Written By David Greisman
It has been about 30 years since Kent L. Greenberg opened his divorce law firm in Carroll County, and in those three decades he has seen many clients come in for the same standard reasons: a change in lifestyles that comes with having children, financial stress and adultery.
The reasons for divorce often are the same no matter the location, and Carroll County is no different. Divorce in this county is just less common than in others.
At 7.9 percent, the divorce rate in Carroll County is not only lower than the national and state averages, but it is lower than all but one county in Maryland. What makes the local divorce rate so relatively low is not just who the married people are, but where they are.
“Carroll County is not as rural as it used to be,” said Linda L. Semu, an associate professor of sociology at McDaniel College in Westminster. “Residents get the best of both worlds because of its location. On the one hand it’s not in the city proper, but on the other hand it’s still accessible. People can afford to live in the county and still commute to the bigger cities.”
According to U.S. Census Bureau survey estimates from 2005 through 2009, 10.4 percent of people nationwide aged 15 and older are divorced. In Maryland, the number is 9.5 percent.
More urban and populated places such as Baltimore city and Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Prince George’s counties have rates higher than the state average. So, too, do rural counties, from Allegany and Washington counties in Western Maryland to Caroline, Cecil, Dorchester, Queen Anne’s, Somerset and Wicomico counties on the Eastern Shore.
Only Howard County, at 7.5 percent, is lower than Carroll. Montgomery County is close, at 8 percent. It might not be a coincidence that both are among the most affluent places in America.
Prosperity can help make a marriage successful, while poverty makes a relationship more likely to fail, said Semu. Carroll County’s median household income is well above the national average –
31 percent of Carroll households earn $75,000 or more, and 41 percent of county residents have at least a bachelor’s degree; higher than the state average of 32 percent, she said. Many of its workers — 62 percent — commute outside of the county, and they tend to work in higher-paying fields, she said.
“In a nutshell,” Semu said, “Carroll County has everything going for it to facilitate marital stability.”
Those who work with people potentially seeking a divorce — lawyers and therapists — offer various reasons for Carroll’s lower divorce rates than other Maryland counties.
“Generally, I think Carroll County is a more conservative jurisdiction, which means people would try to stay together more,” said Greenberg.
“We are a very conservative county,” said Zoa Barnes, a partner at the Hill and Barnes family law practice in Westminster. “I think that bodes well for people trying to make things work and working on their marriages longer than other people. Add traditional values about marriage and family, and I can see where people in Carroll County are going to work harder [at their marriages].”
“It’s a confluence of very complex factors,” said Anthony Swetz, a psychologist who works with Re-Entry Mental Health Services in Westminster. “The commitment to spirituality is higher here. There are more people who go to church here than in other jurisdictions. We come from Germanic stock, and the culture is one in which you make a decision and stand by it. That might contribute somewhat to the fact that there’s a low divorce rate here.”
“I don’t think it has to do with being more conservative,” said Leo Keenan, whose Eldersburg practice includes family law. “Washington County, Frederick County; those are all conservative as well, but they have higher rates. I would tend to lean towards the economic aspect.”
But all agree that financial stresses, particularly in today’s economy, can contribute significantly to a couple’s marital discord.
“That’s what we see the most,” said Barnes. “It’s gotten more difficult in recent years. Houses are devalued. People are in debt. People are out of jobs. That’s added stress to marriages that might have made it in better times.”
“Finances, or lack thereof, do stress the marriage,” said Keenan. “But some people are staying together now because they can’t afford to get divorced.”
Keenan said he has seen more people attempting to represent themselves in divorce cases. And Barnes said she has seen more people opt for mediation, thereby saving money instead of going through the courts.
“The court is your tiebreaker — it solves the things you can’t solve yourself,” she said.
In addition, the divorce process cannot begin until spouses have voluntarily lived in separate residences for a year. Barnes and Keenan said couples increasingly have not been able to afford living apart.
But many in Carroll County do get help through tough times from family and friends, both by being able to socialize with loved ones and by getting support from them, said Alexandra Rickeman, a marriage and family therapist in Westminster.
“From what I see in Carroll County, many people who live here have family here also,” she said. “We have the economic and educational opportunities of the urban environment, and the safety and security of living outside of it. Couples who are getting through their troubles have a good network of friends.”
In addition, connections to their roots in the county can lead to the expectation that a relationship must be kept going, according to Swetz.
“It really matters if you have a family name that’s been here since the Civil War,” he said. “We’ve got folks who’ve been here for generations. It would be an embarrassment for you to get divorced, because your parents, grandparents and great-grandparents have been together forever. There’s a lot of family unity here.”