Annual divorces in Maine fall 30 percent in a decade

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Along with the standard inscriptions of “Be Mine” and “Cutie Pie,” perhaps Maine candy hearts should have an additional message this Valentine’s Day: “Let’s Never Divorce!”

Divorce rates aren’t usually considered super romantic, especially when it feels like they’ve been rising for generations. But in Maine, the annual number of failed marriages has dropped by 30 percent over the past decade, according to statistics compiled by the state Department of Health and Human Services. During the same period, Maine marriages rose about 2 percent.

Does that mean Mainers have found the secrets to a happy marriage? Probably not. Nationally, the divorce rate has declined at a similar rate, according to statistics compiled by the National Center For Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Researchers say the overall decline is likely fueled by the fact that people are waiting longer to get married, are generally more selective and feel less pressure to tie the knot. Plus, more people are living together first and getting a good idea of what married life is all about – that it’s not all candy hearts and candle-lit dinners, after all.

So it seems that waiting, choosing carefully and taking your time are all very romantic, in the long-term. And Mainers seem to have a pretty good handle on that concept.

“I think there’s a huge value to living together beforehand, to getting to know yourself and figuring things out before jumping into things,” said Andrew Vellani, 35, of Portland. He and his girlfriend of more than a decade, Tara Hilt, got engaged in December. They’ve owned a house together for eight years.

“When I was young, I always thought, by 25 I’d be married and have kids. But when you’re 18, you’re not that mature, and when you graduate college, you’re still not that mature. If we had married at 23 we might hate each other by now,” said Hilt, 33.

QUANTIFYING LOVE AND MARRIAGE

There were 5,599 divorces recorded in Maine in 2008, compared with 3,947 in 2017. That’s a drop of 30 percent. The 2017 numbers are preliminary, so other divorce records from around the state may still filter in to the Data, Research and Vital Statistics Office of the DHHS.

During the same period, the number of marriages rose from 9,858 in 2008 to 10,080 in 2017, again a preliminary number. Part of that data set includes a spike that could be attributed to the fact that same-sex marriage became legal in Maine in late 2012. There were 9,703 marriages in Maine in 2012 and 11,039 in 2013. But the state didn’t provide a breakdown of its records by opposite- and same-sex marriages.

The state’s population of people 18 and over, according to U.S. Census estimates, grew 3 percent over the period, from 1,041,695 in 2008 to 1,076,528 in 2016. So divorces went down even while the number of adults went up.

Divorce rates in the U.S. peaked around 1980 and then began to decline steadily. They climbed a little in 2005 and have been going down since then.

GETTING MARRIED OLDER, WISER

As Maine’s overall annual divorce numbers have declined 30 percent, its divorce rate has only fallen about 20 percent from 2008, said Wendy Manning, co-director of the National Center for Family & Marriage Research. Manning said divorce rates are calculated by the number of divorces per 1,000 married women. Maine’s divorce rate, calculated that way, was 18.5 in 2016, compared with 16.7 for the nation.

Manning said some experts and researchers think one reason for lower divorce rates is that people are getting married older, and hopefully, wiser. That’s coupled with the fact that there is less pressure today to get married for the express purpose of having a family. And people certainly don’t feel like they have to get married to have sex, as people might have a couple of generations ago.

The median ages for first marriages today are 27 for women and 29 for men, higher than they’ve ever been. The median age for a woman having her first child is now 26, Manning said.

Statistics compiled by the Bowling Green center show that about 40 percent of women who first married between 1980 and 1984 lived with their partners first, while between 2010 and 2014 that number had jumped to 70 percent.

Vellani and Hilt, the Portland couple, are an example of people who waited, got to know each other and did not feel pressure to get married.

They met at the University of Maine in Orono about 15 years ago and were friends and roommates before they ever dated. They both have good jobs – Vellani in risk management for TD Bank and Hilt in broker relations at Unum.

They got engaged in December after living together for years, mostly because, Vellani said, “We were going to spend the rest of our lives together regardless, so why not celebrate that?”

The couple said their families were not pressuring them to get married, but their parents do want grandchildren.

RESISTING URGE TO GROW UP FAST

Another theory about lower divorce rates today is that people whose parents divorced may look at marriage and falling in love differently. Where past generations were taught it was important to “start your life” and family by getting married, children who grew up when divorce rates were peaking see the value in taking your time to pick a life partner.

Camille Smalley, 31, said she figured she’d “eventually” get married, but didn’t want to force anything. She said she knew several people in high school and college who got married young and ended up divorced.

“I guess I wanted to skip the whole first bad marriage thing,” said Smalley. “For some people, getting married in their early 20s is part of this push to grow up, to be an adult. I didn’t feel the need for that.”

She also saw her own parents get divorced after 20 years of marriage.

So Smalley didn’t want to stay in a relationship for very long if it didn’t seem like it could be the real thing. Then she met her future husband.

Smalley was 27 and Bryan McLeod was 35. The two dated for three months, moved in together, got engaged three months after that and were married 1½ years after they met. Today, they’ve been married three years and a have a 14-month-old daughter.

Local marriage and family counselors think that another reason for lower divorce rates could be wider acceptance that people might need help – including from marriage counselors – in keeping a long-term relationship alive.

“I think there’s less of a taboo about seeking help, that it doesn’t necessarily mean your on the rocks, it means you want to improve the relationship,” said Alison Caswell, who does couples counseling at Circles of Light Counseling in Portland. “They’ve haven’t waited 20 years for the problems to grow. People understand you have to work at the relationship, take action.”

The idea that people a generation or two ago might have rushed into marriage is supported by the divorce rate for people 50 and older, which is increasing faster than for other age groups. That could mean people got married young, raised a family, and then decided they no longer wanted to deal with the problems in the relationship.

In 2015, the divorce rate for people over 50 – 10 per 1,000 married people – was double what it was in 1990, according to data from the National Center for Health Statistics and U.S. Census, compiled by the Pew Research Center.

PRACTICE MAKES NEARLY PERFECT

Brenda Garrand of Portland has been married for 32 years to David Pierson. She thinks the stability of their marriage has a lot to do with the fact that they lived together for four years first.

She was 26 and he was 35 when they met. They both had good jobs and felt independent. They felt no need to rush into anything, and both are glad they took time to learn the less glamorous aspects of romantic coupling.

“If you can’t deal with the money, or who makes dinner and who cleans up, then how do you deal with all the other things?” said Garrand, 60, chief executive officer of Garrand Partners, a Portland advertising and communications firm. “It wasn’t calculated, but I think we both felt like it was better not to jump into anything too soon.”

So maybe that’s another sentiment for the candy hearts: “Be Mine, But There’s No Hurry.”

Recently engaged, Andrew Vellani and Tara Hilt of Portland are an example of people who get to know each other before marrying. (Ben McCanna/Portland Press Herald)

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