America exit poll showed married voters leaned toward George W. Bush while single voters chose Al Gore.

        Already, today there are more singles in the population than ever before, Dr. Nock says.

        In 1960, three out of four households contained a married couple. Today, it's little more than half. The rate of American households with single men or women has risen from 26 to 31 percent from 1980 to 1997.

        In a society with a growing number of childless singles, it could be harder to get a school levy passed, Dr. Popenoe says. It stands to reason, he says, that the fewer people with families, the less the concern about children. Likewise, legislation on child safety or school reform might have a lower priority.

        Shifts in marriage trends also could affect consumer spending and the economy, says Dr. George Vredeveld, director of the University of Cincinnati's Center for Economic Education.

        Single people tend to spend more on leisure activities. They go out to eat more often, to the movies, to the theater. Even housing demands could be affected.

        “Non-married people would tend to opt for a different kind of housing, smaller housing, than the Brady Bunch would,” he says.

        The economy could even have a role in the lowered marriage rate, Dr. Vredeveld contends.

        “Marriage might be more than love and companionship,” he says “There is a good economic basis for marriage.”

        Married people enjoy the fruits of economies of scale — they pay one mortgage, water, telephone, cable and electric bill.

        “I'm confident that a more affluent society gives people more flexibility in their choice of lifestyle,” he says.

        Dr. Vredeveld theorizes a long-term recession could cause the marriage rate to spike upward; continued affluence could propel the current trend.
       

Public health issue
       

        Politicians should view marriage as a public health issue, Dr. Nock says.

        “For every three divorces, there's one new family created in poverty. The average duration of poverty is about seven months,” he says. “Someone has to pick up the costs of all those people who fall below the poverty level.”

        Married couples have the opposite effect on society, he says. They tend to make more money and save more, which means they also pay more taxes.

        A few states already recognize the cost of divorce and are working to shore up marriage. Arizona and Louisiana have had laws since 1998 that require couples to decide before marriage what type of divorce they would be eligible to file.

        Couples can choose a “covenant” marriage, which means that should they opt for divorce, they would have to prove fault or specific wrongdoing. Otherwise, couples can choose no-fault divorce, an easier process to terminate a marriage.

        Florida passed a Marriage and Preservation Act in 1998, which requires high school students to take a marriage skills and education course, Ms. Sollee says. Couples who have taken the course also get a discount on their marriage???? license.

        Oklahoma set aside $10 million of its state surplus this year for projects and institutions that support marriage, and Arizona in April approved a $1 million initiative for community-based education programs.

        There are no similar proposals in Ohio, Kentucky or Indiana, says Ms. Sollee, whose organization tracks marriage initiatives throughout the country.
       

The intangibles
       
Beyond the economic and political impact are intangible benefits of marriage.

        For the Maiers, it's completing each other's thoughts, a shared history and an extended family that fills the backyard when they gather together.

        The joy for the Abercrombies is planning a future together, looking toward the days when their Colerain Township house is filled with the sounds of children giggling.

        For Jennifer and Brian Frye, who exchanged vows a week ago, marriage consumated 18 months of friendship and love.

        “I've very old-fashioned,” says Mr. Frye, his arm draped around his bride. “This is a one-time thing. There is no divorce. Forever's a very long time.”

        As views on marriage continue to shift, Dr. Nock says some of these intangible benefits may be at risk. He points to numerous studies that show married people generally tend to be happier, live longer, and are less likely to commit crimes. The same is true for the children raised by married parents, he says.

        “If society goes from being one with more marriages to one where there's less, then you're likely to see a little more poverty and an increase in health problems,” he says. “You could probably expect to see more unemployment, less earnings and less educational attainment.”

        If the trends continue, the United States could head in the direction of Europe, Dr. Poponoe says. There will be fewer marriages, more cohabitation and lower birth rates.

        Still, “we can't really know what the effect will be on human lives,” he says.

        Dr. Robert Emery, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Children, Families and the Law, maps the benefits and the downsides to the marriage trends.

        Changing attitudes toward marriage afford more opportunity to escape an unfulfilling relationship and allow people to assume different roles in life, including unmarried partner, single parent or spouse.

        On the downside, he says, unmarried couples can expect to face more economic troubles, and children often face more struggles.

        “It's not the end of society or the downfall of society,” Dr. Emery says. “It's a change in practice and tradition, a change in values.”
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