By Clair McFarland, Cowboy State Daily
Marriage in Wyoming has been on the decline almost every year for the past decade – until recently.
Wyoming saw a slight uptick in marriages in 2021 after a decade-long fall, according to preliminary data from the Department of Health.
Statewide, marriages climbed by 7% from 2020, growing from 3,980 to 4,265 in 2021.
The 2020 figure was a decline of about 12% from from a decade ago, when 4,513 people married in Wyoming in 2012.
The increase in marriages in 2021 was larger from a percentage standpoint than the gain in the state’s population during the same period — 0.3%.
Can’t Be ‘Happy All the Time’
Opinions on the reason for the increase — and the value of marriage itself — varied among those contacted by Cowboy State Daily.
The increase may be due to the fact people are seeking more stability after the pandemic upheaval of 2020, said Lael Noonan, a bachelor’s degree program director in Riverton who has been married for nearly 11 years.
“Maybe people want more stability after such a scary thing and they’ve decided to make a commitment,” said Noonan.
But the downward trend in marriages both statewide and nationwide over the past decade, she speculated, goes a lot deeper.
“People don’t necessarily consider that level of commitment binding anymore,” said Noonan, citing generational cynicism. “But I also think that on a deeper level, this whole cultural phrase that ‘Everybody has the right to be happy’ has become an entitlement piece.”
She said that when people expect constant happiness from a marriage, that relationship is likely to fail.
“Happiness is an emotion,” Noonan said. “You don’t have the right or the ability to experience it all the time.”
Commitment, she added, is the real framework for marital success.
“The butterflies and the ups and downs – all that is lovely,” she said. “But what’s really great is (when) that person knows you so well they can look at you from across the room and know it’s time to go home, and you didn’t have to say a word.”
Noonan and her husband Chris married at the age of 39 after being childhood acquaintances at Wind River Elementary School in Pavillion.
The two were never close, but reconnected after Noonan finished what she called her “gypsy” phase, filled with travel, independence, and “(learning) a great deal about myself.”
A hobbyist writer and a novelist, Noonan encountered Chris again when they were both in their late 30s.
Jon Gerard, however, sees few advantages to marriage.
A public defender and a bachelor in Lander, Gerard said that marriage during the medieval era devolved into “essentially a financial agreement,” and now appears “antiquated.”
“When people split up, (marriage) just creates enormous complications,” he said, adding that “Nowadays people don’t spend their entire lives with just one other person.”
Gerard has never been married, in part because he doesn’t want to have children, but he “came close once” in his late 20s, about a decade ago.
“It was one of those where we were either going to take this further or part ways,” he said. “We’re still really good friends.”
It isn’t always a deal-breaker when Gerard tells women he’s not interested in marriage.
“I’m very up-front about it,” he said. “When people are dating, they don’t go into it just expecting to get married, although Wyoming is a little different on that.”
Gerard speculated that the downward trend in marriages – both at the state and national level – of the past decade could be because people regard the institution as less important.
He also said unmarried couples living together is seen as less socially taboo than in ages past, and that people may be deterred by the divorce rate, which is roughly 50%.
“I think there’s just a changing opinion of how important it is,” said Gerard. “It’s not for everyone.”
If there is an advantage to marriage, said Gerard, it’s that it provides “incentives to work things out, rather than just split up.”
Wyoming’s downward marriage trend through 2020 matched national patterns, but the state’s marriage rates have been consistently higher than the national figures.
Nationally, about 5.1 people per 1,000 married in 2020, for a total of about 1.7 million marriages. The rate was 6.8 per 1,000 in 2012, totaling 2.1 million.
In Wyoming, the marriage rate was 7.6 per 1,000 in 2012, and 6.8 per 1,000 in 2020. The state’s marriage rate in 2020 put it in eighth place nationally. Nevada ranked first at 21 per 1,000. California came in last place, at 3.2. Tennessee led Wyoming at 7.3 and Colorado trailed it, at 6.7.