CASPER, Wyo. — Cortney Richards met her future husband when she was 5.
Their families were friends, the 22-year-old explained while trying on a chiffon, flowing wedding dress for her mother and future mother-in-law at Kim's Bridal and Special Occasion on Thursday in Casper.
Richards rejected Daniel Wise's attempts at romance several times. Eventually, his persistence won out. The couple went on their first official date Jan. 20. Almost immediately, they began talking of marriage. They plan to tie the knot in October.
In Wyoming, couples tend to marry young: 25 for women and 26.6 for men — about two years earlier than the national average.
Wyomingites love the institution of marriage, so much so that the state ranks behind only Utah and Idaho in the percent of people who are currently married - 55.9, according to recently released data by the U.S Census Bureau's American Community Survey. The data was analyzed by Wenlin Liu, principal economist for the Wyoming Division of Economic Analysis.
Wyoming also has some of the country's highest rates for divorce and being married three or more times.
To Richards, her relationship with Wise, 23, felt natural. They can talk about anything without feeling awkward. They love watching movies on Netflix. She takes him shopping and he'll hold her bags. He's even helping her plan the wedding, she said.
"Honestly, he's my best friend," she said.
"Cortney wasn't raised with the idea that dating was something to do," said her mother, Melissa Richards, who married her husband at 21. "She was looking for the person to spend the rest of her life with."
The couple both come from Christian families, their mothers said.
Nationally, Wyoming is second to last in the nation - ahead of only Idaho - in the rate of people who have never been married. In contrast, Washington D.C., New York and California are home to the highest percentage of people who have never been married, the data shows.
Liu, the state economist, said the states with high and young marriage rates tend to be conservative, white and religious.
The same holds for divorce and remarriage rates, Liu told the Casper Star-Tribune (http://bit.ly/1CzNUSx).
At 12.4 percent, Wyoming has the 14th highest divorce rate in the nation. The state has the sixth highest rate of people who have been married three or more times at nearly 6 percent.
Wyoming is demographically similar to other states with similar divorce and remarriage rates. Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee and Alabama are also predominantly white, religious and conservative.
"If you look at this pattern, it's interesting," Liu said. "It's mostly the socially conservative states."
Casper psychiatrist Steen Goddik said Wyoming's young marriage age contributes to its divorce rate. Some young people lack the maturity to listen, communicate effectively, compromise and not keep score - skills essential to a happy matrimony, he said.
Wyoming's rate of college attendance is lower than other states, which may also play into people marrying young, Goddik said.
"You begin sooner," he said. "You're done with high school, if you even graduate high school. You go out and work and you're on track and you get married. You don't have to wait, because you don't have to go to college and move away."
Culturally, the "cowboy up" mentality prevalent in Wyoming means people make commitments and stick it out, even when the situation isn't perfect.
"But it also means that you can get into marriages and situations where you don't do so well and you try to make it work," he said. "If you don't talk about it, then it crashes down."
Celyn Salow, 34, of Buffalo, married for the first time at 21. She was divorced at 24.
After being single for about five years, Salow remarried at 29. She and her second husband have a child.
Marriage in American and Wyoming culture is considered a measure of success, Salow said. She also considered it a small-town value, more cherished in states like Wyoming than in urban areas.
She and her first husband combined checking and savings accounts, which she now believes was a way to eagerly prove herself and play house. Their different spending and saving patterns were a big reason why the marriage ended, she said.
In her second marriage, she and her husband have separate savings. Since they are older, she said they are more mature and know themselves better.
"Rather than the concept of being a grown-up, as it was in my first marriage, my second marriage feels a lot more secure and a lot more laid back," she said. "It's not an excitement about being married, it's simply the way my life is."
Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, http://www.trib.com