Splitsville, USA

When it comes to divorce in the United States, Maine is second only to Nevada. Why?

By Michaela Cavallaro

Like most people, Michelle Dietz didn’t get married thinking that she would end up divorced. But earlier this year, the forty-one-year-old mother of two signed the final paperwork dissolving her seven-year-long marriage. While the transition has its challenges, including helping her young daughters get used to splitting their time between two households, Dietz says she can’t imagine navigating them anywhere else. “Maine, and the Portland area in particular, is an easy place to be single because it’s so tolerant,” she says. “Unlike many other places, in Maine it’s feasible to own a house on your own. The person who lives down the street will plow your driveway, and neighbors — many of whom are single women themselves — are always willing to help out.”

Dietz isn’t alone: Since the U.S. Census Bureau began releasing annual divorce data three years ago, Maine has earned the dubious distinction of having the nation’s second highest divorce rate — falling behind only Nevada, the state once known as much for its liberal divorce laws as for its casinos. Experts explain Maine’s divorce statistics in various ways, citing the influence of an aging population, a weak economy, low levels of education, and high rates of poverty.           In Nevada, by comparison, the cause is relatively clear, at least according to the Las Vegas Sun: “Nevadans are somewhat flippant about matrimony,” the paper wrote in 2011. “Cash woes and cheating are common divorce triggers, and Nevada’s culture of fast spending and sexual opportunities may contribute to its high divorce rate.”

Maine’s relatively high divorce rate puts the state at the forefront of the national increase in households headed by a single person — a trend that is reshaping American families. In Maine, 13.7 percent of Mainers ages fifteen and older are divorced, compared to the national average of 11 percent. (Nevada tops the list at 14 percent.) This data reflects Mainers’ marital statuses in 2011, the last year for which figures are available. But the results have been similar since 2008, when the Census Bureau began tracking marriage and divorce data in its annual updates, known as the American Community Survey. Before then, nationwide marriage and divorce statistics were compiled only every ten years, in the full census, which was last released in 2000. Even then, Maine’s divorce rate of 11.5 percent ranked seventh in the nation, compared to a national average of 9.7 percent.

Maine’s outsized divorce rate is unusual in the Northeast, which posted a below-average rate of 9.4 percent in 2011. Still, says Robert Milardo, a professor of family relations at the University of Maine, the numbers are something of a red herring, reflecting only Maine’s aging population. “People who are older have more experience with divorce, and Maine has the oldest population in the U.S.,” he says. “We should expect those figures to go down a bit eventually, since people who marry now are experiencing less divorce than people who are older.”

Charles Colgan, an economist and professor who chairs the Community Planning and Development Program at the University of Southern Maine, offers another perspective: that Maine’s weak economy has caused financial hardship, which has led to more divorces. “The economy and jobs have not recovered here nearly as much as they have in other states,” he says.

And that can create marital problems: No matter where they live, couples who argue about money use harsher language with one another and take longer to recover from their disagreements than couples who argue about other topics, according to researchers from Kansas State University. In a study published earlier this year, they found that arguments about money are by far the most significant predictor of divorce.

The study’s findings align with Sarah Mitchell’s experience. A divorce attorney in the Lewiston-Auburn area, Mitchell notes that calls from potential new clients peak as the school year begins and just after the holiday season — times of year when financial pressure increases for many families. Mitchell even sees tax refunds — or the anticipation of them — as a factor in the timing of some couples’ decisions to divorce.  “Finances are the driving factor in most divorces that come through my door,” she says. “A lot of people divorce due to money stress, and then have very unhappy divorces because there just weren’t any assets to divide.”

Joshua Denk, a Portland instructional designer, says money wasn’t the main factor in the end of his eleven-year marriage to the woman he describes as “a great mom and a good friend.” Instead, he says, he and his now-ex-wife came to realize that they had some essential personality conflicts that made them ineffective as a married couple. However, that conflict created financial troubles, and the couple filed for bankruptcy just before their divorce was finalized. “Was money the cause? No,” says Denk. “But it was one of the cracks in the hull.”

Though Denk says his finances are much healthier these days, that’s not the case for many divorced people. Colgan notes that stagnation in wages and earnings over the last twenty years means that most households in Maine must have two people working in order to stay afloat. If they split into two households, their expenses are likely to increase, creating more financial pressure, rather than less. Mitchell says that this reality is lost on many unhappily married Mainers. “When they’re so surrounded by the immediate stress they’re in, they think that it must be better to be unmarried,” she says. “But the majority of the time it’s not, at least for one of the people.”

Indeed, the process of divorcing itself can be expensive — even though court fees in Maine are relatively low. For example, the fee to file for divorce here is $120, compared to $250 in Vermont and $289 in Nevada. “To some families, that difference is a big deal,” says Peg Libby, executive director of the Kids First Center, a Portland organization that supports families experiencing separation or divorce. Libby also notes that Maine’s court system, which sometimes mandates that divorcing parents take Kids First classes, makes divorce relatively clean and uncomplicated from a legal perspective, with clear, well-written statutes. “The divorce rate also may be higher in Maine because the court is very friendly to pro se litigants — people who’ve chosen to represent themselves, either because they can’t afford an attorney or their circumstances are simple enough that they don’t feel they need legal representation.”

While Maine’s number two ranking in the divorce statistics may sound alarming, Libby and others emphasize the point that, in some circumstances, the end of a marriage may be the best outcome — especially if children are involved. “It isn’t divorce that’s hard on kids — it’s conflict, and especially continued conflict,” says Libby. “The impact of divorce on kids has everything to do with how their parents handle it.”

Libby’s organization works to help parents make separation and co-parenting as amicable and low-conflict as possible. And while preventing divorce isn’t one of the Kids First Center’s goals, Libby says some couples decide to stay together after taking her agency’s four-hour introductory course on supporting children through separation or divorce. Mitchell, the attorney, experiences the same phenomenon with clients who establish what she calls “just in case” files as part of an exploratory process that often centers on determining the potential financial impact of a divorce. She also encourages her clients to seek marriage counseling before taking more permanent steps. Of those who take her advice, a significant portion never come back. “That helps them understand that divorce is not an easy option,” she says. “It’s as big and significant a decision as deciding to get married in the first place — and can be almost as expensive as your wedding.”

Still, experts see little reason to believe that much can be done to change Maine’s relatively high divorce numbers, other than simply waiting for time to pass so that the statistics reflect the decreasing incidence of divorce among younger couples. And while the Pine Tree State now boasts casinos of its own, it’s unlikely that Vegas-style quickie wedding chapels and storefront divorce shops will soon grace Maine streets. “Single-headed or single-person households are pretty close to the majority now,” says Colgan. “We’re following a national trend here, and while the divorce rate is part of that story, it’s not the whole story.”