Marriage by Numbers

Marriage by Numbers

By Elizabeth Davis

Clearly, attitudes about marriage are changing. In recent generations, divorce has gone from taboo to a norm. And now some people aren’t bothering with marriage – single people wait longer to get married or couples decide to start families even if they aren’t married.

Data from the 2010 census compiled by the Center for Business and Economic Research (CBER) at UT Knoxville shows the percentage of households with married couple families in Tennessee was 48.7, marking the first time the number has dropped below 50 percent in the state. At 48.7 percent, married couples still make up the majority of family households, but they are declining. Nationally, 48.4 percent of households are married couples.

“The percentage of married couple families has been dropping for some time. Over the past few decades, Tennessee has trended closer to the national average,” says Randy Gustafson, director of the State Data Center at CBER.

Why are fewer people married?

“Unfortunately, statistics don’t explain why things happen the way they do,” says Denise Brandon, a parenting and family relations specialist for UT Extension, which provides educational programs across the state.

“Tennessee has historically had one of the highest divorce rates in the nation and one of the highest marriage rates as well. We are still higher than the national average on both, but our rankings are decreasing nationally.”

A survey by the Pew Research Center shows rates of marriage tend to be higher for people with college degrees versus people with a high school diploma or less. Another reason, according to the Pew study, is greater acceptance of cohabitation and same-sex couples.

Overall, Southerners tend to marry younger, have lower incomes and have lower levels of education, all factors for high rates of divorce, Brandon says. But people are waiting longer to get married. For women, the average age of their first marriage is 26.5 years, up from 20.6 years in 1970. For men, it is 28.4 years, compared to 22.5 years in 1970.

Other factors, she says, “may be related to population changes as people from other states and countries move to Tennessee.” Fewer married couple households also could be the result of children of divorced parents afraid their marriages will end the way their parents’ did.

“It’s safe to say,” Gustafson says, “Tennessee is being swept along by the same tide that is changing attitudes toward marriage across the entire nation.”

Married couple households

48.7 – percent in 2010 in Tennessee, down from 52.6 percent in 2000

48.4 – percent in 2010 in the U.S., down from 51.7 percent in 2000

Williamson County – highest percentage of married couple households in Tennessee in 2010 at 68.1 percent

Davidson County – lowest percentage of married couple households in Tennessee in 2010 at 36.6 percent

Other counties: Shelby County at 38.7 percent, Hamilton County at 46.3 percent and Knox County at 47 percent

Other household types in Tennessee

26.9 – percent of households in 2010 in Tennessee headed by single people, including those widowed, divorced or never married, up from 25.8 percent in 2000

2.3 – percent of households in 2010 in Tennessee headed by unmarried partners, same or opposite sex, up from 1.7 percent in 2000