New family traditions
The number of unmarried couples living together, both straight and gay, increased during the past decade in Sonoma, Lake and Mendocino counties, becoming a larger share of all households and dropping the number of "traditional" households below 50 percent for the first time.
The actual number of married-couple households in Sonoma County rose slightly — by 827 households. But the percentage dropped from 50.3percent in 2000 to 47.1percent of the county's 185,825 households in 2010.
The figures, released late Wednesday by the U.S. Census Bureau, follow national trends that reflect more of the population living together without marriage and an increase in same-gender couples. Those couples, even when legally married, are not counted as married couples in the U.S. Census.
The numbers show a growing presence of same-gender couple households in every Bay Area county, including Sonoma County and extending to Lake and Mendocino counties, moving beyond traditional locations such as Guerneville in west Sonoma County.
In Sonoma County, the number of same-sex couple households increased 21.4 percent, from 2,125 households in 2000 to 2,579 in 2010.
In the area encompassing the city of Sonoma, the number of same-sex couple households increased by 46 percent, from 172 in 2000 to 251 households. At the same time, the number of unmarried heterosexual couple households increased by 25 percent, from 785 to 979, while the number of married couple households decreased by 1 percent.
Heterosexual married couples now comprise 47 percent of households in that area.
"We thought we were the only gay couple here," said 57-year-old Brian Brockway, who with his partner Michael Piacentini, moved into their "weekend home" in Sonoma a little more than a year ago.
They bought their hilltop home about seven years ago and lived in San Francisco. Brockway, a cameraman for the TV comedy series "Two and a Half Men," commutes between the Bay Area and Los Angeles. His hiatus from the set occurs in the summer months, when it's coldest in San Francisco, he said.
Like many people who live in the Bay Area, North Bay sunshine was an obvious draw. He said that a few years ago he attended a party in Sonoma Valley and was "shocked" to find a thriving gay community. He's actually writing a screenplay about it, he said.
"There's an enormous gay community here. Every day we started meeting more and more people here," Brockway said.
Brockway and Piacentini were counted in the 2010 Census as a "same sex" unmarried couple, even though they told the census taker last year that they were in fact legally married.
Mendocino County's same-sex households increased from 284 to 390 and Lake County went from 196 to 304 same-sex households in the past 10 years.
The cultural shift toward living together began in earnest following the 1960s and has shown steady increases since then. The acceptance of same-gender couples and alternative lifestyles also contributes to a smaller percentage of traditional households.
Jackie Martens, a Sonoma County family law attorney, said divorce continues to be a frequent avenue taken and housing and economic difficulties have taken their toll.
"When the financial partnership fails, so does the emotional one," Martens said.
She said that she has seen "a lot" of divorce in the past decade, though "people still seem to believe in the institution of marriage — they're still willing to give it a try."