PORTLAND &

Marriage is not as popular as it used to be in Oregon and the rest of the country, according to census figures.




Nationally, the percentage of couples 15 and older who are married has declined 4 points since 2000.




In Oregon, the drop in Polk, Umatilla, Yamhill and Klamath counties was twice as steep.




The 2006 American Community Survey, which allows the Census Bureau to compare the population mid-decade, shows a declining trend that has become especially steep in rural counties and suburbs.




The reasons vary &

but it apparently is not because more young, unattached people are moving to Oregon. Compared with 2000, a smaller share of Oregon's adults are under 35. The state's population surge has come primarily among people ages 55 to 64. Oregonians at that, and every other age span, are less likely to be married than before.




Researchers say marriage has changed, and many people no longer consider it the first step into adulthood.




Living together has become a normal part of courtship, and for some, an acceptable alternative. Divorced 50-year-olds remarry at lower rates, avoiding economic entanglements close to retirement. And Oregonians live longer than ever, making "until death do you part" a long time for many couples, researchers say.




The trends concern Tom Dressel, who helps run the nonprofit Every Marriage Matters in Oregon City.




"Couples are looking at their parents, at divorces and difficult marriages and saying, 'We don't want a marriage like that,'" Dressel said. "So they're putting it off or choosing to avoid it completely."




The unprecedented changes have made many people uncertain of marriage and what will happen to children.




"Family systems are changing so rapidly, your parents can't even really be a guide," says Michael Rosenfeld, a Stanford University sociologist and author of "The Age of Independence."




"And marriage is more open to renegotiation. Is it for a lifetime? Until I'm not happy? What does it mean? People aren't as sure, so they're a little more hesitant to get in and a little more willing to get out."




Researchers say that women, whose remarkable gains in education and the workplace mean they no longer must settle for marriage, may be the greatest complication of all.




"If you talk to young guys, they are terribly confused by women who are just as smart and sexually empowered as they are, " says Stony Brook University sociologist Michael Kimmel.