Husband-wife couples no longer a majority in Kentucky

Census shows state part of national trend

rclemons@herald-leader.com ljohnson1@herald-leader.comJune 6, 2011 

Keith Lovan, left, and Joey Rose, with daughter Caroline Rose, 7, would like to marry but can't in Kentucky. The Lexington couple have been together for more than 12 years.

MATT GOINS

Joey Rose and Keith Lovan say they face the same challenges as any other couple. They have lived together for 12 1/2 years and are raising a 7-year-old.

They can't get married, though — what the majority of couples in Kentucky have done for decades.

But for the first time in Kentucky, the traditional husband-wife couple household is no longer the majority. That puts Rose and Lovan — along with other same-sex or cohabiting couples, and divorced, widowed and single people — in a new majority.

The traditional husband-wife couple makes up just 49.3 percent of the total households in Kentucky, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau data. That's down from 53.9 percent in 2000.

In this, Kentucky mirrors the country. According to a Herald-Leader analysis of census data, the percentage of husband-wife households has dropped at least a little in every state during the past decade.

Utah, which has the highest percentage of husband-wife households, dropped from 63.2 percent in 2000 to 61 percent in 2010. At the opposite end, New Mexico dropped 5.1 percentage points, from 50.4 to 45.3.

A decade ago, 44 states had husband-wife household majorities; today, only 13 do. But why? Is it cohabitation; same-sex partners who can't marry in many places, including Kentucky; or divorce and widowhood, and people just living longer?

It's all of the above, even while divorce rates are leveling off. Several different census reports paint a picture of fewer divorces, in part because young people are delaying marriage — some in favor of cohabitation and still others not marrying at all. It all adds up to fewer traditional husband-wife marriages.

Kara Poarch of Lexington has lived with her boyfriend for about three years, and they have a 7-month-old son. She said even though they are not legally married, she considers him her husband.

"Sometimes if you get married, it's like a curse," she said. "It puts too much pressure legally on you."

Rose said the idea of the "nuclear family," dating back to the 1950s, is no longer relevant. "That's what we cling to right now," he said, "but reality does not reflect that now."

This reality "doesn't mean that people devalue marriage," said Ronald Werner-Wilson, chair of the family studies department at the University of Kentucky.

He said two main causes have led to a decline in the percent of households headed by married couples — a higher percentage of widowed people who are living longer, and a rise in the age at which people are getting married.

Werner-Wilson said the average lifespan has increased, and women generally outlive men by six or seven years. Thus, there are fewer people for them to marry, and there might be financial disincentives for people to remarry as they get older.

"There's a higher percentage of people that are older that are widowed," Werner-Wilson said. "It's not that they never married or devalue marriage ... their partner has died."

The trend probably will continue. Michael Price, interim director at the Kentucky State Data Center in Louisville, said the median age of Kentuckians "will dramatically change over the next few years as the baby boom generation ages."

Among younger age groups, Werner-Wilson said, it is true that more people are cohabiting, but not necessarily because they don't want to get married.

"We're just at a point in time when people are getting married at later ages," he said. "That age has been creeping up for a decade now." Most people who live together do it to test out a relationship, he said.

"To me, that says they're taking marriage seriously," he said. "Cohabitation is like training wheels for a bike — they want to see how it goes before they take off those training wheels. They don't want to get a black eye or a bloody nose before taking off the training wheels."

Rose said he and Lovan have thought about moving to another state to get married, but Lexington is their home and is where their friends are. Rose said their relationship is stronger than those he has seen of many heterosexual couples.

"Cohabitation can be just as healthy as marriage," he said, adding that he thinks he and Lovan put extra effort into their relationship.

"I wouldn't say that cohabitation is identical to marriage," Rose said, but "I think that any relationship requires work, whether you're getting the piece of paper from the government or not."

Greg Williams, director of marriage outreach for The Family Foundation, expects negative consequences if the trend revealed by the census continues.

"Marriage as we've always known it has certainly been compromised and under attack — trying to be redefined, so to speak," Williams said.

He said that the positives of cohabitation have been publicized and that "there's a lot of things that have been left out" about the value of marriage and the number of married couples who stay together in comparison with cohabiting couples.

He said The Family Foundation is concerned about the trend because of the damage he says cohabiting can do — diminished health and job success, and a greater potential for child abuse — as stated in the book The Case for Marriage by Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher.

He said The Family Foundation wants to "encourage people to choose what truly works" — getting married. "Realistically, people want to get married," Williams said. "They see a tremendous value in it. Is it tough? Yeah. Does it take work? Yes."

Werner-Wilson's take is that "people probably value marriage more than ever and are waiting to get married so they're sure it's going to last."

Price said Kentucky is trending toward the middle in comparison to other states. In 2000, Kentucky ranked 12th among states that had the highest percentages of husband-wife households. In the latest data release, Kentucky ranks 21st.

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