DES MOINES - Iowa ended a four-year slide in the number of couples getting married last year, but experts say the turnaround could have been aided in part by an April 2009 court ruling that legalized same-sex marriages.
Also, Iowa posted the lowest number of divorces since 1970 with 7,286 dissolutions, according to preliminary statistics issued by the state Department of Public Health.
"That's really good news," said Laurie Linhart, a lecturer in Drake University's Department of Culture & Society who specializes in marriage-related issues.
Preliminary vital records compiled by state officials indicate 21,139 marriages occurred in Iowa last year - the most since 2000 and the first increase since 2005. The 1,573 jump in marriages over 2008 included the first-ever same-gender unions that took place statewide after the Iowa Supreme Court overturned a state law that defined marriage as only between one man and one woman.
Separate data from state health officials for the period from April 27, 2009, through last March 31 indicated that 2,020 same-sex couples - 728 male partners and 1,292 female partners -- were married during that time span while 16,869 opposite-gender marriages were recorded. Records were not available solely for the 2009 calendar year.
Justin Uebelhor of One Iowa, the state's largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy organization, said the landmark Iowa court ruling triggered a spike in same-sex marriages as couples with Iowa ties or partners with no previous Iowa connection took advantage of the newly created legal status to tie the knot. "There are quite a few couples that I've seen getting married this summer - your typical wedding season," he added.
Susan Stewart, associate professor of sociology at Iowa State University, said marriage rates nationally "have never been lower" so there's a good chance the new phenomenon of same-sex marriages weighs into Iowa's increase. "It would seem like a big coincidence if the same-sex couples getting married weren't part of this," she said.
Linhart attributed the overall rise in Iowa marriages and the decline in divorces to a trend toward women and men waiting until they're older to get married. She said rising education levels and higher incomes also help, along with the fact that times of war and economic upheaval tend to push people toward situations and relationships that provide comfort and security.
Mike Hartwig, president of the Iowa Family Policy Center's Marriage Matters initiative, said he has seen similar factors at play along with a renewed interest among couples to make their marriages and relationships work.
"Young people are really waking up to the idea that two are indeed better than one. They can accomplish a lot more, faster, economically, raising kids, that kind of thing. It's just a better way to do life," he said.
Hartwig said an economic downturn can spur a marital rise, but Stewart said recessionary times can have a depressing impact on both marriages and divorces because it's expensive to do either.
While marriage is on the uptick in Iowa, Linhart said, not all couples are going that route.
"The co-habitation rate is higher than we've ever experienced in history and I think we'll continue to see that," she said. "It's even become a step in the courtship process. Most young people will live with their spouse before getting married. They go from dating to living together as a step toward getting marriage."
Stewart said Iowa's U-shaped pattern of divorce that grew steadily from 7,188 in 1970 to a peak of 12,071 in 1981 before gradually slipping back down to 7,286 last year reflected the effects of Iowa elected officials adopting a no-fault divorce law in 1970.
Iowa vital statistics on marriages and divorces
Year Marriages Divorces
2009 21,139 7,286
2008 19,566 7,752
2007 19,885 7,622
2006 20,060 7,949
2005 20,419 8,148
2004 20,455 8,305
2003 20,371 8,285
2002 20,406 9,113
2001 21,127 9,542
2000 21,792 9,756
Source: Iowa Department of Public Health