Divorces are up, marriages down in Iowa

Death rates are up, too, state data shows

A wedding ring. (Jeff Willhelm/Charlotte Observer/TNS)
A wedding ring. (Jeff Willhelm/Charlotte Observer/TNS)

DES MOINES — The heart has left the Heartland for some Iowans.

Preliminary 2018 demographic data compiled by the state Department of Public Health indicates that the number of divorces are on the uptick and while marriages — be they opposite- or same-gender affairs — are dropping to overall levels not seen since years of war and depression.

About three times as many Iowa couples exchanged wedding vows last year than split up, the Public Health department statewide demographic profile shows. Cupid struck 18,085 times last year — the lowest number since 1944 (17,121) and first time since 1962 that the yearly total has dipped below 19,000.

And after posting the lowest marriage dissolutions since 1933, with 3,785 in 2015, the number of Iowa couples getting divorced has climbed each year since — to 6,586 last year.

“Marriage is hard,” said Susan Stewart, a sociologist and Iowa State University professor whose area of expertise is family demography. “We still have a very high divorce rate in the U.S. and there’s no sign that that’s going anywhere.”

Experts say the economy may be playing a hand in both trend lines — with wedding plans being something millennials and marriage-aged young people are putting off until they get financially established, while an improving economy is making the expensive proposition of severing marriage ties more affordable.

Also, they say “gray divorce” is a growing phenomenon among adults 50 years of age or older as social mores are shifting more secular and away from organized religion.

“Young people are delaying getting married, so the age of first marriage has increased and it’s never been higher — like ever,” said Stewart, who noted the median age at marriage now tops 29 for men and 27 for women.


Stewart noted that marriage is expensive, and “these days young people like to get all their ducks in a row — finish college, get their first job, and so they want to wait until they feel like they’re ready — that they’ve met their personal goals and have the resources,” she added.

“Marriage is like a capstone, so you do everything else and then you get married because marriage means like the white-picket fence and being able to buy a house and then having kids and things like that.”

Tera Jordan, an ISU associate professor of human development and family studies who has spent 20 years studying intimate relationships, said the pattern of marriage and divorce among younger or older couples highlights the rise of individualism in American culture and society being more supportive of other options for forming families.

“We still see a strong regard for marriage,” Jordan noted. “I would say it’s definitely thriving and it’s changing at the same time. Lifetime prevalence of marriage is still up around 95, 96 percent, so by the time most people leave this world they will have experienced marriage even for a short period of time.

“It’s still very highly valued in society, but the ways in which people approach it — the timing of it, when you marry, how long you stay married — all of that is changing, in part, to all of the changes in our society,” she said. “We need to probably consider that there are alternative ways of having committed relationships and forming families and that could be showing up in the dip in the rate for 2018.”

About 75 percent of all people who get married lived together first, Stewart said, “so it’s the norm and then if marriage is thought of as being out of reach for people, then they’ll just stay in their co-habiting relationship. They’ll even have children in co-habitation.”

Preliminary Department of Public Health 2018 population and other statistical characteristics indicate that 13,125 of the babies born in Iowa were out-of-wedlock births, which is more than a third. The number of yearly live births in Iowa — down to 37,690 in 2018, the lowest in five years — is in line with a national decline.

In other data, total deaths in 2018 were reported at 30,316 — only the second year the number topped 30,000 dating back to 1915. A total of 30,527 Iowans died in 2017.


Also, according to state demographic data, Iowa’s overall population of 3,156,145 in 2018 was up for the 17th straight year. But the state has an aging population, Stewart said, “so if we’re talking about raw numbers, fewer people of those marriageable ages means there’s going to be fewer marriages.”

This country has “a very strong two-child norm,” she said. “Our fertility rate has always hovered around that, and I don’t think that’s going to drop that much.”

Gary Krob, who tracks census and other numbers as the State Data Center coordinator in the State Library of Iowa, said Iowa’s population grew in part because births exceeded the 30,316 Iowans who died last year. In addition, the state annually attracts a sizable number of international migrants, which offsets those Iowans who chose to leave the state for other living environs.

“Generally our state has historically seen negative domestic migration, which means we tend to have more people move out of Iowa to other states than coming from other states into Iowa. But we also generally have very positive international migration. That usually offsets the domestic out-migration,” Krob said.

“That’s been one of the major contributors for sure.”

Iowa’s population growth has been steady at about 3.6 percent since the 2010 census, which has outpaced some of our Midwestern neighbors, Krob noted, but that positive development still hasn’t moved Iowa from the bottom of the U.S. growth chart since 1900.

“Historically, we are the slowest-growing state in the nation since about the 1900s,” Krob said. Over the 118 years ending with 2018, he said Iowa’s growth rate has been 41.4 percent.

“That is the slowest in the nation,” he said. “The next lowest is Nebraska, and they grew at 80.9 percent during that same time period — almost double our rate.”

Iowa added a new demographic column to its yearly data charts when the Supreme Court ruled, in 2009, that it was legal for same-gender couples to marry — a change that saw the number of same-sex marriages in Iowa peak at 3,397 but then taper off significantly since then, to 336 specified in 2018.


Stewart noted that the rate of divorce is about the same for couples regardless of whether they are of the same sex or opposite sex.

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