One reason for the increase, said demographers and sociologists who study families, is that people are marrying later in life, after they have completed their education. Not only are they more mature, but they also are more financially secure.
“People seem to be finding a new marriage bargain that works for 21st-century couples,” said Andrew Cherlin, a Johns Hopkins University sociologist who studies families. “It’s based on pooling two incomes, replacing the old breadwinner-homemaker bargain that worked well in the ’50s.”
Researchers increasingly are finding a connection between marriage and education. In 2009, 31 percent of brides had a college degree, up from 21 percent in 1996.
“Marriage has become a much more selective institution in today’s society,” said W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. “People who are college-educated, more affluent or more religious are more likely to get married and stay married. People who are not are less likely to get married in the first place, and if they do marry, they’re more likely to divorce.”
The Marriage Project has found that people without a college degree are three times as likely to divorce in the first 10 years as those with a college degree.
“The odds of getting divorced are much lower for educated and affluent Americans, the escapades of Schwarzenegger and John Ensign notwithstanding,” Wilcox said, referring to the former governor of California and the former senator from Nevada.
Most Americans marry once and stick to it.
According to the census statistics, more than half of the nation’s married couples have been together at least 15 years. About a third have marked their 25th anniversaries, and 6 percent have been married more than 50 years.
Tom Ruggieri, who met his wife in college, has been married for 30 years. In his family, long marriages are the norm. His parents have been married for 65 years, and his wife’s parents wed 55 years ago.
“That model really does have an impact,” said Ruggieri, the head of the employee assistance program at the University of Maryland who often counsels couples in his private practice. “I think people who come from a divorced family haven’t always seen parents work stuff out. Their model is, if people fight and they can’t agree, the marriage ends. So they’re afraid to fight and disagree. You can’t have a marriage without disagreement.”
Nationwide, divorce rates have leveled off since peaking in the 1980s. Roughly four in 10 marriages end in divorce. But the rate varies significantly among different races and ethnicities.
Among black women, half of first marriages end in divorce, a rate that is far greater those for white, Hispanic and Asian women.
Couples who split seem to recognize their marriage isn’t working long before they get to a landmark anniversary. Most had divorced within eight years of their wedding.
Nearly a third of adults never marry at all. That number has marched upward in every age group over the past decade and a half.
In 1986, one in four people ages 25 to 29 had never married. In 2009, that was true of almost half in that age group. The number of adults 50 to 54 who have never married also jumped during the same time period to one in 10.
As with divorce, marriage rates vary with race and ethnicity. Seven out of 10 black women in their 20s have never married, a dramatic increase from the mid-1980s.
Census demographers noted that the percentage of never-married black women 55 and older rose to 13 percent in 2009. The magnitude of the change suggests that many more black women than white women will never marry, the report said.
The census also showed that a higher proportion of people who have married recently are Hispanic, which is the fastest-growing minority group in the country. In 1996, about one in 10 recently married adults was Hispanic. By 2009, it had increased to one in five.
“The differences between blacks and whites and Hispanics are changing the landscape of marriage,” said Renee Ellis, a Census Bureau demographer who worked on the report.
More from the Washington Post:
Same-sex couples lead to marriage licenses doubling
More U.S. women pull down the big bucks
Study: Couples who share religious practices tend to be happier
Estranged spouses increasingly waiting out downturn to divorce
DataPost: Census & Demographics