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Jewish World Review July 6, 2000/ 3 Tamuz, 5760

Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker
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Consumer Reports

Youths fear marriage ---
blame boomers --
MARRIAGE IS MAKING A COMEBACK in the United States except among those who chronologically should be lining up next. Young Americans apparently aren't aiming for the altar as in previous generations.

That is to say, members of the sex-drugs-and-rock-'n'-roll generation have begotten a new, improved model of their adolescent selves. Boomer off- spring, many now in their 20s, want the same thing their parents did: freedom, choice and more freedom. They just want it sooner, longer and possibly forever.

So says a study released recently by Rutgers University's National Marriage Project, which found that young Americans prefer casual sex and low-commitment relationships.

Today's singles scene is not oriented toward marriage, nor is it dedicated to romantic love as it has been in the past," says David Popenoe, co-director of the project and a sociology professor at Rutgers.

The report also found that young Americans favor living together as a tryout for marriage or as a substitute; believe that sex is for fun and has no strings attached; fear divorce; and see marriage and divorce as a potential economic liability.

All of which is to say that young Americans are smarter, if not wiser.

They are correct in fearing divorce, which is assuredly an economic liability. They have every reason to believe that sex is only for fun and has no strings attached, though disease and pregnancy and heartache wait in ambush for the soon-to-be disabused.

They're not wrong to believe that living together is a substitute for marriage. They just don't know any better. Research has shown that couples who live together before marriage divorce more than couples who don't.

Though statistics are scant on what happens to families" who live together and never marry, we might guess what happens to their progeny. Children of divorce and other tentative family arrangements have higher rates of truancy, drug abuse, sexual promiscuity, emotional problems and academic underachievement.

Understandably, these children are reluctant to follow their parents' path. So marriage may be one of society's insoluble problems. Why? Because though we know that marriage, like broccoli, is good for us - happily married people live longer and their children are healthier - a 50 percent divorce rate suggests that at least half of us can't stand prosperity.

Marriage is hard work, and our expectations for happiness are nearly impossible. It is axiomatic that people who just want to have fun are doomed to disappointment and failure.

Rather than insisting that fun and happiness are respectively frivolous and unattainable - they won't believe us - perhaps it's time to redefine marriage. We can probably agree that marriage is good and necessary to our national health and that our goals should be set accordingly.

But we might also acknowledge that forever is a long, long time.

To say that marriage may need some adjusting isn't to deny its importance. But problematically, the knots we tie today are bound with the same frayed strands from an era when newlyweds were lucky to live another 20 years. Distracted by survival, few worried about golden anniversaries or had time for ruminations of the modern sort: Is my marriage fulfilling, or should I move to Paris and unravel the mystery of Rilke?

Yet we expect young people weaned on divorce to court each other over candlelight and waft down flower-strewn church aisles into wedded bliss as though nothing were changed. The challenge isn't to convince them that they're wrong, but to show them something that works.

JWR contributor Kathleen Parker can be reached by clicking here.


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