Modern marriage in Sonoma County breaks traditional molds

Once an economic necessity limited to a man and woman, marriage has evolved into a broader legal right and choice made by couples later in life with most having lived together first.|

On Sept. 23, 1846, Sonoma County issued its first marriage license. John H. J. Hegeler and Carmen Caseres were married in 'the town of Sonoma, in the district of Sonoma, in the territory of California,' as the certificate reads.

Not for another two months was the county's second marriage certificate issued, to Nathaniel Leighton and Maria Gualoupe, also in Sonoma. It would be four more years before California became a state.

In the decades that have passed, marriage has been radically transformed, evolving from an economic necessity to a choice made by couples later in life with most having lived together first. An increasing number of couples also have children before they get married, federal records and reports show.

Marriage: A Timeline

The most revolutionary change is the legalization of same-sex marriage.

Bill Scogland, 88, and Doug Heen, 96, of Santa Rosa decided to wed on a whim two years ago. They'd been together for 63 years at that point.

'We really didn't care except for tax purposes — actually, I think we're paying more as a joint return,' Scogland said, laughing. 'But I mean everybody kept saying, 'When are you going to get married?' And so in 2014, on the spur of the moment, I said, 'Everybody says we should get married. Let's go get married.' So we did that within a week, and everybody was real happy with that. Didn't make any difference to us. It's just a piece of paper.'

They were married on Halloween at the county clerk's office by a woman in a Cinderella costume.

The varied landscape of marriage today would be wholly unrecognizable to Sonoma County's first wedded couple.

For starters, in 2015 alone the county issued 3,201 marriage licenses, an average of about 60 a week.

Increasingly, couples are older when they get hitched for the first time, U.S. Census records show.

In 2010, the age at first marriage for men was 28.2, and for women, 26.1, according to the census bureau. Those figures have risen steadily since 1960, when the age at first marriage reached an all-time low: 22.8 for men, and 20.3 for women.

A 2012 report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says that many young adults in the United States postpone their first marriage, choosing instead to live with a partner first.

'Cohabitation has increasingly become the first co-residential union formed among young adults,' the report states.

More than two-thirds of unions formed between 1997 and 2001 began as a cohabitation rather than as a marriage, the report says.

That step appears to be the analog of marriage in an earlier era, the researchers found. The 'timing of a first union occurs at roughly the same point in the life course as marriage did in the past,' the report says.

The upheaval of social norms around relationships has factored heavily in the transformation of marriage.

'People didn't use to just jump into bed together,' said Priscilla Thomas, 88, at her home in Sebastopol.

Married for 70 years

She and her husband, Al, have been married for seven decades, dating for two years before making it official in October 1945. They celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary last year, on a cruise up the California coast with friends.

Traveling and being involved with friends — having that support group — is one of the things they credit with maintaining a happy and long-lasting union.

After retiring, the two joined the Mobile Missionary Assistance Program, traveling through most of the 50 states and helping out at churches, camps, wherever they were needed. That was good for them, too.

'At our age, it's a lot of routine,' Thomas said. 'When we were younger, you'd have to mix it up. You can get in a rut and just be doing the same thing all the time, and that's not good.'

The most important thing, though, for a solid union? Both Thomas and her husband and Scogland and his said it was a foundation of friendship.

'Be friends first and get to know each other,' Thomas said.

'You've gotta be friends,' Scogland said. 'You definitely have to be friends.'

Census figures show the rate of people married by their mid-30s reached its peak during the 1970s and '80s, when only about 6 percent of people age 35 and older were not married and never had been. In 2010, that figure was closer to 14 percent for men and 11 percent for women.

Rate lower in county

In Sonoma County, the marriage rate is actually a little bit lower than California's. Statewide, from 1999 to 2014, the average rate of marriages per 1,000 people was 6.2. In Sonoma County, for the same time period, the average rate was 6.1. The 2015 rate statewide was unavailable; in Sonoma County, it was 6.5 marriages per 1,000 people.

The way couples approach marriage is different now, too.

'For the woman who marries the man in 1846, the woman had very few legal rights; she was looking to have someone to provide for her, to be a father to her children,' said Diane Gleim, a Santa Rosa-based marriage and sex therapist. 'Now, people expect someone to be there. People expect so much more from their partner now, from their spouse. We expect them to be our best friend, our business partner, our sexual partner, our co-parent, and we expect them to be our caregiver. That's a huge thing to put on another person, and to have somebody put on us — to be all of that for them.'

Among couples now, there's a greater understanding about sharing within relationships, a change that can be credited to the feminist movement, she said.

Roles have changed

Traditional, gendered roles in marriage, even for same-sex couples, have been eroded, Gleim said.

'It used to be … that's what people expected marriage to be,' she said. 'There are so many couples now who don't buy into that.'

And what will marriage in Sonoma County look like decades from now?

Gleim looked to Scandinavian countries as a possible answer.

In Norway in 2014, the age of first marriage reached an all-time high of 34.3 years for men and 31.6 years for women, according to Statistics Norway, the country's official data bureau.

The age of first marriage for both genders has increased every year except one since 1974, climbing by about 4.5 years for both sexes in the past two decades alone. Experts credit the trend to the increase in cohabitation out of wedlock.

'I think there is a trend that people do want to live together first to see how compatible they are in that regard, to see what issues might come up,' Gleim said. 'Let's face it, you never really know somebody unless you live with them.'

Taking wedding vows remains an altogether more significant step for most, she said.

'The legalization of gay marriage is proof of that,' she said. 'There's something inherently important in it.'

You can reach Staff Writer Christi Warren at 521-5205 or On Twitter @SeaWarren.

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