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U. professor finds new trends between age and divorce rates

SALT LAKE CITY — Divorce rates for couples who marry in their teens and after their early 30s are on the rise, while couples who marry in their late 20s and early 30s have the greatest chance of a successful marriage, according to a recent study by a University of Utah professor.

Nicholas Wolfinger, professor of family and consumer studies and adjunct professor of sociology at U., said it shows a "Goldilocks" rule of thumb for what age to get married: "not too old, not too young, right in the middle."

The report, published on a blog for the the Institute for Family Studies, showed people who marry at 25 are more than 50 percent less likely to get a divorce than people who wed at age 20. And until age 32, each additional year of age at marriage reduces the odds of divorce by 11 percent. After age 32, the odds of divorce increase by 5 percent each year, according to Wolfinger.

But it hasn't always been that way. Wolfinger said the "long-standing" trend in social sciences has traditionally shown that the older a couple is when they get married for the first time, the better their chances of staying married for life.

"It was a considerable surprise," he said of the new findings. "No one had ever shown that before. It appears to be something that's just developed over the last 20 years."

In 1995, the five-year divorce rate for newlyweds younger than 20 was 29 percent, with a rapid decline to 19 percent for couples ages 20 through 24. Divorce rates continued to shrink the older couples were when they got married, with couples ages 35 and older having a divorce rate of 14 percent.

An analysis of data from 2006 through 2010, however, showed a 32 percent divorce rate for couples younger than 20. That rate went down to 14 percent for 30- to 34-year-olds, but increased by 5 percent for couples older than 35, creating an upward trend from previous years.

In 2011, the median marriage age for men was 29 — the highest in decades — and 27 for women — the highest it's ever been, according to the report.

But the data leaves little indication as to why divorce rates are changing for people who marry in their mid-30s or later.

"I really have no idea why in this case," Wolfinger said. "Clearly, something has changed in society in marriage. And so it's hard to say whether it's causal, whether being single for a long time somehow changes you or if it's selection. The same people who wait a long time to get married now are also the same people who are out to have more trouble in their marriage."

Even more baffling is the fact that the trend remains constant across a variety of other factors, including gender, race, education, religious participation, sexual history and the size of the metropolitan area they live in.

While higher education attainment, religious participation and sexual abstinence before marriage all remain factors that help prevent divorce, getting married at 35 or older is now yielding a higher divorce rate, the report states.

One possible explanation, Wolfinger said, is a generational difference. Most of those getting married now were born between 1970 and 1990, while the previous cohort was born between 1950 and 1960. Other studies show that the millennial generation, those ages 18 to 34, have put off marriage and having children due to the economic recession.

"It could be experiences growing up," Wolfinger said. "This is a new cohort."

For Jason and Emily Brand, the decision to get married at age 26 wasn't one they made deliberately. The two had known each other for well over a year before tying the knot in March, but for them, it was a decision that came in the process of getting to know each other and themselves.

Now, Jason and Emily both have degrees and closed on their first home in Holladay last week.

"We're both in positions where we've been in our careers for a couple of years, so we're comfortable that way, which reduces stress in some ways and increases stress in others," Jason Brand said. "Looking back, it kind of provided a time for me to have a lot of opportunities where I developed friendships with people who become lifelong friends, job opportunities and other things that maybe wouldn't have been available otherwise."

Emily Brand said the early and late 20s is an important time for courtship and developing robust but realistic expectations in lifelong partner. But dating shouldn't be the only focus, she said.

"I feel like even though you might be getting older, you should feel some pressure to want to date and find someone and date seriously," Emily Brand said. "But at the same time, you should be productive and social and develop worthwhile skills."

Contributing: Dave Cawley

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