Marriage Customs in Idaho, Nation Changed Significantly Since 1960s

Since the 1960s, Idaho, like the rest of the United States, has seen dramatic changes in marriage customs. They, in turn, affect the makeup of households, which determines the strength of consumer spending, home stability for children and the educational attainment and size of the available workforce.


Attitudes toward marriage have changed dramatically in the past two or three decades.

While marriage once was a first step into adulthood, it now is one of the last steps. Andrew J. Cherlin, a professor of sociology and public policy at Johns Hopkins, wrote in an April 27, 2013, New York Times article that “marriage has become the capstone experience of personal life — the last brick put in place after everything else is set. … Young adults with greater earning potential, who can afford the capstone celebration, are still marrying in large numbers while those with poorer economic prospects are holding off. According to the National Center for Family and Marriage Research, 88 percent of 35- to 44-year-old women with four-year college degrees have married, compared with 79 percent of those without high-school diplomas. In fact, young adults without college degrees are increasingly likely to put off marriage and have their first children in cohabiting relationships, sometimes years before they marry. Nearly all of the increase in childbearing outside of marriage in the last two decades is from births to cohabiting couples, most without college degrees, rather than to single mothers.

“More than 90 percent of American women with four-year college degrees wait until after they are married to have children. … Moreover, their marriages are lasting longer — since 1980 the divorce rate has dropped faster for those with college degrees so that about one in six of their marriages ends in divorce in the first 10 years compared with nearly one in two marriages among people without high school degrees.”

The Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey found that those with no more than a high school diploma have experienced a steep decline in marriage during the past decade. In contrast, marriage rates have held fairly steady for those with at least a bachelor’s degree. For those with a high school diploma or less, the proportion of young adults 25 to 34 who are married dropped from 54 percent in 2000 to 44 percent in 2010. The percent married with at least a bachelor’s degree declined from 56 percent to 52 percent.

In 1965, 95 percent of young adults with a high school diploma or less were married compared with 76 of those with a bachelor’s degree or more.

At the same time, college-educated individuals are pursuing a new vision of marriage, according to some demographers. Richard V. Reese, the policy director for the Brookings Institution’s Center on Children and Families, said in a report earlier this year that the focus of their marriages is raising children. They engage in “high investment parenting,” where both parents commit to giving their children a lot of time, energy and money to help them develop their skills, knowledge and personalities.

“Married, well-educated parents are pouring time, money and energy into raising their children,” Reese wrote. “This is a group for whom parenting has become virtually a profession.”

Starting in the 1970s, several factors contributed to a steady decline in marriage including rising divorce rates, an increase in women’s educational attainment and labor force participation and a rise in cohabitation as an alternative or precursor to marriage.

While marriage rates have fallen in Idaho, they haven’t changed as dramatically as in the rest of the United States. According to the 2012 American Community Survey, 32.1 percent of Americans 20 to 34 were married, while 45.1 percent of Idahoans in the same age group were married.


The U.S. divorce rate peaked around 1980. For every cohort since, a greater proportion are reaching their 15th anniversaries, according to demographers.

Divorce rates in the U.S. increased from 10 per 1,000 married women in the 1880s to a peak of 24 per 1,000 after World War II. After falling to 15 per 1,000 in the 1950s, they rose to a record high of 40 per 1,000 in the late 1970s. In recent years, annual divorce rates have fallen to 20 per 1,000 married women.

In Idaho, the divorce rate showed a similar pattern. Because Idahoans tend to marry younger and there are proportionately more young adults in the Idaho population, Idaho’s divorce rate is somewhat higher than the nation’s since younger people are more likely to get divorces.

Graph 1

Even so, nearly one in two U.S. marriages breaks up eventually. Recent data from the Current Population Survey show that 52 percent of women’s first marriages survived 20 years. That was 56 percent for men.

About 55 percent of currently married couples in the U.S. have been married for at least 15 years while 35 percent have reached their 25th anniversary and 6 percent have passed their golden wedding anniversary, according to the Census Bureau’s Survey of Income and Program Participation. These percentages are about one to two points higher than they were in 1996, reflecting both the leveling of divorce rates and increases in life expectancy. The median duration of marriages in Idaho in 2012 was 18.2 years.

Divorce appears to be becoming more uncommon for younger Americans. That may be partly because people are waiting longer to get married, and cohabitation is on the rise. In the 1970s, a couple might get married and be divorced a few years later. But today, that same couple would be more likely to simply live together for a while and then head their separate ways. In addition, marrying at an older age is associated with lower divorce rates. Today’s young adults were “children of divorce” – the generation most affected in the peak divorce period around 1980 – and they do not want to expose their children to divorce.

After the recession began seven years ago, divorce rates fell sharply. That may reflect a changing demographic trend but more likely is the normal response to a recession. People cannot afford to break up when one or both are unemployed or might become unemployed.

Divorce rates tend to be lowest for the college-educated population. According to a 2010 study by the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, only 11 percent of college-educated Americans divorce within the first 10 years today compared with 37 percent of the rest of the population.

In 2009, according to the American Community Survey, the median age of an Idahoan who had divorced in the previous 12 months was 40.3 while the median age of an Idahoan who had married in the previous 12 months was 26.5.

In 2011, 7,773 divorces were granted to residents of Idaho, according to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare’s vital statistics report. The median duration of a marriage that ended in divorce that year was 6.3 years. About 37.1 percent lasted less than five years while 13.2 percent lasted more than 20 years.

Table 1

The length of time divorced individuals remain unmarried is increasing. In 1970, the median time between divorce and remarriage was about one year. By 1988, this interval had increased to about two and a half years. In 2007, it was 3.6 years.

During the first several years of marriage, the rate of divorce for remarriages is substantially higher than for first marriages. Afterward, the rates are similar.

Till Death Do Us Part

Wives are more than twice as likely to survive their husbands. In 2012, 3,770 Idaho women lost their husbands while 1,709 Idaho men lost their wives, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. In addition, men are slightly more likely to marry when they lose a spouse. In 2012, 10.4 percent of Idaho men 65 and over were widowers, while 34.7 percent of Idaho women in the same age group were widows.

Fewer Adults Are Currently Married

The percentage of the population 15 and older that is currently married is at a record low in the U.S. Idaho also has seen a marked decrease in recent decades for similar reasons:

  • The sharp increase in the age at which people are marrying,
  • The surge in the population 65 years and over where many people are widowed,
  • The increase in the never-married population, and
  • The increase in divorces since the 1950s.

Idahoans still are more likely to be married at any age than other Americans.

Table 2

The increase in the never-married population is reflected in the increased percentage of women 35 to 44 who have never been married.

Graph 2


Many people classified as single are actually in cohabiting relationships with opposite- or same-sex partners. In fact, the decline in marriage over the past few decades has been accompanied by a rapid increase in the number of cohabiting couples. The percentage of cohabitating households increased dramatically from 1 percent in 1970 to 6 percent today. In 2012, according to the American Community Survey, 5.8 percent of Idaho household were led by unmarried partners. Between 2000 and 2012, the number of cohabiting male-female partnerships in Idaho grew 66 percent from 19,070 to 31,653, according to the American Community Survey.

Cohabitation is growing fastest among high school graduates with children. Their share of cohabiting households grew from 23 percent to 32 percent while the share for those with four-year college degrees grew from 3 percent to 5 percent, according to information in a Washington Post story.

The National Survey of Family Growth, conducted by National Center for Health Statistics in 2006-2010, found that 20 percent of women without a high school diploma or equivalents were currently cohabiting compared with 6.8 percent of women with bachelor’s degrees.

“Shotgun weddings” have been replaced by cohabitation. About 18.1 percent of all single women who became pregnant opted to move in with their boyfriends before the child was born, while 5.3 percent chose to marry, according to 2006-2010 data from the National Survey of Family Growth. As recently as the early 1990s, 25 percent of such couples got married., regional economist
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