In Va. city, divorce rate soars to 1 in 5 adults

ROANOKE, VA. — ROANOKE, Va. - Marriage might be in the spotlight as the American ideal for many people these days. But the inescapable image for Roanoke, the all-American hub of southwestern Virginia with Norfolk Southern railroad tracks slicing through the brick facades of the restored downtown, is Splitsville East.

About one in 10 American adults are divorced or separated. In Roanoke, a city of 94,000 that has taken a disproportionate share of the cultural and economic blows that shatter marriages, the rate is closer to one in five. The national rate of divorce and separation grew 10 percent in the 1990s, according to the 2000 census. It grew about 30 percent in Roanoke.


Divorce so occupies this city that the big First Baptist Church downtown is organizing "pre-engagement" classes for dating teen-agers. Under a new Virginia law, courts deny divorce decrees until parents take four hours of classes to learn to help their children deal with divorce. Divorcing parents can also enroll children ages 8 to 12 in the Family Service of Roanoke's eight-week course for coping with a split-up family. And domestic relations lawyers and mediation services have bloomed along Campbell Avenue, downtown Roanoke's busiest street.

The decline in marriage mirrors the jolts that Roanoke's economy has suffered over the past decade. "Things have dramatically changed" since the North American Free Trade Agreement was implemented 10 years ago, said David Beidler, a lawyer at the Legal Aid Society of Roanoke Valley.


From 1993 to 2001, about 25 percent of the area's jobs in metalworking, furniture and textile plants, which paid $600 to $800 a week, folded or went abroad. The city has low unemployment, but jobs in stores and services that pay $200 to $500 a week have left some two-worker families making less than what a single worker had once earned.

One result is a median family income of $37,826, far below Virginia's median of $54,169. That has left 22 percent of families with children, many of them two-worker families, in poverty - twice the state's rate.

Far-removed events have also worked to rip apart lives. At the Rescue Mission homeless shelter here, war is an issue.

"I'd say 25 to 40 percent of the men in the shelter are veterans," said the shelter's director, Joy Sylvester-Johnson. "Many were married and aren't married now. We've had Desert Storm people and families of people in Iraq. Not everybody comes back OK."

A divorce is harder to get in Virginia than in many other states. But in some ways, Roanoke seems more exposed than most cities to the influences that lead to marital tensions, such as poverty and lost jobs and shifting cultural views that make marriage optional.

Clifford R. Weckstein, a Circuit Court judge here, says he is seeing less and less commitment among couples. "We are tending toward majority nonmarried cohabitating couples for the first time in history," he said. "My perception, both from uncontested divorces and contested divorces, is that we are at an all-time high in people not willing to devote the effort to work together to get through difficult times."

Nationwide, 11.9 percent of Americans 15 and older told the 2000 census that they were divorced or separated. In Roanoke, the rate was 17.8 percent. For counties and a few cities like Roanoke that are organized like counties, the census ranked Roanoke first in divorce and separation among those of more than 75,000 people, with no more than 3 percent in prisons or other institutions.

Ranked another way, among cities of comparable size, only Reno, the Las Vegas suburb Paradise and Flint, Mich., ravaged by the loss of well-paid jobs in automobile plants, have higher rates. Two other cities match Roanoke: Gary, Ind., sunk by the disappearance of steel mills, and Miami Beach.


The national divorce rate has shown some signs of ebbing since the 1990s, but the marriage rate is ebbing more, leaving fewer marriages to end in divorce and raising the numbers of unwed parents who are breaking up.

And there is little evidence to suggest that the trend toward marrying later in life will lead to fewer divorces. Surveys of the National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg, Va., for 1996 through 2001 show divorce filings slipping just 1 percent, but also find a 46 percent surge in child custody cases.

Divorce filings in Circuit Court in Roanoke show that lawyers filed 539 divorce complaints last year. Over a four-week stretch this winter, 39 people, mostly women, completed filings.

Adultery, still grounds for divorce in Virginia, was cited in just three of the 39 cases, but lawyers say it is a factor in far more broken marriages than that. "I'm not a Bible thumper," said David Weaver, a divorce lawyer who caters to affluent clients. "But if it weren't for sex, I wouldn't be in business." Clients, he said, "come here and say they 'want space.' Well, they want space for a reason."

For marriage to work, some divorced people here say, it needs a second act. Lloyd Merchant, 40, a state probation and parole officer, was 21 the first time he married, as was his wife. After 13 years and a son, she filed for divorce.

"I wish I had waited until I was in my 30s," he said. "I would have decided who I am, what I want to be."


Five years ago, he married again. "It's great," he said. "This lady, we talk about everything. We have a friendship, too. ... There's no 'woman' chore, no 'man' chore. We've got a lot of stuff in common."