Nebraskans are still saying “I do.” But not as often as they used to. From 2008 to 2011, there was a 20 percent decline in marriages in Nebraska. But that’s not the only change happening in Nebraska’s marriage landscape.
First, the decline. In 2008, Nebraska had about 25 marriages for every thousand people. By 2011, 20 for every thousand. That’s almost a 20 percent drop.
“We have seen a pullback in our marriage rate among those people in their early 20’s,” said David Drozd, a census expert and research coordinator at the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Center for Public Affairs Research. “That makes a little bit of sense given if job prospects might not be quite as hot today as what they would have been five years ago before the recession started.”
This makes sense. Marriages were down nationally during the economic downturn. But what doesn’t make sense is why Nebraska, impacted by the recession less than many other states, would see a marriage decline that’s double the national average.
Marriage Rates in Nebraska and Neighboring States (per 1,000 people)
* Nebraska's marriage rate was 7th highest in the United States in 2008; 11th highest in 2011.
Source: U.S. Census Bureau American Community Surveys, compiled by Davd Drozd (UNO Center for Public Affairs Research)
“It’s an interesting juxtaposition between those two that we did hold up relatively well but like everywhere else we did see some pressures among income levels and our unemployment rate did go up even though it’s still a relatively low level nationally,” Drozd said. “So it is interesting that our marriage rate pulled back more than some other states. That could be in part due to the fact that we were really high to begin with. In 2008, we had about the seventh highest marriage rate nationally, so it’s hard to continue at a high level and easier to have a fallback from those high levels than when you have a state where marriage events aren’t quite as common. That would be a question worthy of a little more research but it is apparent in the data.”
But there are other marriage trends. Judy Prokop owns Bridal Traditions in Omaha, where 75 percent of her business is selling wedding dresses. When she got started here 16 years ago, Prokop said the average age of brides was around 22-years-old. That has changed.
“I would say between 25 and 27,” Prokop said. “Most of them have graduated from college and have been working for a couple of years at least.”
“The general trend has been that people are delaying marriage so people are waiting to get married at older ages,” added David Warner, an assistant professor of sociology, and marriage and family expert at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “Right now the average age of marriage for women is about 27 and for men it’s about 29, so that’s a pretty long time to wait. That’s about equivalent to what it was at the turn of the 20thCentury, when we had a very different economy.”
Warner said there are a number of reasons for today’s trend toward older brides and grooms.
“The biggest thing is people are getting more educated so they’re staying in school longer,” Warner said. “They’re waiting to complete that. After that’s completed, after they’ve got their first job, then they get married. We make sure we’ve got everything else in place and then we get married.”
But Warner said there are also more socially acceptable alternatives to marriage than in the past.
“It’s much more acceptable to live in cohabiting relationships without being married,” Warner said. “Marriage doesn’t really organize the life course the way it did in the past. Historically, getting married was a sign of adulthood and being married was really important for how we structured our lives. Today, that’s not the case. Marriage is an add-on. It’s a bonus. It’s a way for us to seek personal fulfillment rather than social positioning.”
Steve Walters agrees couples are waiting longer, until they’re more established in life. He sees these trends first hand. His job at Christ Community Church in Omaha is pastoral care, which means working with couples and coordinating everything related to marriage, including premarital counseling, weddings and marriage counseling.
“Our goal is for them to have a resilient marriage, a marriage that can absorb the hits of life,” Walters said.
Christ Community Church serves thousands of people on multiple campuses and online, so Walters has plenty on his plate, including an increasing number of couples seeking counseling before they get married.
“Most likely they’ve had a divorce in their family, whether it’s their parents or their siblings,” Walters said, “but then also I think some of them have gone through a lot of difficulties in relationships leading up to where maybe they were living with somebody and they have a child and then that broke up and so now they’re wanting to get married to somebody else but they have these responsibilities. So there’s a lot of extra baggage that they will bring into a marriage relationship, and thankfully they’re recognizing that they can’t do this on their own. They need God to help them out. They need to be better equipped in order to be able to handle the issues that they will face as a couple.”
Walters sees the trend of more couples trying out the relationship, living together before marriage, continuing to increase, although he’s observed this lowers levels of marital satisfaction if the couple gets married.
Warner jokes sociologists and demographers like himself are famous for missing trends, like the post-World War II baby boom. But he thinks the average age of marriage will continue to increase a little, and the percentage of people ever marrying will decline. But he doesn’t think marriage is going away.
“If there’s anything about Americans that’s for sure is that we really believe in marriage,” Warner said. “We believe in the idea of a long-lasting relationship. Now what we want out of that relationship is changing but we believe in it so marriage isn’t going to go away.”
Drozd said a post-recession spike in marriages could be looming in Nebraska. One reason he’ll be tracking this involves politics. Drozd said delaying marriage often leads to delaying childbirth, and in seven years, with the 2020 U.S. Census, population growth or decline will have an impact on whether Nebraska retains three seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.