First comes love, then marriage not so much

Cohabitation jumped 48.5% in county during decade, census shows

By Paris Achen, Columbian courts reporter

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Vancouver resident Reve Oviedo, 21, wants a committed relationship, but she says it doesn’t have to come in the form of marriage.

“I would definitely live with someone before I got married,” Oviedo said. “It wouldn’t be set on marriage.”

Not surprisingly, the latest census figures confirm that attitudes toward marriage have changed. In Clark County, long perceived as a magnet for the traditional family of husband, wife and a few kids, cohabitation by unmarried couples jumped by 48.5 percent between 2000 and 2010. Meanwhile, the 17.3 percent increase in husband and wife households lagged behind growth in the total number of households of 24.3 percent.

“I think people are disillusioned about marriage and don’t feel the need for a legally binding certificate,” said Vancouver resident Adrienne Fernandez. “It is easier to leave a person when the relationship falls apart rather than going through the red tape of divorce.”

Some of the disillusionment stems from the frequency of divorce. The nation leads the world in its citizens’ likelihood of divorce. Most people have experienced divorce, either in the form of their own or that of parents or other family members.

Fernandez, who was previously married and divorced, has lived with her boyfriend for the past three years. They plan to marry eventually but are not in a rush to do so.

“There is not much societal pressure to stay married,” said Bob Whiddon Jr. of Vancouver’s Northwest Marriage Institute, a nonprofit organization that helps troubled marriages through education and counseling. “Not even churches encourage people to stay married.”

The state has a higher divorce rate than the national average among both men and women, according to a report released Thursday by the Census Bureau.

Of 1,000 men and 1,000 women in the state, an average of 21.4 men and 20.3 women married in 2009, and 10 men and 10.6 women divorced. That’s compared with the national average in which 19.1 men married, 17.6 women married, 9.2 men divorced and 9.7 women divorced, according to “Marital Events of Americans 2009.” (The rates per 1,000 differ because the total number of men and women aren’t equal.)

Whiddon, who counsels married couples free of charge through a federal grant, said divorce is one of the top five most stressful events in life.

“People don’t want to go through that, so they are very leery about marriage, so they choose to live together,” Whiddon said. “A lot of them will eventually get married because it’s the ultimate sign of love, commitment and security. Even people who have been married before still want it.”

Whiddon said after the third or fourth year of matrimony, couples often enter what he calls “the marriage fog.” That’s about the time when all the feel-good chemicals that surge through your body when you’re newly in love sputter and die. He wrote a book titled “Surviving The Marriage Fog” that’s intended to help couples overcome that critical period. It takes awareness and work to help get through that change, he said.

Vancouver resident Jody Cristler, who has been married and divorced twice, doesn’t plan to marry again because she is concerned about losing the house she inherited from her grandparents if another marriage didn’t work out.

“I would have to give up half of my house,” Cristler said. “That house was meant to be for myself and my kids.”

She would, however, consider living with someone.

Cohabitation is becoming more popular in all age groups, including seniors, said B. Gail Haskett, a gerontologist and owner of Vancouver’s Aging Resources Inc. Seniors, like everyone else, want to feel connected to another person. They also may want to share expenses and have someone to help out.

“Loneliness is a horrible thing,” Haskett said.

But seniors often won’t marry because they don’t want to lose a pension or Social Security benefit from a deceased spouse, Haskett said. They may also choose living with a partner because they want to avoid upsetting their adult children or connecting with a new partner in the same way they did with their deceased spouse.

Yoshie Sano, assistant professor of human development at Washington State University Vancouver, said without the social stigma of yesteryears, cohabitation provides a way to achieve intimacy, combine incomes and reduce expenses without the legal constraints of marriage.

However, there also may be economic reasons a couple forgoes marriage, Sano said.

The majority of the decline in marriage has occurred among those with a high school degree or less, due to changes in the nation’s economic conditions, Sano said. Marriage rates remain high among those who have postsecondary education. However, couples with college degrees tend to marry later in life.

With globalization and the rise of an information economy, the availability of blue-collar jobs that pay a living wage has plummeted, Sano said.

“Low-income women still hold high marriage aspirations,” Sano said. “However, what they want from their marriage partners is financial security, fidelity, commitment to child-rearing. Unfortunately, low-income men with lower education cannot bring economic security in a marriage in today’s society.”

Instead, low-income couples may have children and cohabitate but never marry, even though they may function as a family unit.

“It’s important to emphasize that changes in the family structure, less marriage and more cohabitation do not directly mean a breakdown of family values or lower quality of parenting,” Sano said. “History proves that the family is resilient. Families are evolving. It’s always the family process, quality of the (relationship), quality of parenting and good communications which matter the most.”

Paris Achen: 360-735-4551; http://www.twitter.com/Col_Trends; http://www.facebook.com/ColTrends; paris.achen@columbian.com