Maine is known for the bounties of its rocky coast, for its hard-working people and, more recently, for its high divorce rates.
Yes, divorce. Maine has the second-highest rate of divorced people in the nation, according to the latest U.S. Census data.
The census estimates that 13.7 percent of Mainers age 15 and older are divorced, based on the 2011 American Community Survey. Nevada is No. 1 at 14 percent. Both are well above the national rate of 11 percent.
Experts say a variety of factors contribute to divorce trends, including the struggling economy, education levels, religious practices, social values and, more recently, social media. And several of those divorce risk factors may be especially high in Maine.
“I listen to people all day long talk about their divorces,” said Dathan Hunter, owner of a Portland hair salon by the same name.
The 36-year-old Cape Elizabeth resident said a lot of those people regret their divorces, something he can relate to after two divorces of his own. “It happens so quickly, that it’s done and then you kind of lift your head up and say, ‘Wow, we’re divorced,’” Hunter said.
Despite his own experience and the stories he hears, Hunter said he was surprised that Maine had a rate of divorce that’s higher than so many other states.
Maine’s distinction at No. 2 sets it apart from its neighbors in the Northeast, where the overall divorce rate is 9.4 percent. That includes New Jersey, which at 8.6 percent is the lowest in the nation.
In fact, Maine’s divorce rate is more akin to the South, where several states have divorced populations well above the national average, including Arkansas at 13.4 percent and Kentucky at 13.2 percent.
Some experts say that is partly because the economic struggles of working-class Mainers, and the lower percentage of college-educated citizens, put the state in league with its Southern counterparts more than its Northeast neighbors.
“Maine is a relatively poor state, which is something we have in common with the South,” said Jeanette Andonian, a professor of social work practice and human behavior at the University of Southern Maine.
Maine’s median household income of $46,033 is comparable to the $46,548 median income in the South but far less than the $56,728 in the Northeast, according to the census.
“I think the economy is playing a huge role here,” Andonian said. “For the last several years, you keep hearing about businesses downsizing and people losing their jobs. Stable, living-wage jobs are harder to come by in Maine. That job insecurity trickles down, which not only makes it harder to put food on the table, but also creates social and relational stress that leads to arguments and worse.”
As with incomes, Maine stands apart from its Northeast neighbors when it comes to education levels. In the Northeast overall, 32.8 percent of post-college-age adults have bachelor’s degrees or higher, compared with 28.4 percent in Maine and 26.4 percent in the South, according to census data.
“Without a college education, people are three times more likely to get divorced than people with a college education,” said Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia.
The gap between divorce rates among the more and less educated has grown in the past 30 years as fewer first marriages have remained intact overall, according to Wilcox’s 2010 report, “When Marriage Disappears.”
The percentage of intact first marriages among people with no high school diplomas dropped from 67 percent to 39 percent from the 1970s to the 2000s, according to the General Social Survey, National Data Program for the Sciences, University of Chicago. Among people with bachelor’s degrees or more, the percentage of intact marriages dropped from 73 percent to 56 percent.
Andrew Horton has seen how education might play a role in a couple’s ability to navigate troubled times. He’s a Maine Superior Court justice who recently published a book, “Do Your Divorce Right,” with longtime friend and colleague John David Kennedy, a Maine District Court judge.
“A lot of issues that come into court are due to people not being able to communicate effectively,” Horton said. “It may be that education gives you the ability to consider things more broadly and work things out so that divorce isn’t necessary.”
While Maine shares lower incomes and education levels with Southern states, it does not share the South’s attachment to religious organizations. And that does not help Maine’s divorce rate either, experts say.
Wilcox points to a “general deinstitutionalization of American life among the working class” as fueling the divorce trend.
An increasing number of people in this category are living together instead of getting married, he said. And if they do get married, many aren’t going to church and are therefore more likely to divorce, he said.
Just over one in four Mainers — 27 percent — attend church at least weekly, according to a 2010 Gallup survey. That is in line with weekly attendance rates in other New England states but much lower than attendance rates in the South, where 50 percent to 63 percent of people attend church weekly.
“When people don’t have the message and the support that a religious community provides, it’s more difficult to stay married,” Wilcox said. “Couples who attend church together are more likely to stay together.”
While the minimum legal age for marriage is 18 in Maine, as it is in most states, the census collects data on people as young as 15 to count those who may have married with parental consent or court permission.
Although studies show people who marry young are more likely to divorce, that does not help explain Maine’s high divorce rate. The median age at first marriage in Maine is 27 for women and 29 for men, each in line with the national median, according to the census.
Kristin Gustafson, a family law and divorce attorney in Augusta, said she’s seeing more young couples with young children getting divorced and getting remarried fairly quickly. As a result, she’s seeing more blended families, which creates a whole new set of challenges.
“Younger people seem quick to choose divorce when things get difficult or they feel the tug of a new relationship,” Gustafson said.
That trend may reflect another big factor in divorce today: social media such as Facebook. The use of social media to kindle new relationships, or rekindle old ones, may be particularly enticing in mostly rural Maine, where many people are isolated and social interactions are limited to their home, workplace and children’s activities, she said.
“I can’t count the number of people I’ve seen who either they or their spouse reconnected with someone from their past on Facebook and rekindled an old romance,” said Gustafson, who is a fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. “Or the precipitating factor is a wholly new relationship that has occurred entirely online.”
Marriage and parenting skills have never been regular topics of conversation, Gustafson said, and that is especially true in Maine, where people tend to mind their own business, she said.
However, for anyone considering divorce or dealing with the aftermath, Andonian recommends counseling, whether as a couple, a family or an individual.
“Even if it’s a last-ditch effort, it’s never too late,” Andonian said. “The grass is not always greener.”
Hunter, the Portland hairstylist who has two ex-wives, said he thinks that the state’s older and generally less religious population contributes to the high percentage that have been divorced.
And, he said, he wishes more people would think ahead, and stay married.
“I think in this day and age, people are just very short-sighted and self-interested,” Hunter said. “Plus they have very high expectations and standards that they set in relationships.”
Staff Writer Karen Antonacci contributed to this report.
Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at: