SPLITSVILLE, WV - Divorce A Common Theme In Calhoun County

(01/17/2001)

The Charleston Gazette Visits Sunny Cal

Reprint from the Charleston Gazette Sunday Dec. 31, 2000

By Tara Tuckwiller 2001

PUTNAM COUNTY REPORTER

CHLOE - Barbara Mace let her long, slim cigarette burn almost completely to ash while she contemplated her diamonds. Shopkeeper Bob Cooper had just asked her why she thought divorce is so common in Calhoun County.

"Well now, how would I know?" she said, lips twisting into a mischievous grin. She fluttered her bejeweled fingers. "I've been married to the same man three times....Every time we broke up, he bought me a big diamond."

Mace accounts for her share of Calhoun County's divorce rate, which is indeed one of the state's highest. The county epitomizes many of the characteristics that researchers link to divorce - poverty, unemployment, young marriages.

When Cooper learned of that statistic, he started asking all the customers bustling in and out of his warm little general store for their opinion on it. See, he's been divorced twice himself.

"What'd that first one last, a couple days?" his business partner, Elaine McCumbers, asked with a smile.

"No, three or four years," Cooper said. "We just couldn't get along."

Cooper stayed married to his second wife for 24 years. Since then he's been asking McCumbers, the daughter of a friend, if she'd be interested in getting hitched. Her answer never varies.

"I tried that," she always says. "Didn't like it." She's divorced, too.

There are two ways to measure the divorce rate. The more reliable one counts divorces per 1,000 married women - not men - because, interestingly, researchers find women's answers about their marital status more reliable.

The other, more common way, counts divorces per 1,000 population. Either way, Calhoun County's way ahead of the state average, and the second measure puts it at the top of the list.

Larry Whited, the family law master who serves Calhoun, Gilmer, Roane and Jackson counties, estimates that he handles 100 divorce filings a year in Calhoun.

"It's odd," he said. "Gilmer County's bigger in land area, but it's got a similar population and similar economy. But for some reason, Gilmer County's [divorce rate is] probably half what it is in Calhoun County."

Whited is right. While almost seven out of every 1,000 married people in Calhoun County get a divorce in a given year, only three in 1,000 divorce in Gilmer County.

The reason? Boredom, Whited hypothesizes. People who are bored or dissatisfied with their lives are more likely to get divorced.

"Gilmer County has Glenville State College, and that, I think, helps some," he said. "Not for employment so much, but there's more there for people to do. Cultural things."

Researchers have spent a lot of time and energy trying to figure out why divorce rates are higher in some places than others.

One of the latest theories relies on the "mountaineers are always free" attitude. It suggests that people in certain areas of the country - the West, for instance, or Appalachia - place a high value on independence. People who are more independent-minded seek their own personal development, and they'll end a marriage if it holds them back.

Calhoun County supports most of the usual theories. One theory centers around poverty - married couples fight about money, and the fighting intensifies when there isn't any. In Calhoun County, more than one in three people live in poverty.

A related problem, unemployment, can have even more far-reaching effects. Even if the fights aren't about money, being jobless can create feelings of worthlessness and general dissatisfaction with life, especially in men, which can translate into arguments or domestic violence - and eventually divorce. In Calhoun County, about one in five people are unemployed.

And in job-poor areas, job opportunities for women are particularly limited. That, combined with Calhoun County's rural nature, can lead women to marry young. And research has shown that people who marry young - in their teens or early 20s - are more likely to get divorced than people who wait until later in life.

McCumbers married young, and stayed married for 18 years. She didn't work, either. "I worked at Speedy Mart a little while, but that was when I was 19 or 20 years old," she said. She's 35 now. "I have four kids," she said. "I'm married to my kids."

Mace doesn't buy into any theories. "About everybody I know in Calhoun's been divorced once or twice," she said. "I'd say it's because people just got till they don't care about each other anymore."

She and her husband kept splitting up for two reasons, she said. First, they disagreed about how to raise their two children. "If he wanted to do something with them, even though I knew he was right, I wasn't going to admit it," she said.

Second, they don't really have much in common. She likes to watch TV, and he's not interested. "He's a workaholic," Mace said of her construction-worker husband. "He's a great worker. Everybody knows it." She keeps remarrying him because it feels safer. "I just feel more secure with him," she said.

So Calhoun County has a high divorce rate. So what? Does that bode ill for the county? Not necessarily, said Whited, who sees about 650 divorcing couples a year.

"I don't know whether divorce is good or bad at times," he said. "Sometimes divorce is a good thing. Sometimes people who can't get along are better off getting a divorce, instead of frustrating themselves in continuing in the marriage."

While the divorce rate is falling nationwide, it's rising slightly in West Virginia. Whited thinks the new, relative ease of getting a divorce might be causing that. But that relative ease might also be easing the transition for divorcing couples and their children.

"There's not the stigma about it anymore," he said. "I don't think it's the big deal that it used to be. "The thing that really bothers me about it are the children involved. How they're affected by the divorce or remarriage of a parent....Although, overall, I think kids cope pretty well."

Calvin Wilson, a 20-year resident of Calhoun County, agrees that divorce is "kind of common" in his neighborhood. But he can't say why. "I wouldn't know," he said, holding up his left hand. A golden band gleamed in the sunlight streaming through the plate-glass windows of the Grantsville Napa store, where he works.

Wilson and his wife, a Calhoun County native, have stayed married through 10 years and two kids. Many of their neighbors are divorced, but Wilson hasn't seen that taking a toll on the quality of life.

"I've lived here 20 years. Things go well. I'll probably live and die here," he said. "It's a good place to raise kids. Nice, quiet, no drug problem really.... I weigh those benefits more than anything. "I try to look at the best of Calhoun County."

To contact staff writer Tara Tuckwiller, use e-mail or call 348-5189.


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