Can where you live affect your marriage's survival? Where should you locate if you want yours to last forever? Which places are hazardous to marital health? Would conjugal life in a vine-covered Kokomo cottage be more secure than in Chevy Chase?
Prince Charming's palace, of course, may be the only address guaranteed to produce marital happy everafter. But the nation's divorce patterns reflect community values, which could affect your union's longevity. "It's not geography, but the kind of people in a place," says University of Arizona sociologist Paul Glick, co-author of Marriage and Divorce: A Social and Economic Study (Harvard University Press, 1976). Glick says proximity to others' attitudes about divorce can influence one's own.
"The people we consult about divorce decisions can tell us they don't see why we stick with a marriage, or that we'll just have to put up with it," says Glenn Harper, a University of Maryland sociologist. "The kind of consulting available to us in a place can facilitate divorce . . . "
But don't load up the van just yet. The Census Bureau's latest divorce rate data (from its soon-to-be-published State and Metropolitan Area Data Book, 1986) shows metropolitan Washington, D.C. (4.4), with a below-national-average rating (4.9) -- lower than Peoria, Burlington or even Jerry Falwell's Lynchburg. Prince George's County has the immediate region's lowest rate (3.4), Alexandria its highest (6.0).
And the most recent provisional figures from the National Center for Health Statistics confirm a longstanding pattern: Marital splits occur most often in the West, least often in the East. Farm Belt statistics support Harper's and Glick's view that rural Americans stay married more than urbanites.
"With urban areas, there's a wider variety of people," says Harper. "Kids may marry people from different backgrounds and values, different ways of handling finances. There's more chance to be mismatched."
Glick says a locale's size is a more significant factor in divorce than region of the country, and in small farm communities there's more social pressure to stay married.
But would your marriage thrive down on the farm?
"You should avoid encouraging a Washington couple to move to the country to save their marriage," warns Johns Hopkins sociologist Andrew Cherlin, author of Marriage, Divorce, Remarriage (Harvard University Press, 1981). "The people in rural areas have lots of roots and community ties, plus values are different. For another thing, there's less money."
Marriage counselors, psychologists and sociologists around the country repeatedly cite financial problems to explain both why people remain married and why they split up. Some experts say hard times in a locale increase family unity -- or make divorce an unaffordable luxury. Others -- particularly in the depressed Southwest -- say the shattered expectations of recent migrants who hoped to strike it rich in the oil industry have also shattered marriages.
Which places, then, would offer your marriage the most support? Or, if your union is a bit wobbly, might stress it to the breaking point?
By comparing Census Bureau divorce rates for the nation's 275 metropolitan areas, and National Center for Health Statistics data on the states, and by interviewing marital experts around the country, specific locales (excluding divorce mecca Nevada) have been singled out as the country's 10 best and 10 worst bets for marital longevity. (Rankings are based on a locale's number of divorces per 1,000 population, and may include annulments and legal separations.)
Thus, Maryland residents should consider staying put. Both the Free State and its northwest city of Cumberland rank among America's 10 lowest divorce rate states and metropolitan areas.
Four Pennsylvania areas show up among the nation's lowest divorce rate locales. Rep. Gus Yatron (D-Pa.) represents Reading, one of the four.
"Traditions still play a very important role for people in Reading," says the Greek-Orthodox Yatron, married 38 years to wife Millie. "Families are extended and relatives maintain close ties. They usually see each other often and sometimes live on the same street or around the corner . . . Many strong cultural, ethnic and social forces are at work throughout Pennsylvania."
Massachusetts, New York and Connecticut are also good bets. Sociologists say the heavy Catholic, Jewish and immigrant populations of New England and the Northeast help keep divorce rates low.
"On the East Coast," says Harper, "there tend to be more established, stable interactions between lifetime peers," than out West.
Barbara Foley Wilson, a marriage and divorce statistics analyst for the Department of Health and Human Services, says people in the Northeast tend to marry later, Catholics and Jews tend to marry later, and later marriages result less often in divorce. "Plus immigrants seem to not be as Americanized to divorce as much."
Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa are also among those enjoying low divorce rates.
"South Dakota gave me two great kids and a good marriage," says Lee Edel, a special assistant to South Dakota Rep. Thomas Daschle (D). She attributes the state's low divorce rate to its rural character, and the importance of church in local life.
"Farming is a husband and wife venture," says Edel. "Husbands and wives who farm earn a lot of respect from each other. They're up at dawn and work till late at night, and lean on each other for support."
A Washington couple might find South Dakota's relative lack of museums and big-name concerts a drawback, says Edel, but camping and "tubing" -- riding down snowy hills on big truck inner tubes tied together -- are the kinds of diversions families enjoy together.
But Edel says she's afraid the farm crisis will eventually show up in divorce statistics, and that it is taking a toll on farm marriages.
Small-town Iowa, with its picture-book pretty white houses, is nestled deep in the American dream of Middle American family values. With agricultural families, says Dubuque psychologist Paul Schroeder, "sometimes adversity leads to togetherness. Their working together in running the farm creates cohesiveness within the family. There's a sense of rootedness here, lots of contact and social life within the extended family."
Psychologists say the breaking of such ties creates marital stress, which can culminate in divorce. Moving in itself can tax a relationship.
Those who in the last decade left the depressed eastern rust-belt states looking for work in the energy-rich Sun Belt now face massive job layoffs there, and the decline in energy prices, which led to such unemployment has added, say marriage counselors, to the West's traditionally high incidence of divorce.
Closer to home, several southern states rank among the nation's top divorce 10.
HHS statistician Barbara Wilson says that in Tennessee and Arkansas, people marry younger than in the Northeast, which helps account for those states' high divorce rates.
(An amateur observation: The Nashville phone book contains fewer than two pages under the heading "marriage counselors" and nine pages under "massage," led off by the AAABBA Escort Service.)
Sociologist Glick attributes Florida's high divorce figures to its attraction for migrants. (Another amateur observation: Has Don Johnson made Florida women's expectations too high?)
If you're harboring romantic fantasies about moonlight on the Wabash, carry a marital life preserver with you to Indiana. Kokomo and Anderson are among the country's highest divorce rate areas, and Indianapolis ranks high among America's largest metropolitan areas.
Madeline Hendricks, a Kokomo teacher who works with a family counseling agency there, says high unemployment in her community has stressed marriages.
Lawton, Okla., leads the country in divorce rates (after Las Vegas and Reno, Nev., metropolitan areas).
*"It's a stressful place to live," says Lawton native Jim Johnson, a clinical social worker there. "You've got weather extremes -- it was 110 degrees 40 days in a row one summer, and you get bitterly cold winters -- and economic extremes, too. Oklahoma's always been a boom-or-bust state. And booms can create as much stress as busts."
Johnson points out that southwest Oklahoma was settled by tough and independent cattle ranchers and Indian fighters. And Oklahomans traditionally have trouble admitting they might need help with problems, he says, sometimes choosing their marriage counselors by how well they can hide their cars in the neighborhood.
Johnson says a transplanted Washington couple might indeed find Lawton hazardous to their marital health, also because of its lack of cultural distractions.
"My wife and I like to go ballroom dancing," he says. "We have to drive 98 miles to find a ballroom."
Texas doesn't look so great for marriage, either. With a 6.1 divorce rate, the Lone Star State ranks 11th highest in the nation. The rates of some of its major metropolitan areas -- Dallas-Fort Worth (7.3), Houston-Galveston-Brazoria (7.2), and San Antonio (6.8) -- are high compared to other big urban locales. (The Los Angeles area, for instance, shows a 5.0 rate; Chicago a 4.1.; and the New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island region a mere 3.6.)
"People have an image of Texas as fun, bigness, money -- of great things happening," says Houston marriage counselor Charlene Torrest. "The reality is not as spectacular. They expect too much and their image is disappointed."
"In Houston and Dallas, there's lots of flux," says Theodore Greenstein, a University of Texas sociologist who has written on divorce for the Journal of Family Issues.
"It's a rootless area. The suicide rates are high; there's much instability and change. People come to Texas with big expectations. . . . When those expectations aren't realized, you may get drug abuse, divorce, more suicide."
However, two smaller Texas locales -- Laredo (.1) and the McAllen-Edinburg-Mission area (.4) -- show the nation's lowest urban divorce rates.
University of Wyoming counseling instructor Patricia Boyer says high unemployment and stressful jobs fuel her state's high incidence of divorce.
"Some of the energy industry jobs require incredible hours away from the family. Some of these oil wells are pretty far away from where people live, and you've got to stay out there for days until the well comes in."
Sociologist Glick says his own state of Arizona and neighboring New Mexico have lots of migrants from other areas, and a low commitment to churches compared to an area like the Midwest.
The lure of the Alaskan frontier has brought that state an influx of dreamers. But Seward's ice box seems to put the big chill on marriage. After Nevada, Alaska tops the list of high divorce states. Sociologist Harper says shattered high expectations are to blame.
"Alaska's almost like a gold-mine attraction," he says. "There are a lot of young people there to make their careers and life fortunes. But there's also a lot of stress. The cost of living is high and there are lots of frustrations."