LOVE IN THE SOUTH: REFLECTIONS ON DATING AND MARRIAGE (AND DIVORCE) IN DIXIE

When I left Jacksonville for San Francisco more than a half-decade ago, my life-stage resembled that of many other transplants in my new city: early 20s, fresh from grad school, passionately liberal, certainly naïve. But there was one little thing that, unknown to me, would make me a statistical outlier in America’s most progressive city: I was engaged.

I learned how unusual this was after I landed a job and my colleagues and I began to share details about our lives unrelated to our profession. It wasn’t one coworker’s open relationship or another’s complicated gender identity that elicited fascination; rather, it was my entering into nuptials at such an early age that seemed to rank among the most confounding of all extra-office affairs.

A fairly accurate paraphrasing of something I heard many times: “I feel” — this is how people in liberal cities begin approximately 99 percent of sentences, by the way — “like Southerners always get married right after high school.”

To my then-fiancée and I, our engagement seemed run of the mill, even late compared to our friends in Florida — some of whom were already expecting children. Not so in our new city, or at my new job. While maternity and paternity leave were as commonplace there as anywhere, the people who took them were in their late 30s, not their early 20s.

After taking stock of the world around me, I could see why 24 and Engaged might remind people in more progressive cities of some kind of backwoods reality show on par with 16 and Pregnant.

I found it worth investigating my colleagues’ hypothesis further. Obviously, San Francisco and Jacksonville are at opposite ends of the country geographically, and on a map of normative social influence, the two would perch on opposite poles (not to mention, I was clearly falling prey to confirmation bias). There did appear to be something to this, however. Do people in the South really get married earlier? And, if so, why? Education? Social pressure? Religion? And what are the ramifications of marrying young?

According to a 2009 Pew Research study, across America the median marryiage age has been climbing for decades — faster in places like the Northeast and both coasts and slower in the South and Midwest. The study found the highest median age of marriage for men (32) and women (30) was in Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island. Compare that to the lowest for men (26), found in three states — Arkansas, Oklahoma and Utah (oh, Mormons) — and the lowest age for women (24) found in the same three states, plus Idaho.

Though overall the statistics show people tend to get married earlier in the South, Florida’s numbers fell somewhere in the middle. The median age of first marriages in the Sunshine State stands at 29 for men and 26 for women (data for Jacksonville, which shares more DNA with Bible Belt counterparts like Arkansas than cities like Miami, were unavailable).

The Pew study also has divorce data. Sure enough, some states with the lowest median age of first marriages also have the highest rates of divorce. And, two of the states with the lowest ages of first marriages (Oklahoma and Utah) also had the highest occurrence of thrice-married individuals.

The report also found that a state’s income and education levels were highly correlated to its divorce rate and median age of first marriage: “In states with high shares of college-educated adults, men and women marry at older ages …. In states with low shares of college-educated adults, adults are more likely than average to marry three or more times.”

Pew’s analysis also looked at states’ voting patterns: “Residents of states with high shares of Democratic votes tend to marry at older ages than residents of states with low shares of Democratic votes.”

A recent analysis in The Atlantic by Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institute showed that 2007 was the first year in which marriage rates were higher for college grads than non-grads older than 30. According to Reeves, highly educated, socially progressive, politically liberal couples are changing the American household.

“The old form of marriage, based on outdated social rules and gender roles, is fading. A new version is emerging — egalitarian, committed, and focused on children,” Reeves wrote. 

An interesting twist, Reeves notes, is that “Although college graduates tend to be a reliably liberal voting bloc, their attitudes toward parenting are actually quite conservative. College grads are now the most likely to agree that ‘divorce should be harder to obtain than it is now.’”

Reeves suggests that parents today see marriage as critical to successful childrearing, a sort of selfless engagement that benefits their offspring over all others, including themselves. But several new studies also show a link between marriage and personal happiness. Scientists at Michigan State University released a study in 2013 that shows that marriage plays a huge role in a person’s long-term happiness. And a 2014 study by scientists in the U.K. ranked marriage a close third in contributing to a person’s happiness, after health and employment status.

And millennials (who can always be counted on to adopt traditions long since abandoned by advanced society — see: hipster blacksmiths) are embracing marriage in their own way. A 2014 Pew study showed that people who live together before marrying — a taboo practice a few decades ago that has become quite common among millennials — tend to stay married longer.

When I was discussing this piece with two editors at Folio Weekly, they both became visibly uncomfortable at the thought of still being tied to the person they dated (or married) in their early 20s. Empirically speaking, their reactions are justified. My wife and I — married at 25 and 24, respectively — fall well below the median for progressive San Francisco, and even slightly below the averages for some places in the less-educated South. So, are we doomed to fail? Did my wife and I (if I may quote Rihanna) “fall in love in a hopeless place”?

If we were still the people we were when we first started dating, I’d be worried. If we still considered high school our glory days, or had been pushed into matrimony by a fervent religious community, I’d be worried. If we hadn’t encouraged, inspired or allowed one another to grow and change throughout the course of our relationship, I’d be worried. We also have research on our side: education, a semblance of financial security, my own estimation of my personal happiness, and the fact that my wife and I cohabitated before we were married (sorry, Nana) are all factors shown to lead to long and happy marriages.

A few months ago, my wife and I returned to live in our native city, and a funny thing happened. While we once again appear to be surrounded by people in similar life stages (early 30s, employed, politically apathetic, unwilling to stay out too late, a little less naïve), we have quickly grown aware that we are, yet again, statistical outliers. We are now what a San Francisco friend calls “DINKs” (that’s “dual income, no kids”), surrounded by our young Jacksonville friends and their adorable offspring. 

Here’s to love in the South.

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