By Dani Hayes
LOGAN—Utah has a higher-than-average divorce rate compared to the national average. According to a 2009 U.S. Census Bureau study, the national divorce rate is 3.4, with Utah slightly higher at 3.6. The state has a strong emphasis on marriage, largely stemming from the Mormon religion that dominates the culture.
“People gravitate to coupling,” said Brian J. Higginbotham, associate professor at Utah State University, specializing in marriage and family therapy, “and for the vast majority of folks in Utah, that structure which most aligns with their values is marriage.
“The vast majority of people desire to get married,” he said, “. . . and some of them choose to do so at an early age. That’s typically what researchers point to as a reason why the divorce rate is high.”
On average, Utahns are 2 years younger than the U.S. average when it comes to the marrying age, according a 2009 Pew Research study. Because of their relative youth, said Higginbotham, Utah newlyweds deal with unique stressors.
“They are still in school and they are not financially well off, so they have those stresses that impact those relationships, and those factors together are what typically count for the higher divorce rate,” he said. “If you are out of the state, people are increasingly waiting until they have finished school, and in some ways, that offers a couple relief from some of those stressors.”
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why younger couples are more likely to divorce, but maturity in skills like conflict management and communication—skills needed in any healthy relationship—are often not as well developed, Higginbotham said.
“People who are older and have had more opportunities to interact with people outside of their biological family—like in a workplace, for example—learn to get along with people more,” he said. “Often those skills transfer over to a marriage relationship.”
In some cases, young people may feel pressured to get married, even “settling” because it’s what everyone else is doing, specifically when dealing with marriage-friendly cultures like Utah’s.
“Some people may think that marriage is going to solve all their problems, make them happy, but in reality, marriage as an institution is only as good as the people in it,” Higginbotham said. “There are a lot of people who value marriage, and the older they get and an opportunity presents itself, they may be more prone to jump on it than they would otherwise if marriage wasn’t a high value to them.”
Britiny Barnes, a divorced mother of two young daughters, married her ex-husband when he was 21 and she was 18. The marriage endured issues ranging from abuse and unfaithfulness to drugs. Barnes attributes many of her marital issues to their immaturity.
“It’s because your brain’s not developed and you’re only listening to the nether regions of your body,” she said. “It’s true. Those hormones are just a-goin’.”
She lived with her ex for a year before she married, and felt she needed to get married because “it’s the Utah thing to do—not to live with each other, but to get married.”
Barnes worries that the divorce rate is high in Utah because people may become desperate for marriage as they may feel that everyone around them is either married or getting married.
“People think it’s a fairy tale that, when you get married everything else is going to work out, but it’s not,” she said. “Bottom line is that there is a lot of broke people, and if you are desperate for that void to be filled, you’re going to settle for something less than you deserve.”
She is trying to teach her daughters the importance of independence and self-esteem by encouraging education.
“That’s one thing I consistently tell my daughters,” she said. “You get your degree, and if someone wants to be part of your life, that’s great. . . . Whatever you want to do in your life, go do it. If someone wants to come in your life and enhance it, let them join; if not, you don’t need them because you can take care of yourself.”
Researchers have found that education reduces the chances of divorce. Higginbotham said the more college education a person has, the lower the divorce rate. This may be because of the experience of showing commitment, he said.
“It’s not because they are more mature, but because they have more life experiences,” he said. “More committed experiences—commitment to go to college, finish, get a Ph.D. and have the ability to pursue and follow through with things that matter to you.”
Strong commitment is a sign of a healthy relationship. “Pick the one you love and love the one you pick,” Higginbotham said.
Most divorces occur within the first 10 years of marriage, he said, and may have something to do with a lack of commitment.
“In healthy, long-term relationships, people don’t sit around playing the ‘what if?’ game,” he said. “They’ve got their kids. They’ve got their life. They’ve chosen to focus on making that relationship strong rather than checking Facebook to see their old girlfriends, wondering what life would be like if they married her.”
Debbie Taggart is the mother of a single, 23-year-old daughter who attends Southern Utah University. Taggart hopes that her daughter doesn’t rush into a marriage because of the culture she lives in and the pressures she may feel.
“I do think there is a culture to marry sooner,” she said. “[My daughter] feels like an ‘old maid’ and in any other place, she would not even be thinking about marriage.
“I want much more for her to wait for the right relationship and I hope she will,” Taggart said. “I think young people should spend at least a year dating and have the opportunity to go through fun and happiness but also hard times. It is important to experience how your future spouse handles disappointment, arguments, sickness and even tragedy—because life and marriage will have plenty of it.”
Taggart, who has been divorced herself, expressed how important it is for couples thinking about marriage to not jump into something they may not be ready for.
“I believe that if a couple has a firm goal to . . . work together, to keep that focus; set limits and rules for themselves, that they can do it,” she said. “If one or both don’t have that commitment, well maybe it isn’t the right one anyway.”