South Dakota bucks trend of people waiting to marry

"We're kind of the first ones. And it's not that we're the example, but it's fun being the first ones. We're kind of testing the waters."

South Dakota bucks trend of people waiting to marry
Courtney Dykstra and Caleb Huizenga posing in their engagement photo. The couple is getting married this summer in Pierre, S.D. (Photo courtesy: Caleb Huizenga)

BROOKINGS, S.D. – While the average age for first-time marriages nationally has been steadily increasing since 2000, South Dakotans are among the youngest to tie the knot.

The state ranks No. 6 for the lowest median age for marriages, with the average median age of 26.7, 6.5% lower than the national average. On average, women get married at 25.5 and men at 27, according to the US Census Bureau (USCB).

States on the East Coast have higher median ages for marriage compared to Midwestern and Southern states.

One reason for this difference might be the conservative beliefs that vary by state.

According to Pew Research Center, 47% of South Dakotans consider themselves conservative and are 32% moderate. Almost 59% of the population is religious, Pew found. Research shows a link between religion and early marriages.

Courtney Dykstra, 23, and Caleb Huizenga, 23, are two South Dakotans following the trend. They agree that the beliefs in South Dakota likely influence why some couples choose to get married early.

"I think South Dakota, sometimes it goes back to kind of ... (I) don't want to say stuck in the Stone Age or anything like that, but we are definitely a step behind on culture," Huizenga said.

Why many Americans delay marriage

The upward trend of men and women getting married later in life started in the 1950s but has accelerated since the turn the century, according to the USBC.

Americans used to typically marry in their early 20's but now often wait until their late 20s or early 30s. The average age of marriage in the country is 28.4 years old for women and 30.2 years old for men, according to data from the USBC. The overall median age for marriage in 2023 was 32, which is an increase from 31 in 2022.

According to Pew, young adults are reaching several milestones later in life compared to before. In 2021, 22% of 25 year olds were married, compared to 63% in 1980, and only 17% had a child, compared to 39% in 1980.

Several possible reasons are cited for the change.

On average, people are seeking higher eduction more than past generations and are spending their early 20s developing their careers, according to data from the National Center of Education, while earlier generations spent this time developing families.

Financial instability could be another factor for this age increase. Younger generations are waiting until they are financially stable to commit to marriage and a family, according to The Institute of Family Studies (IFS). Since starting a family can be an investment, some people are waiting until they pay off debt before they take this step in life.

Effects of this trend on the US

The increase of the average median of marriage also impacts divorce rates and birth rates in the U.S., according to IFS.

Birth rates have also been declining over the past decades. Women who get married later in life have fewer children, and birth rates reached a record low in 2023, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

South Dakota birth rates are still higher than the national average, but the past three years have had the lowest birth rate in years, according to the South Dakota Department of Health (SDDOH).

Divorce rates are also on the decline in the U.S. According to the IFS, people who get married later in life are less likely to get divorced compared to those who get married younger.

South Dakota divorce rates in 2021 were the lowest since 1972, according to SDDOH. The divorce rate in the state is 2.3 per 1,000 population while the national is 2.4 per 1,000 population, CDC data show.

Relationship bloomed while duck hunting

Dykstra and Huizenga met their senior and junior years in college, respectively. Two years later, the couple is planning their wedding and providing advice to others following their lead.

"We're kind of the first ones. And it's not that we're the example, but it's fun being the first ones. We're kind of testing the waters," Huizenga said. "A lot of people use our information in our planning we've done and they'll use that for their weddings. It's kind of exciting to see that coming up."

The couple met on the Hinge dating website and bonded over a shared interest in hunting. Soon after they connected, the couple went waterfowl hunting together near Brookings, and the relationship continued from there.

"So my buddies and I kind of threw her in the deep end, one of the first times we met," Huizenga said.

Caleb Huizenga and Courtney Dykstra duck hunting near Brookings, S.D. (Photo courtesy: Caleb Huizenga)

Not long after, Huizenga proposed and the wedding planning started.

"I mean, there's no reason to wait," he said. "It's kind of the next step into the future. I'm just really excited to get married to her and take that next step in life."

The wedding is happening this summer in Pierre. The couple has had a busy year working out the details while still finishing school.

"We've got little minor things to still figure out. But the wedding is basically planned," Dykstra said.

The couple chose Pierre because it's Huizenga's hometown and they plan to live there the next couple of years. Dykstra, who is originally from George, Iowa, decided to stay in the state after graduation and move with him to Pierre. Huizenga and Dykstra both have jobs in the capital city and bought a house together in December.

"We're trying to get college loans paid off, get the house in a better spot, stuff like that. And it's where we both have work," Huizenga said.

He attended South Dakota State University and graduated in 2023 with a degree in engineering. Dykstra graduated this year from Southeast Technical College in Sioux Falls with a degree in surgical technology.

The soon-to-be husband and wife aren't the only ones in their circle of friends planning their next step into the future. Huizenga said he has seen a lot of people his age getting married in the past couple of years.

"A lot of my classmates from (high school) are now getting married," he said.

This story was produced by South Dakota News Watch, a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization. Read more in-depth stories at sdnewswatch.org and sign up for an email every few days to get stories as soon as they're published. Contact Greta Goede at info@sdnewswatch.org