Married couples no longer majority of households in Janesville

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Monday, June 13, 2011
— Married couples no longer make up the majority of households in Janesville and many other areas in Rock and Walworth counties, a change that follows national trends.

The percentage of households with unmarried couples also increased in the last 10 years, rising to 42.1 percent in Janesville and increasing at a similar rate among other area communities, according to 2010 Census data.

Expert said the data is a reflection of several factors, with Americans delaying marriage among the top.

In 2000, married couples made up 51.1 percent of Janesville households. That percentage dropped to 46.6 in 2010.

The age at first marriage continues to steadily rise, said Autumn Behringer, assistant professor of sociology at UW-Rock County. The age of first marriage is roughly 28 for men and 26 for women, she said. In 1970, it was 23 and 20, respectively.

“Much of this postponement reflects the rising importance of educational and occupational goals, especially for contemporary women,” she said. “Many individuals today prefer to achieve a college degree, establish themselves at a job, become settled in a career or establish some financial stability before taking the leap into marriage.”

The economy also is a factor, said Angela Flickinger, family living educator at Rock County UW Extension.

The number of unmarried couples cohabitating increased in the last decade in 52 of 68 area municipalities and townships. Rural townships generally were the only areas where the number of unmarried cohabitating couples decreased.

In Janesville, the number of households with unmarried couples was 1,615 a decade ago. In 2010, it was 2,295 households, according to the census.

Pastor Todd Pope at New Life Assembly of God in Janesville offered one possible reason.

“The thing that has driven that is people’s fears of divorce,” said Pope, who does premarital and marriage counseling. “A natural thought is ‘try before you buy’ approach. It actually fails miserably. … People think this will help divorce-proof (their) marriage.”

Pope and Flickinger said studies have shown the divorce rate for people living together before marriage is much higher than couples than don’t.

While older studies reported those results, a report out last year from the National Center for Health Statistics found that couples who cohabitate had about the same chances of a successful marriage as couples who don’t.

Many people today have grown up in an era with a relatively high divorce rate, Behringer said, so some adults might be more cautious and cohabitate to do a “test run” of marriage.

“People who have experienced divorce firsthand may be more distrustful about the longevity and durability of marriage and opt to cohabitate instead,” she said.

Practical reasons, such as saving on rent or sharing bills, also can play a role, she said.

“Most importantly, I think the number of unmarried, partnered households has risen because the stigma associated with cohabitation has diminished tremendously,” she said.

The majority of her students each semester think that cohabitation is a smart and responsible decision for those considering marriage, she said.

Research at the University of Michigan found that although the majority of teenagers said having a good marriage was important to them, the majority also believed that it is a good idea to live with a person before marriage, she said.

“Essentially, our society has normalized this extra step on the path to marriage,” she said. “The majority of people marrying today will cohabitate first.”

How people look at traditional religion also plays a role, Flickinger said.

“Research talks about how people are less rigorously following religious values (than previous generations),” she said.

That’s an issue across all churches and “people in our culture, period,” Pope said.

The majority of non-members seeking to get married at New Life are living together, he said, while the opposite is true of members.

He encourages couples not to cohabitate, “but I don’t put pressure on them,” he said.

He discusses the issue with couples during premarital counseling, which is required for anyone getting married at New Life. A lot of pastors won’t do premarital counseling with couples living together, he said.

They still see a lot of young couples getting married, but he guessed the average age probably is higher than 10 or 20 years ago.

Last updated: 5:40 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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