DES MOINES — Iowa’s economic downturn appears to be having an unexpected up side: Fewer couples are seeking to embark on costly divorce proceedings.
Statewide, last year’s total of 6,715 marriage dissolutions in Iowa was the lowest since 1968 when 6,511 couples terminated their marriages, according to data compiled by the state Department of Public Health.
“What’s happening is the recession is keeping people from divorcing,” said Susan Stewart, an associate professor of sociology at Iowa State University whose area of expertise is family demography.
“It’s really expensive to get a divorce and to set up new households,” she said. “Family research shows that when there is financial hardship — and this is society-wide because of the recession — people just tend to maintain the status quo. They don’t make any big life changes, and that includes putting off having children, delaying getting married and delaying getting divorced as well. All of these are national trends, and Iowa is also following these same trends.”
Marriage dissolutions spiked to a record 12,071 in 1981 — a rate of 4.2 per 1,000 Iowans — during a 20-year period of annual increases that encompassed Iowa's decision to adopt a no-fault divorce law in 1970. They held relatively steady for the next 15 years before dropping below the 10,000 threshold in 1997 and posting gradual declines until dropping below 7,000 last year for the first time in 44 years.
Iowa’s divorce rate dipped to 2.2 per 1,000 residents in 2012 after hovering for three years at a 2.4 rate. That compares to a national divorce rate of 3.4 per 1,000 calculated by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Survey of Family Growth. The rate has declined steadily since its peak in 1981.
“I’m excited about that trend, and I hope that trend continues,” said Adam Storey, director of marriage and family life for the Catholic Diocese of Des Moines.
Storey said he thinks couples are approaching marriage with a more intentional and realistic view about what it takes to have a successful marriage, especially those who may have been touched by a divorce by their parents or other relatives and want to avoid repeating that experience.
Experts who deal with family-related issues say Iowa’s decline may or may not mean that spouses are getting along better. Couples in troubled relationships may be living separately but not pursuing divorces, or they may be forgoing marriage so when their long-term relationship ends, it does not show up in dissolution statistics, they say.
“Some of the relationships that would have been reflected as divorces before never became marriages to start with, so that’s one reason why the divorce rate is declining,” said Darcie Vandegrift, a Drake University associate professor of sociology and head of the Department for Study of Culture and Society.
Economic factors also are a major consideration in the post-recession era, she said.
“In economic hard times, divorce is a luxury that people don’t have,” Vandegrift said. “The cost of going through a divorce — couples will just separate and remain separated, or they’ll just stick it out and stay together because they can’t afford to split up.”
Iowa’s marriage rate has remained relatively steady for the past decade, hovering just less than 7 per 1,000 residents. The number of marriages performed in Iowa in 2012 inched up to 20,986, a total that reflects both opposite-sex and same-sex marriages.
Stewart noted that Iowa’s marriage numbers have been bolstered by out-of-state couples of the same gender who have traveled here to get married since an April 2009 Iowa Supreme Court ruling legalized same-sex marriages. Last year, at least 1,247 same-sex marriages were reported in Iowa, along with 18,966 opposite-sex marriages and 773 in which the information was not stated.