Why is the divorce rate so much higher in the South?

In spite of an intense focus on marriage and traditional family values, divorce rates in the socially conservative South are higher than in the liberal-leaning Northeast, according to a report released this week by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Nationwide, 9.2 out of every 1,000 men and 9.7 out of every 1,000 women divorced in 2009, the latest year for which data was available. But in the South, the rates were higher: 10.2 out of 1,000 men and 11.1 out of 1,000 women. In the Northeast, the rate of divorce was much lower than the national average-7.2 per 1,000 for men and 7.5 per 1,000 for women.

W. Bradford Wilcox, associate professor of sociology at the University of Virginia and the director of the National Marriage Project, says that age, education, income, and ideals all play a part in the higher divorce rates in conservative states.

Though the overall age for first marriages in the United States has been steadily rising since the 1970s, the push to preserve "sexual purity" and avoid pre-marital sex have encouraged some couples, especially those in the South and parts of rural America, to the the knot in their late teens and early 20s, marriage experts say. Combine that with lower income and education levels for people in those areas, and the risk for divorce climbs.

The highest divorce rates for both men and women were in Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas.

In much the Northeast, however, people (especially women) are more likely to delay marriage in favor of earning a college degree or launching a career, which may explain why the divorce rate was lowest in New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Connecticut. (The divorce rate in Maine was very high for men, but lower than the national average for women.)

The way people in the two regions think about marriage itself may also have a lot to do with the difference in divorce rates, Wilcox says.

"Southerners idealize marriage more than Northeasterners," which can create unrealistic expectations about what marriage can deliver, Wilcox explains. "In the South, marriage is seen as this exalted state, more so than it is in the Northeast. Certainly it's valued in the Northeast, but more as a kind of partnership and as a way of stabilizing relationships. This difference in perspective on marriage may lead Southerners to become more easily disillusioned in ways that foster divorce."

The Evangelical heritage which dominates the South may also be less conducive to life-long marriage than the Catholic heritage that prevails in parts of the Northeast, Wilcox adds.

The federal report is based on American Community Survey information from 3 million U.S. households and is the first in 20 years to take an in-depth look at state and national data on marriage and divorce, according to the Associated Press. It also found that women who divorced in the past year were more likely than men to live in poverty, and approximately 1.1 million children (about 1.5 percent of the children in the United States) had parents who divorced within the last year.

"The overall marriage rate in the South is higher than the Northeast and the West Coast," he points out. "What that means is that you have more people entering into marriages and getting divorced." The report also didn't offer data on the number of couples in long-term unmarried relationships who live together and then break up.

"There's more cohabitation in the Northeast and on the West coast than there is in the South," Wilcox says. "Given that cohabitation is less stable that marriage in all regions in the U.S., it could be that the family and stability gap between the South and the rest of the country isn't as great as these divorce statistics may suggest."

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