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In Nebraska and U.S., ‘I do’ is becoming ‘maybe later’

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The search for a soul mate has taken its toll on marriage.

The number of people exchanging “I dos” in Nebraska has dropped to its lowest level since 1925, a trend that mirrors both national and global statistics as more people wait until later in life to tie the knot.

The marriage rate in Nebraska was 6.3 marriages per 1,000 population in 2013, according to the most recent statistics released by the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. That’s far below the peak rate of 14.3 in 1941.

Iowa’s marriage rate also has declined over the years and was as low as 6.5 marriages per 1,000 residents in 2008. Since then, however, it has risen a bit, to 7.4 in 2013.

The overall marriage trend reflects societal changes, including more women delaying marriage to pursue education and a career, and more couples choosing to live together without a legal commitment.

But sociologists say the decline also shows the evolution of marriage, with its economic basis — pooling resources to raise children and acquire income — giving ground to the quest for love and companionship.

“We expect a lot more out of marriage today than we did in the past. We expect our partners to be our soul mates, to be our best friends, to be the person who is the source of our personal fulfillment,” said David Warner, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “Historically, if you didn’t get married, you couldn’t survive. It’s sort of a shift from a ‘yoke mate’ to a ‘soul mate.’ ”

It’s a trend that has occurred around the world, particularly in developed nations. In fact, the marriage decline has been sharpest in Europe, where countries such as Italy and Belgium have some of the lowest rates of marriage worldwide. For example, Belgium’s marriage rate during the past decade was 4 per 1,000 population.

“The United States is extremely pro-marriage in comparison to other Western countries,” said Dan Hawkins, associate professor of sociology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “We get married more than other countries in Europe and Australia. In those countries, cohabiting really has replaced marriage.”

Nebraska’s numbers are slightly lower than the national marriage rate, which was 6.8 marriages per 1,000 in 2012.

Some of the biggest boom years for marriage were during World War II, when many couples got married before a prospective partner was shipped off to war. Some of those marriages did not survive. The divorce rate spiked sharply in 1946, after the war ended.

“Hasty marriages before the war,” Warner said. “The soldiers returned and they decided that was not a good idea.”

The marriage rate held strong during the 1950s, which many consider the Golden Age of marriage. The economy was strong, and more people could afford to marry and raise a generation of baby boomers.

“After going through a harrowing time, people became really pro-family,” Hawkins said. “And with the G.I. bill, people could afford to get a home and an education. There was an economic boom.”

The marriage rate held steady throughout the 1960s, with a brief spike in the early 1970s, until it began to steadily drop after 1972, as educational and career opportunities began to expand for women.

The drop can be attributed, in large part, to women who postponed marriage in order to finish school and embark upon a career.

It also came as societal norms began to change, and living together was seen as a viable option.

Over half of all marriages in Nebraska in 2013 included either a bride or a groom who were over 30 years of age — up from 40 percent in 1988.

“It’s now something you do after everything is in place,” Warner said. “After you’re sure that the one you’re going to marry is The One.”

Marriage may have evolved in America, but it is still highly prized, especially among middle-income people with college educations.

In the U.S., Warner said, about 85 percent of all adults will have married at least once in their lifetimes.

The big decline in marriage is among those in the lower-income bracket with a high school education or less. For them, a growing number are choosing to live with a partner outside of marriage.

Like their counterparts in upper-income brackets, low-income men and women do not want to marry until they are financially stable and until they find the right partner, said Julia McQuillan, a sociology professor at UNL.

One study indicated that low-income women place such a high value on marriage that they would prefer to live with someone rather than risk a divorce, she said.

“What the women told them (in this study) is that marriage is so important, you should do it right,” McQuillan said. “You should find someone you can trust and do it for life.”

Hawkins agreed with McQuillan, saying that some low-income women are having trouble finding marriageable material in their neighborhood.

“The men in their community, in their neighborhood, may not have stable jobs to support a family,” Hawkins said. “Again, they’re looking for the American dream just like everybody else, but they’re not ready to compromise on the marriage part of it, until they have (a good partner) in their sights.”

Contact the writer: 402-444-1309,


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