Why fewer Utahns are tying the knot than a decade ago

Utahns offer their thoughts on marriage, which could help explain why matrimony rate dropped 18.6% between 2011 and 2021 and dropped again in 2022.

(The Salt Lake Tribune) Clockwise from top left: Vanessa Shannon; Kelly and Claire Peterson; Stephanie Pack and Samuel Peterson; and Zach Hampton. With Utah marriage rates dipping, they shared their views with The Salt Lake Tribune on why they are -- or are not -- married.

This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

[Subscribe to our newsletter here]

Zach Hampton has been engaged twice, but it’s just been him and his dog Milo for years. He’s come to value his privacy in that time.

Alex Lancaster isn’t opposed to marriage but didn’t want to follow the “typical religious trajectory,” feel forced into marriage and end up divorced.

They’re among a growing number of Utahns who are delaying or forgoing marriage, following a national trend of declining marriage rates.

That trend has been pretty consistent, said Brian Willoughby, an associate professor at Brigham Young University’s School of Family Life.

It’s driven by a handful of things, he said, including people waiting until they’re older to get married, a declining sense of marriage as a necessity and other changing cultural norms.

But marriage is still more typical than not in Utah. The Beehive State is one of a dozen where more than half of adults are married.

Utah’s culture — specifically the stigma around living together while unmarried — contributed to Anne Mackay’s decision to get married.

Mackay got to know her husband before they got married but said she thinks people in Utah approach relationships solely with the goal of getting married because of their religious upbringing and that isn’t the right motivation.

“At the end of the day, a relationship that’s goal-oriented isn’t going to work,” she said. “It has to be person-focused.”

Finding the right partner was key for Stephanie Pack and Samuel Peterson, who both took time off from relationships to get to know themselves before they eventually met and got married.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Stephanie Pack and Samuel Peterson, on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023. They met through an online dating app. Both said they spent valuable time focusing on themselves and what they really wanted in a partner before getting married.

There was a national uptick in marriages in 2021 and 2022 — including Pack and Peterson’s — as the coronavirus pandemic eased. Willoughby thinks that’s likely a blip.

Declines in marriage are likely to continue, he said.

That isn’t concerning for adults, Willoughby said, but could have future impacts on children who may be less likely to grow up with married parents. Research has shown children raised in stable families are healthier, better educated and more likely to avoid poverty and that married parents are more likely to stay together in a stable family unit.

Utah’s marriage rate dropped 18.6% in a decade

The marriage rate is the number of women who married within the past 12 months per 1,000 women aged 15 and older. Census data uses those numbers because women report their marital history more accurately, according to a release about the topic.

Marriage rates have been decreasing nationally and in Utah, though 2022 was an exception for the country as a whole.

Nationally, the number of marriages each year per 1,000 women declined by 8.9% between 2011 and 2021. The marriage rate then jumped 12.3% in 2022 to 16.7 marriages per 1,000 women.

In Utah, marriage rates declined from 27.3 to 22.3 marriages per 1,000 women between 2011 and 2021 — an 18.6% drop.

Nearly every other state’s rate also dropped during that decade. The exceptions were Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Virginia and Washington, D.C.

Utah’s marriage rate dropped another 11.6% in 2022, bucking the national trend for the year.

Forty states had an increased marriage rate from 2021 to 2022.

Utah still has the highest percentage of married people

Seven of them surpassed Utah’s rate, with previously number-one Alaska dropping to 14th.

Even then, none of them caught up with Utah in the percentage of the population who are currently married.

Utah still has the highest proportion of married women despite its declining marriage rate with 54.8% of women who are 15 and older reporting they are married. That doesn’t include couples who are separated.

The Beehive State is one of 12 states where at least half of women 15 or older are married.

Neighboring states Idaho and Wyoming also are among that number and don’t trail far behind Utah at 53.6% and 53.1%, respectively.

Young adults focusing more on education, career

The biggest reason for the decline is a delay in marriage, Willoughby said.

“As more and more people delay when they get married, that drops the marriage rate,” he said.

There are various other reasons, as well, he said.

Marriage doesn’t have the same place in the national culture as it used to, Willoughby said. People more and more are choosing to place more emphasis on education and a career instead of romantic relationships, he said.

A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found fewer people are more likely to say that having a job or career they enjoy and having close friends are extremely or very important to living a fulfilling life.

That survey also found less than 30% of respondents think having children, being rich and getting married are keys to a fulfilling life.

At 21 and 22, young adults have “so many more choices than before” and have delayed or opted out of marriage more over the past couple of generations, Willoughby said. That’s started to set new cultural norms, he added.

Utah’s marriage rate likely is still higher than other states because of its religious culture and reputation as a family state, he said.

“Religion and marriage still tend to go hand-in-hand in the United States,” he said, adding a large portion of Utahns adhere to religious beliefs.

There’s also a stronger norm for marriage in Utah because families and matrimony are visible when out and about, Willoughby said.

“You see a lot of families. You see a lot of couples,” he said. “You see a lot of marriages.”

The state’s growth also contributes, he said, because many people moving from other western states are young couples starting families.

Seeking companionship

While culture contributes, the decision to marry is an individual one.

Mackay, 27, and her husband were tired of roommates and wanted to live together, but her family said they would cut her off if the couple moved in before getting married.

They were friends for a decade then together for about two years before getting married in late May.

Mackay has enjoyed being married but said she sees a lot of people get married as an endpoint rather than approaching it as the beginning of a life with someone they really like.

Pack and Peterson took time to come to that mindset before they found each other.

Pack, 30, said before she met her husband she dated a lot of people because she wanted to get married and not necessarily because she wanted to marry the people she was dating at the time.

That was a hard realization to come to, she said, but it meant when she met Peterson she was focused on partnership and finding someone she could share her life with “rather than just being able to put a Mrs. in front of my name.”

Embracing the idea that remaining single wouldn’t be the end of the world helped Pack approach dating with clearer intentions, and she held out until she found “someone truly exceptional” in Peterson.

When Peterson, who’s 28, was in his early 20s, a therapist essentially told him to stop dating and focus on himself. He spent about three years doing that before he and Pack met.

“I honestly think that’s one of the things that prepared me to recognize Stephanie as a partner so quickly,” he said.

They met online in 2021 and dated for about nine months before getting married in January 2022.

Kelly Peterson and her wife Claire, who are both 32, were together for longer before they got married — about six years or so on and off.

They both grew up religious, navigating their faith and sexuality. They didn’t think while growing up that they could marry someone of the same sex even though it was something they both always wanted.

“I didn’t think I could ever have a visible, stable marriage and family with someone of the same sex, even though I desperately wanted that,” she said.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kelly and Claire Peterson, at their home, on Thursday, Sept. 21, 2023. Said Kelly: “I didn’t think I could ever have a visible, stable marriage and family with someone of the same sex, even though I desperately wanted that."

Getting married was “kind of a no-brainer,” Kelly Peterson said, especially as a way for the couple to show their commitment to each other and the equality of their union compared to that of heterosexual couples.

Regardless of whether a couple is the same sex or the opposite, they’re hoping for love, stability, companionship and family, she said

Their commitment to each other was similar before marriage, she said, but she does feel more settled and secure starting a family.

Max Rose and his wife dated for about nine months before getting married.

He said they both went into the relationship with marriage in mind. They also went to around 20 weddings while dating. It was so many that “it just had to be on both of our minds,” he said.

Their religious beliefs — they’re members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — also had a large impact on their decision to get married, Rose said. That included wanting to move in together, which they didn’t want to do before marriage for moral reasons.

Living together also played a role in Alejandro Alpizar marrying his wife a little more than five years ago.

They’ve known each other since middle school and are now in their late 20s. They dated for about three years before getting married, and it was just a natural progression of their relationship at that point, he said.

Their traditional, conservative, religious families also wouldn’t have been “super keen” on them living together without being married, he said.

Alpizar and his wife went through a rough patch when he had some growing up to do, he said. But their relationship has been strong since they made it through the first couple of years.

He recommended people really get to know a person if they think they want to spend their life with them — to live together for a little bit or at least spend as much time together as possible.

At 30, Tyler Wilcox is still searching for that person.

He’s currently single but wants someone to share his time and interests with. The right partner can help you through a bad day, he said, and make life more varied and interesting.

But while Wilcox wants to get married, he recognizes it’s not something everyone wants.

Happier independent or without the government involved

Hampton doesn’t regret either of his engagements. But at 41, he’s spent a decade enjoying his alone time and doesn’t see himself wanting someone else in his space.

He has a lot of solo hobbies, including reading and traveling alone.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Zach Hampton, 41, poses with his dog Milo on Monday, Sept. 18, 2023. Hampton was engaged twice but hasn't seriously pursued a relationship in some time.

Hampton isn’t actively avoiding marriage, but at this point, he would prefer to share some moments with a partner rather than his whole life. The right person could change that, he said, but for now he’s happier alone.

Angela Thredgold is also happier single. She’s 59 and has been divorced for more than 20 years.

“Now, especially the more I’ve been single, I don’t like to really have to consider what anyone else thinks about anything I want to do,” she said.

Thredgold said while she sometimes gets bored and restless, she doesn’t feel lonely. Her sons are still living with her while saving for their own homes, but even with she’s home completely by herself she likes it.

She said while people should do what they want to do, she doesn’t see the upside of marriage and she thinks people can have a relationship “without totally giving up your independence and your freedom to do whatever you want.”

Spencer Warner and his partner have been married before, too. He’s 42 and has been divorced for seven years, six of which they’ve been together.

They’ve talked about marriage, he said, but there are other ways of getting the legal benefits.

Warner said he and his partner are committed to each other, and he doesn’t need the government or a piece of paper to say that.

Independence is key for Vanessa Shannon, who’s 52 and has been married and divorced twice.

She enjoys being able to go about her day and not worry about what somebody else is doing, aside from her children, not having to account for where she’s going and not having to stress over cleaning or getting dinner ready.

Not having an adult around who’s like another kid is “a breath of fresh air,” Shannon said.

There are some times when she misses adult conversation, she said, but she can get that other places. She’s learned to love her own company and has a dog as a companion.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Vanessa Shannon in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023. Shannon has married and divorced twice. She values the independence that comes with being single.

Marriage isn’t for her but can be for others, she said — it’s really an individual choice. For those who do choose it, she recommends not just jumping in and romanticizing it.

“At least go live a little,” Shannon added. “Date more than one person.”

Lancaster said growing up LDS in Utah, it has always felt like there’s a religious trajectory of going to church, going to Young Men or Young Women activities, going on a church mission then marrying the first person you meet when you get back and having kids.

“Can’t you just take a minute and get to know the person?” he said.

Lancaster isn’t against marriage and he’s open to the idea. He’s been single for a handful of years because he was busy with school and because of the pandemic, but he’s been trying to get back into dating.

If marriage happens for him, that would be great, he said — but it’s “not the end-all, be-all.”

Some concerns about outcomes for children

It looks like the trend of delaying or forgoing getting married will continue as people continue to make decisions about marriage, Willoughby said.

People should do what they want, he said — with an asterisk.

Adults will be fine as relationship norms evolve, he said, but he and other researchers believe there should be discussion about children.

Stability is important for good outcomes for children, Willoughby said. And there’s lots of research about the positive impacts of family stability — including having two married parents — on kids, he said.

In fact, nearly half of the respondents in the Pew Research Center survey said fewer children being raised by two married parents would negatively affect the future.

There was less concern about people delaying marriage or never getting married.

Impacts won’t happen for decades down the road, Willoughby said, but proponents are working now to educate young people about marriage as it relates to outcomes for kids.

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.

Megan Banta is The Salt Lake Tribune’s data enterprise reporter, a philanthropically supported position. The Tribune retains control over all editorial decisions.